On Art

On Art

Fr Euan Marley, at the invitation of the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, preaches the sermon at the opening service of the 1999 Edinburgh Festival.

There’s a small local station, Queen’s Park Station in Glasgow. The station-master couldn’t see when the trains were arriving. Or more to the point, not arriving. So a large mirror was put up at the end of the platform. This mirror reflected the track for the station-master but from the platform itself, it reflected the bank besides the railway. I was struck by how beautiful the bank looked in the mirror. In the mirror there was a great jungle of red flowers. The flowers were rose bay willow herb, a weed really. That’s the red stuff you see up and down all the railway tracks in Britain.

What was curious though was that while it looked wonderful in the mirror, when I looked at the bank itself, when I looked at the actual bank, it looked quite unimpressive. In the mirror there was this great red vista, but on the bank itself, it just looked like so many weeds, with tenement houses above it. I was puzzled by why the mirror looked so much better than the reality. I can think of two reasons.

One is that the mirror shows us less. We can’t take in very much at a time and seeing less is seeing more. We see what is manageable for us. The mirror only reflected a small piece of reality, a chunk which I could see in its true beauty. Another possible reason is that when we look in a mirror, since we can only see a small part of what is there, we are able to imagine what lies outside the range of the mirror, the great vistas that lie beyond the range of the mirror, the infinite possibilities which are outside of the frame. When we look into a mirror, through a window, when we peek through a chink in a wall, there are so many possibilities which our limited view raise for us. The great boundless possibilities which are raised for us, beyond what we can see or hear.

I think art functions in this way. Art shows us less, not more. But in seeing less, we see more. We see what is capable of being seen by us. It reduces reality to a level where it can be seen, for what there is to be seen is too much for us. Because we are seeing little, because all art is a mirror, a window, a chink in the wall, we are left with possibilities, with imagined vistas. I think that is why Plato wanted to ban artists from his perfect republic. He was afraid that in filling the world with images, they distracted from reality. They left us content with images, when we were supposed to be trying to come to grips with reality.

Christianity went the other way. It filled the world with images. Christ himself is the Image of the unseen God. Even though not all art is Christian, it cannot avoid being affected by this. The image becomes central to our way of understanding. A great twist, a turn in Jewish culture happened with the coming of Christ. ‘Thou shalt not make unto thyself an image of any living thing.’ – the basis of Jewish culture. With the coming of Christ, who is the image, everything changed. Against Plato, against the Old Testament, Christianity insisted on the power of the image. God is revealed by the image which is a human being. It’s in the humanity of Christ that we understand the divinity. What we know of God, we know through Christ’s humanity. We discover God in understanding what it meant for Christ to be human.

But it isn’t easy to see what it is to be human. In the second reading (from the first letter of St John) we heard the words, ‘What we have seen and heard.’ But in our short lives, we have seen so little and heard so little. Our time is short and our capacity is small. So we need to see less, to see what’s there. Paintings of trees show us less than is there. A painting of a tree will never show us the whole tree. There will always be more to see if we look at a real tree. But because our capacity to see is so limited, because real things are too much for us, we need paintings of trees. Not just one but many paintings in many different styles, over many ages. To show a little more of what there is. To let us more in seeing less and to allow for the possibilities in a tree. All art opens us to possibilities beyond itself. It’s what’s outside art that makes it valuable. Before the beginning and end of the play, beyond the frames of the painting, outside the dance. Art has a little time and a little space to say what it will say and our imagination is opened to what is outside that time and space.

There’s a curious miracle in the Gospels. Its one where Christ seems to fail in his attempts to cure someone. It happens in chapter eight of Mark’s Gospel. A blind man is taken out of a village and brought to Christ to be cured. He cures the blind man but it happens in stages. It takes two attempts to cure him. The passage itself is between two other passages where the apostles’ lack of understanding is shown. They have been asked about the two miracles of the loaves and fishes, and that passage ends with Christ saying, ‘Do you not yet understand?’ The other passage is immediately after this where Christ asks his disciples who it is that people say he is. Peter answers that he is the Christ but it becomes apparent that neither Peter or the apostles understand what is meant by saying he is the Christ.

So two stories about the apostles failing to understand, and in the middle this story about the cure of the blind man. When Christ tries to cure him though, it seems to fail. He places spittle on his eyes, his own bodily fluids, and the man says he can see people but they look like trees walking. It’s only the second time that he is able to see properly. So commentators have speculated on why Christ appears to fail in his attempts to cure him. I might suggest that the answer lies in the what happens then. Jesus tells him not to return to the village he had been brought out of: do not even enter the village but go home. The village was not home. The blind man had been alienated by his blindness. He was separated and apart. So when Christ cures him the first time, he hasn’t really failed. The first cure gives him the sort of sight we all have. We all fail to see human beings as human beings. We all see people like trees walking. We have a distorted vision of each other. How many people could we claim really to know? Not five-hundred, not fifty, perhaps not even ten. And even the people we know well, we don’t know that well.

People are like trees, hidden from us, barely known. We are hidden from each other, and we are hidden from ourselves. So if we need art to see what a tree is, even more we need it to see what a human being is. Human beings whom we barely glimpse. But in the limited vision, we glimpse possibilities: what a human being can be, or should be. Art helps us in our limited vision, seeing less to see more and in so doing seeing the infinite vistas which lie before us. Ultimately though, we will never see what a human being is, until we have seen God. To see God is to see a human being as a human being. To see a human being, as a human being really is, will be to see God. So art can lead us on to that vision. To see more and more by seeing less and less. Until we come to the final vision of Christ, when we see all as it really is, when God is all in all.

fr. Euan Marley O.P. lives and works at Blackfriars, Cambridge.