Since about 1950, theories of art have been blown wide open. Modernism has been disabled by arguments about the artist’s intent and the hidden power structures behind art works. Doubts about art’s purpose and worth have undermined artistic activity. Much of this nervousness over art’s relativization is labelled with the tiresome and opaque term, postmodernism. The diversity of media and themes now available overwhelms the individual participant.
Rowan Williams knows he steps into this debate at a crucial time. Unlike many, he invites debate rather than issuing manifestoes. This book (Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love, Continuum Morehouse, 2006) is an important, if sometimes complex, addition to his writing on human expression. Its attitude of educational reflection works in contrast to the fevered synergy of much of today’s art literature. It presents a sensitive theological reading and understanding of Christianity’s valuing of art.
The prime figure here is the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. Beauty sought for itself will always elude, or seduce the artist into falsity. Maritain says, ‘things are not only what they are.’ Our knowledge of ourselves and the world is brought to bear in our encounter with art. Expression is necessarily limited by knowledge and means. These limits can become strengths through the organisation of the work via symbol and manner. Humans have a participatory awareness of the creation that resonates with the patterns of God’s action in the created world.
Williams then looks at two very different artists, both Roman Catholics, influenced by Maritain. The first is the Welsh painter and poet David Jones. Jones is in the business of sign-making. Recognition of the union of material being and meaningful imagination serves to make us understand the nature of sacramental action. This action is the supreme illumination of what and who we are and art fails to understand itself without sacramental reference. Art and sacrament: the results include Jones’s essential long poems about the First World War (In Parenthesis) and the work of the Mass (The Anathemata).
The other artist, nowadays possibly the best-known of the trio, is Flannery O’Connor, a novelist of the Deep South. For her, the artist is not on about moral messages or edifying spectacles. The mystery of sacrifice and atonement means the artist must be ready to take on any subject, even the worst of sins. ‘The supernatural is an embarrassment today even to many of the churches’, she believed, so ‘you have to make your vision apparent by shock.’ Williams makes clear how her fiction shows human activity that represents our participation in God’s action by embodying gratuity and excess. No moral lessons.
A plethora of ideas on religion and art fill this book; it is worth the exercise just for that. Williams’s conclusions are a test all of their own, a proof that this is not some reactionary tract but an open forum that pushes the argument ahead of the times. He argues for the necessity of the work of art, that it is the artist’s vision expressed, of necessity. This is not about romantic self-expression or the artist as hero. How grace can be shown through this act of necessity is critical. Williams asserts that a Christian vision of creation will be surprising and shocking, however it is manifested, and that it will evolve through a love that is dedicated to the work in its entirety.
Some of Rowan Williams’s writing is caught in the bind between conversing with a specialist audience and communicating to a general audience. He wants to reach both, but in this book the density sometimes wins out over simplicity. The arguments are clear, but I am sometimes better informed by his crisp aphorisms, for example ‘You have to find what you must obey, artistically,’ ‘Excess of symbolism becomes the habitual climate of thought,’ and ‘The artist imagines a world that is both new and secretly inscribed in all that is already seen.’
That said, this is a great book for anyone who takes seriously the objectives of art, and of the relation of the artist to God in the creative act. Where is the artist in creation? How is the artist to give back through her creation? Propaganda and aesthetics are not enough. Williams is concerned with the artist’s obedience, her sense of an imperative. Take these away and what is left is the artist’s will.