Exhibitions at a picture

[This piece has suffered overnight enlargement.]


“Prophecy” is a word with lots of cheap synonyms, so that one uses it with restraint, and would rather use the synonyms wherever they might apply. The prophetic is not the prognostic, for instance; yet the prognostic might be, at an angle, prophetic. Our (contemporary) notions of “vision” and “the visionary” are substitutes for the prophetic, but empty in so far as they are agnostic or atheist. To discern truth, underlying appearances, is in some paradoxical relation to “seeing what is right in front of your eyes,” but in no conventional understanding of eyeballs; for one is seeing through what is superficial and essentially false (because incomplete: “heretical”).

The use of such terms in the celebration and self-celebration of opinion leaders and the fashion coolies could be called a sign of our times. The former are just madmen. The latter deal in a kind of “spilt beauty,” much like spilt religion.

A prophet is more like a messenger; to kill the prophet is to kill the messenger; Him who sent the message remains. And like a messenger, the prophet may not entirely understand the message he has brought from afar. He speaks better than he knows. A poet can be prophetic in this specific way; he is sometimes a poor interpreter of his own work. He discovers things in his own work that he hadn’t intended to put there; and these things include structural devices, shaping echoes and resonances, undercurrents and counterpoints — not just chance verbal jewels. The song or the story “gets away from him,” and often a poet has said of his most anthologized and remarkable poem that it “wrote itself.”

With painters, too, this experience is common: that a picture emerges almost in opposition to the painter’s intentions, so that he might think the “image behind the image” came out in front. He has shown more than he saw, or created an atmosphere beyond his own skills. He, too, becomes a messenger of some kind, and while his first training was only in the (imperative) craft, his last training is in the chastity required for revelation: making himself the means, not to his own but to the artistic purpose.

Or as I like to put this, “What makes the artist is not what makes the man.” His work is apart from him; it has its own development and sense of occasion. As the art becomes greater, the artist becomes less. At the extreme, he is nothing at all, his “personality” dissolves as Dante’s in the 30th canto of the Paradiso, or perhaps Bach in The Art of Fugue, where the composer dissolves into his composition. Farther, he cannot go. His “vision” is now perfect, his purpose is fulfilled, and he is transformed:

Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a Sea-change
Into something rich, and strange …

Only indirectly can one write about beauty, and never can it be understood, for what is embodied is a mystery: a Word negating words, and a sentiment guiding beyond the human. We are left with similes, analogies, correlatives: but to what?


An old friend, who is a trial lawyer, has written a book, on “a common preoccupation,” which he has entitled, The Experience of Beauty. (Harry Underwood, here.) He has been living with beauty in a special way, for his wife, Denise Ireland, is an explosively floral painter. (By which I don’t mean only “botanical.”) Regardless of its subject, each of her paintings is, on its surface, a wanton distortion of all elements, including colour. Everything is depicted with an uncanny vividness, which we might call “life affirming,” but is something more. It is as if she has done the opposite of paint: instead scraped or washed away everything that concealed or clouded until she has “restored the original.” The light, especially sunlight she exhibits, is not cast upon the objects, nor comes from within them, but seems to be everywhere; all the figures dance; and there is patterning that sings like a chorus.

For decades, Harry has had to live with this, and think about it, too. His book often resembles Denise Ireland paintings, done into words. At its centre Nietzsche and Plato are having a debate; their discussion spreads through seven other essays. I don’t think it gets anywhere at all (this is one of my finer compliments), yet in the course of not getting there, gets somehow behind it. He is writing about the capacity of art to enhance what it represents; not about tricks or abstraction. His final essay, on “The Beauty Within,” goes part way to explaining, in terms to which both Nietzschean and Platonist might plausibly subscribe, “the poetry of art” — bridging philosophical incommensurables.

Wallace Stevens said somewhere in his Adagia that, “Philosophy is the official view of Being; poetry is the unofficial view.” Persnickety Wittgenstein said as much in several places. And Plato’s near giddily destructive remarks on poetry and art — where he suggests banning them — are presented in the high poetic garb. They go beyond irony. We are dealing with something which cannot be explained in terms of something else, nor fitted in a scheme, because it is something in itself, incapable of translation.

But I disagree with Harry’s approach, for he reconciles art with life, and thus finds a beauty fed by experience and growing within us. It is feeling rising to thought, through some process of distillation; it involves self-discovery; and instead of the radical external of the divine, we get those bastard things, “ideals.” (His precis of Augustine seems more appropriate to Walt Whitman.) This is much the opposite of what I wrote above, but in moments seems another way of saying the same thing, as especially where he insists (in defiance of current opinion) that art must inspire us. In the moments when I lose him, however, I feel the trap closing on the cage of, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

To my mind, art and life are irreconcilable; the reconciliation is on another plane, that is vertical and not horizontal. Art, I would say, reconciles us with God, by making reality at least partially accessible to us. Rather than assuaging, it tears at our flesh, pries our clamped shell, immolates our glibness. It is by doing so that it has moral consequences, pulling us into the realm of charity. That “inspiration” is not something that enriches us, so much as it is something that annihilates us. We are there, when before we were here; we have escaped the prison of gravity and routine. The beautiful is “over the top”; I want to laugh sometimes when I see it. We return to our world of weight and measure with regret — unless we can somehow keep that beauty.

And as I have written persistently, the apprehension of beauty is contingent upon Love — alerted suddenly from storge (“affection”) to unconditional agape. It is harrowing, in that way: to love what one cannot possess, except as a commodity through art dealers. (And I would almost speak like a socialist, and say that when “owned” it begins to fade and die.)

But as Augustine in fact said in his Confessions, a longing is aroused for nothing that can be satisfied in this world. And as Plato, it is for something of which this world can only remind us. The test of art is that mysterious mnemonic, almost déjà vu.

The “prophetic,” the “visionary,” has always this untranslatable, this inevitable quality. It seems to stand alone. Instead of taking it into us, we must take ourselves out to it. We must, as it were, become artists to see “art” — whether in human works, or in nature (which is saturated with art).

And once we have been there, and done that — been exposed to a revelation of God’s will in an exhibition of the shocking beauty of His world — we are drawn out of our miserable selves, out of our hapless daily routines; restored to a form of life that is not merely biological but implicitly everlasting. For instead of the two convenient dimensions to which we had become too easily accustomed, there is suddenly a third: the Gloria.