Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Is There Truth in Art?

The issue confronts us once more as a nation. And no doubt, it will for years to come.

Background for what happened: An artist uses religious symbols to express his apparently political and even facetious personal views by incorporating phallic or extra-realistic (a Christ with rabbit-ears must be an ET) images, thus causing furor among religious devotees of the Black Nazarene, the people in general and even the legislature (including the president himself) who find the works offensive. The heads of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) close the exhibit on the grounds of security (as some of the works have been vandalized).

On the surface, we see what caused the explosion of passion: a penis for a nose of a Christ on the cross is definitely too avant-garde, modern or liberal an expression in a country that is still caught in the medieval adoration of religious objects and relics. Hence, the use of words as “sacred”, “sacrilegious” and “desecration” being thrown around. Artists and their friends in media and academe, on the other hand, throw in their “freedom of expression” in defense of the artist, who by the way, is named Mideo Cruz – a cunningly and literally “sacred” name in Latin-Spanish meaning “My God, the Cross”. Although we do not know the man, he must be himself a deeply religious person who may even value the symbol of the cross but in a way that many of us do not comprehend. Who can fathom the mind of an artist?

Let us try to unravel the web of opinions and raise it to a higher level where we see art as truth and truth as art. Or even higher than that, where art is life and life is art. Otherwise, we have become nothing but a society of people who do nothing but pass opinions around. If we are truly a Christian nation, of what use is revelation to us? God would have utterly failed us. For the truth of life is the only opinion that will unite us. Freedom is just the first fruit of truth. Unity is the real harvest.

But there must be divisions and differences of views in our multi-cultural world. The goal of democracy is to allow these opposing forces equal opportunity of expression while preventing either side from annihilating the other side through violence or intolerance. Which of the two does more harm is not obvious, for war or conflict destroys in an instant while intolerance does so through generations.

At first glance, this is a simple case of idolaters (image-worshipers) condemning another idolater (art-worshiper) for misusing their proprietary symbol. For one man’s religion might be another man’s art. And a man’s art may be his religion as well. On the other hand, our laws guarantee the freedom of expression of any citizen. Can the two coexist in a democracy? How shall we be guided through this endless maze?

And who can judge artists? Just the artists – as seen from the actuation of CCP heads when they allowed the exhibit in the first place and when they failed to find fault on an artist? As Aristotle said: Some artists must be judged by non-artists. For who can be the better judge of a house: the builder or the one who lives in it? Who can judge a meal more effectively: the cook or the eater? You present an art work before the public and must expect the public to give fair as well as unfair judgment. When the highest judge of the land (the president or the Supreme Court, as the case may be) comes in to bear upon the issue, we realize how great the monster has grown.

What is this growing monster called Art then?

Art is not mere representation or symbolism of ideas, people and events. It is an expression of life in a fleeting or frozen moment – through oil, marble, film or words – as seen by a person who has been impelled by the spark of divine creativity. Artists imitate Nature – the original and divine Art -- and her ways, not merely to duplicate her beauty but to enhance it, twist it, distort it even and, at times, destroy it for a moment’s need. For artists are also messengers, like prophets, who regale us with visions of monsters and beasts that demonize kings, nations and peoples. What for? To entertain us? To inform us? These and more. But, in our modern world, musicians and artists have ceased to entertain more than to lead us to passions of anger or self-annihilation. Those who merely entertain, to such people, are like blind beggars waiting for the cash to go “kachinnng” melodiously into the cup. Real artists, however, must raise the questions of life for people to see themselves in the realities of their world. Real artists must portray ideas that people may be led to transform themselves.

When Michelangelo began painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he saw his work merely as a documentation of the stories he read in the Bible. Then he had his epiphany -- like Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” -- and erased his first paintings. Whereas he had seen only history written in the Scriptures, he now saw God’s hands working directly through those times. Whereas, he had seen only a cycle of human-v.v.-divine love-hate relationship, he now saw a loving God reaching out to obedient humans. Whereas he had seen only a time-trapped God handing down laws, he saw an eternal God promising His people abundant, if not eternal, life as well.

In being transformed by his medium (he was a sculptor forced to become a painter) and his message (he was a student of God’s word) in his craft and commission, Michelangelo sought also to transform his viewers to share in his god-like ability not just to create a thing of beauty and power but also to become part of that beautiful and powerful tapestry that God alone can create through His Spirit, the Holy Sculptor of human spirits.

Can any modern artist presume to stand beside Michelangelo and say, “Hey, man, I really like your work; but your message is not for me. I see things and will do things differently.” Can any modern musician face up to David and say, “Hey, dude, your psalms are great; but I prefer to be less direct and more horizontal – you know, man-to-man and not man-to-God.” True, it is a privilege for any artist to be free and to be oneself. Art students study art and its history to learn as well as to improve or improvise upon the works and lives of the old masters. The question that remains is: Have art schools or has society, in general, preserved and protected the truth that the masters like Michelangelo discovered through the things they teach and through the works they spawn among their students? To this, we say a big NO.

Classical art and much of what it represents is history (meaning “dead”) and has lost its appeal among people and artists in particular. The elusive truth that also motivated people of science like Kepler, Galileo and Newton sought to discover from the written Word and from Nature has become passé and unattractive to many. Belief in this truth has served its purpose in this post-modern era and has turned our artists, thinkers and shakers into practitioners of unbridled freedom and even ungodly living. Experimentation and Quantum Physics – the idea of going where matter or our minds may lead us -- rule our psyche and our culture.

That is how we lost the truth. And when truth disappears, who will suffer? Not just the artist, the discoverer or the philosopher but the people who look up to them for guidance and inspiration. Artists behave and think like gods within the vast freedom our laws grant them. No, they are a God unto themselves oftentimes! How often did Michelangelo rant against Pope Julius II over matters of style and finances? Were the Pope’s religious views better than the artist’s inspiration? Somewhere in between them, the truth must have been juggled about. We can only judge partially from the paintings we see; but God will judge from the issues of their hearts as He will from those of ours.

Undoubtedly, in history, art itself has been the destroyer of truth. As early as ancient times, people sought to represent God in a way that led people to dishonor Him. Idolatry – worship of graven images of God or things in Heaven -- was a sin not just of ancient times but much more so today. As we said, God created Nature (the original Art) to give us a view or an image of His real nature, His love and His power. But humans turned that image into a god which they worshiped instead of God. The truth that God placed in Nature was turned into a lie. And the lie had become the truth for many people. The golden calf removed God and His laws from the minds of the Hebrews.

This offense was punished in many severe ways as recorded in the Bible. (Visit this link and see how Michelangelo depicted some of these events - Sistine Chapel) Yet, the blood, flesh and guts produced by the judgment of those people have long been swept away and forgotten. Even seeing paintings or old movies of Moses and Noah do not bring enough shame or guilt in the consciences of complacent individuals nowadays. Entertainment can be had for a dollar or two; but truth is worthless and nobody is willing to pay even a cent for it.

The lie in art remained and even became desirable at a point in history when patrons of the art found a way of endearing themselves to the masses and even using their self-proclaimed position as preservers of faith and art to perpetuate their wealth and their faith-systems. (This was true then as well as today.) Thus, during the Renaissance, the best painters and sculptors (including Michelangelo) were maintained to produce the art of the church. And so, his image of a younger-than-Jesus Mary holding her dead son in “La Pieta” has been perpetuated in other art works and more so in the minds of many Marian devotees. The initially “innocent” desire to produce church art gradually became a seed for idolatry among many who see such images as sacred or holy in themselves. Or was it only a perpetuation of a old ancient habit?

Whatever it was, the truth that artists wished to convey had become another truth or a lie. The images were adored as holy relics themselves, to be revered or even worshiped in place of God. Perhaps, this is what iconoclastic artists like Cruz wish to achieve: disabuse our hapless idol-worshiping devotees of their superstitious beliefs. The awe that Sistine Chapel evokes to a visitor may not be far from the sense of piety that a devotee has for the Black Nazarene in Quiapo. They may even be one and the same for many people. But this comes from not knowing, first, what art is and, second, what genuine worship is. The confusion comes, ultimately, from forgetting the truth.

And what is the Truth? A ruler asked this once of a man who was about to be condemned. No answer was given for right in front of him was the Truth in the process of being confirmed. Jesus Christ – The Truth -- was to die and to rise again. He was going to ascend to Heaven and judge the living and the dead. (An entire wall is devoted in Sistine Chapel for this fact, but, unfortunately, with Mary beside Jesus and not the Father. The man was not perfect after all even as an artist or a student of the Word. Which proves our point here.)

The whole Truth is founded on the historical fact that God created man, Adam, in His likeness. (Artists use something to make something else; but God used nothing to make the Universe and from universal dust created man.) When that perfect image of God was destroyed by sin, God sent (created is not the proper word) His Son to be the real image (representation or art work, if you please) of Himself and Whom we must imitate through a sublime art of living. (Our living then is our worship.) But as many artists have often done to Him, the real Jesus was also “desecrated” and ultimately killed.

In raising Himself from the grave, Jesus proved His true nature as equal with God the Father. Yet, the work of God was not finished there. Today, both the Father and Son work to finish the Ultimate Art Work of all time: the transformation of humans made in the image of Adam (carnal/sinful) to that ultimate image of the true, exalted and eternal Jesus Christ (holy/divine) Who reigns in Heaven. Both living body and living spirit (not inanimate objects) will be excellently painted, marvelously sculpted and graphically-virtually morphed into the very essence of the eternal God at the right time. Is this the Truth? Judge for youself. For you will be judged based on your own judgment.

In the face of such magnificent divine art work, how do we look at ourselves? What kind of art do we produce? What kind of stories do we tell? What kind of novels do we conjure? What kind of movies do we imagine? What kind of music do we write and sing? What kind of faith do we preach and practice? What form of worship do we invoke? What nature of business ventures do we implement? What style of parenting do we exercise? What kind of governance do we run?

The truth then is that the cross and all other images used by devotees are not sacred in themselves. In fact, in God’s eyes they could be abominable for they distract our view of His real image which is His being Spirit, being invisible and being in Heaven and not on Earth and certainly not in a relic, a picture or an amulet. How then can you desecrate something that is not sacred? How can you insult Christ Who sits in Heaven through mere impish, material art work? No, you have to reject God and His truth in your heart and in your life in order to bring Him down. But why do so when you, as an artist, can glorify God and uplift people through truthful, respectful and decent art work?

God taught and gave us art just as he gave us life and existence. The least that He expects is for us to give honor to Him and to others. Better still, to love Him and others. Our art and our life speak of how we express our understanding or lack of understanding of the Truth of God.

(Painting above: Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment" at the Sistine Chapel. What is wrong with this painting?)