Intruding upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery
Square Halo Books, 2003
176 pp., $9.99
Reviewed by Abram Van Engen
Mystery and Message
In almost any book of 36 essays, one is bound to find both good and bad. Such is the case with Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery, Gregory Wolfe's collection of editorials from his stunning journal, Image. Sometimes Wolfe strikes gold, sometimes he simply digs.
Take, for example, Wolfe's incisive essay on sentimentality. The problem with kitsch, he writes in "The Painter of LiteTM," is "a misrepresentation of the world in order to indulge certain emotional states." The unreal reality created by this willful self-indulgence is not morally neutral—commenting on the work of Thomas Kinkade, Wolfe notes that the "The only folk who could ever have inhabited his cottages and lighthouses are prosperous white folk"—and can even nurture violence: "When we are too tender about something we can easily become too violent in seeking to defend or preserve it." Linking sentimentality, an emotion most consider harmless, to violence and prejudice, Wolfe establishes ethical critiques (beyond the merely aesthetic) of an artwork many blindly consider wholesome and religious. When Wolfe is good, he's very good.
But Wolfe is not always good. The recurring theme of Intruding Upon the Timeless is mystery in art: message flattens, but mystery opens. A dichotomy emerges between good art (reveling in mystery) and bad art (mired in didacticism)—a dichotomy, moreover, that simultaneously separates reason from imagination. Mystery is a place "where reason fails and only faith and imagination can go." Moreover, mystery encompasses the dogmas that might guide Christian art, for dogmas are "not really propositions, but symbolic mysteries." In other words, Wolfe removes reasoned propositions from the free play of imagination. The two, it seems, cannot be friends.
Dogmas are mysteries. True. But they are not merely mysteries. Instead, dogmas establish mysteries through propositions, which inspire the imagination. Consider, for example, Wolfe's claim that "Church Fathers like Augustine and Athanasius saw their mission not in making these mysteries explicit, but in protecting them from various forms of reductionism." How, then, does Wolfe explain Augustine's De Trinitate, a book of some 800 pages which attempts through the combined powers of reason and imagination to clarify the Trinity? Certainly it's a mystery, but that doesn't send Augustine's reason packing.
The coinciding divides between reason and imagination, message and mystery, lead Wolfe into the question of an artist's role within community. In back-to-back essays, Wolfe answers, it seems, by opting for contradiction. (He says upfront that "Image, being a journal of the arts and religion, would seem to have an uneasy foot in both camps." Yet the striking contrast between these essays suggests bi-location, rather than a straddling of the divide.) The first essay, a superb piece entitled "The Artist as Prophet," concludes: "The prophet and the artist may seek to disturb the existing order of things, but they should do so in the name of a deeper order, not in the name of their own genius," remembering "that even in biblical times the prophet was not completely independent of the community." Artists, in other words, have obligations.
On the other hand, in "Liturgical Art and its Discontents," Wolfe discredits most liturgical art: "Because it is art with a purpose—as an aid to worship—liturgical art subordinates the free play of the imagination to a specific end." In other words, Wolfe believes that having a "specific end" destroys "the free play of the imagination," as if trying to win a soccer game meant the players couldn't really play. Having just stated that defenders of the nea cannot move "beyond the idea of artistic autonomy," Wolfe suddenly defends precisely that autonomy—free from religious and communal restraints, free especially from purpose. Direction is destruction when it comes to art: It represents reduction to acceptability and accessibility by those who "fear the imagination."
But if "high art" is art defined against purpose and direction with words like "mystery," "indirection," "ambiguity," and "the numinous," how does Wolfe explain the high art of Paradise Lost, an epic filled with at least as much direction and didacticism as mystery and ambiguity? In the opening of the poem, Milton tells you precisely why he's writing it: "That … I may assert Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men." Milton writes with a purpose, but that purpose does not limit his imagination.
Indeed, the notion that that doctrine, dogma, and, in general, instruction of any kind are antithetical to art is a peculiarly modern one. Philip Sidney, after all, proclaimed that all good poesy "teaches, delights, and moves." Only since the era of Romanticism, it seems, have we stripped imagination of reason, abandoned teaching and direction, and reveled in whatever mystery remained.