By Laurel Pattenden
Puttering around in the art studio is something I would like to do most days but another favourite of mine is to read about and to hopefully understand art.
When I personally use the term art I am thinking in the limited sense of painting or drawing. The word “art” really refers to the full spectrum of writing whether story or poetic, music across all genres, visual arts of all kinds through time.
With all things in life, we like to pigeon hole everything into categories. So as I read my art books, the art is assigned into a variety of descriptive sections. For example, visual art has primitive, impressionism, renaissance, neo-classical, sacred, secular, modern, contemporary and on and on.
Music and literature fall into categories also. All art is sorted and assigned. It is neat and orderly and very controlled.
I came across a small book written by Madeleine L’Engle called Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. This author is more popularly known for her work A Wrinkle in Time. She proposes in Walking on Water a different way to categorize art. Good art and bad art.
True art or good art, for L’Engle, is any art that shows cosmos (order) and not art in chaos (disorder). In our faith tradition we believe all creation is with God and when God creates it is creating order or cosmos.
We have inherited this gift from God and have the ability to co-create. So the artist who is co-creating, with God, will be portraying order (cosmos) therefore good art or true art.
She also writes that the artist is free to choose how to respond to this gift of creating. Like all gifts from God they can be used to add to the cosmos or the chaos. So the artist (that is all of us!) is free to use this gift in whatever way we choose. Bad art, for her, is anything that does not give birth to order in the awe of life and creation.
There was no division of secular and sacred for L’Engle. All art was divided between good art and bad art. Good art is art that is incarnational or birth giving to our soul and spirit. Good art is all religious and all spiritual. Bad art is art that adds to the chaos which is a misuse of our co-creating gift.
There are many other opinions that would say there is no bad art but she strongly disagrees.
In music, Leonard Bernstein, said that “music is cosmos in chaos”. Is this were L’Engle got the idea? And an interesting idea it is! Did Van Gogh feel this as he painted a Starry Night or Maud Lewis painting her snowy, east coast scenes?
Are children not putting parts of their world and heart onto their crayoned pages? For the rest of us, when we overcome our fear the world has imposed on our creativeness, do we not also open our hearts up and crave to put our souls in order? It is all good art!
For L’Engle, good art “happens” when we get out of our own way and let the Creator assist. When this occurs the art becomes greater than the artist. It enters the cosmos. The joy of Bach’s music transcends time and space and presents the same joy today as it did in the 1700’s. The love and connection a seven year old puts into a landscape painting for grandma also transcends time and space a decade later. It is all good art and will remain so for eons. It all adds to the cosmos.
Does Madelaine L’Engle have a point? Is all good art spiritual and religious? Have we been missing the point all along? What do you think?
Laurel is retired and likes to spend her time in her art studio.
Laurel Pattenden. Missing the Point (Ink and coloured pencil, 2015)