The Apologetic of Art
These are questions that are asked by artist and non-artist alike. Artists, often questioning whether it’s worth bothering with the graft, both physical and emotional, that goes into their practice. Non-artists, on the other hand, often from the mindset that the arts are a peripheral, largely superfluous part of life.
There are many things to say on this matter. Some has been said already. More will be added in the future I’m sure. For the moment though, I’d like to bring to your attention a short quote that I stumbled across recently. Reflecting on Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, the American composer, Leonard Bernstein said this:
Beethoven … leaves us … with the feeling that something is right in the world, that something checks throughout, something that follows its own laws consistently, something we can trust, that will never let us down.
While this quote stands alone as an articulate explanation of one of the effects of great art, what is especially interesting about it is that Leonard Bernstein had a worldview that didn’t necessarily support the idea that at a deep level the universe was as right and consistent as Beethoven made him feel it was. Bernstein was raised in a Jewish family, but was widely acknowledged to be a secular humanist. Whatever his private beliefs on God’s existence (I don’t want to label him unfairly, as I can’t find any categorical evidence that he called himself an atheist), it doesn’t seem that he lived with any regard for God.
As well as being engaged in the arts, another one of my areas of interest is philosophy. Indeed just last week, I spent an evening putting forward the case that life can only have meaning if there is a God to a room of people, as they munched on pizza and sipped beer. The perfect evening! There was a bit of Albert Camus in there, a bit of ancient Greek thinking, and obviously lots of head scratching and beard stroking. I also spent some time referring to a guy called John Gray.
John Gray was the former Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, and is pretty widely respected by people who are presumed to know stuff (JG Ballard and Will Self write on the back of his books!) John Gray, like Leonard Bernstein (probably), is an atheist. However, he argues more forcibly than anyone I’ve come across that to be an atheist doesn’t just mean getting a lie in on a Sunday and adopting a somewhat more DIY ethical code. For Gray, disbelieving in God means facing up to the chaos and meaninglessness of the universe. If there is no God, in Gray’s mind, there is no purpose to life, no unique significance to human beings, no morality, no free will. In short, nothing is ‘right with the world’. Nothing ‘checks throughout’. There is certainly nothing ‘we can trust, that will never let us down’. (Gray follows the teaching of James Lovelock who sees nature as a force utterly ambivalent to human beings, but due to our sustained course of action over the millenia, is now poised ready to wipe us out).
While I respect Gray’s consistency (I’d thoroughly recommend his book Straw Dogs as a starter), I can’t help thinking that, by laying atheism bare, he has revealed its chief problem. There is this nagging feeling in all of us that his pessimistic view of reality is askew. Indeed, every time we act, we are assuming that we really can make free choices. Every time we think, we are accepting that there is a basic link between our reason and truth. If someone decided to disengage completely from life then I guess that could be evidence that they may actually believe there is no underlying order to the universe. However, everyone who, like John Gray, gets out of bed, goes to work, tries to influence other people’s opinions, or basically lives a normal human life, is unconsciously whispering that they believe in a cosmic ‘rightness’, a thread that ties everything together and makes sense of the chaos. They are silently asserting God’s existence.
That’s what I argued last Monday night at Pizza Express. I put on my smart clothes. I used my longest words. I name checked as many clever people as I could. Perhaps I should have just played them some Beethoven. Or displayed some Rembrandt portraits. Or read some of Salman Rushdie’s prose.
I think Bernstein’s quote is incredibly perceptive. Excellent artistic practice is a subtle nudge towards what we already know deep down. That there is an essential order to our lives and to the universe. And if we dwell on that for too long, that implies there is a mind behind it all. There is a God, and He is trustworthy.
For those of us who’d like to keep nudging people towards such conclusions, I’d put forward the role of the arts as a lingering fingerprint of God in a world that refuses to see Him elsewhere. For those of us who make art, I’d encourage you to press on in your craft, so that you can produce work of such a standard that future secular humanists can see in it what they fail to see in God’s other more blatant methods of revelation.