Fragments of Light

Beauty’s Campaign to Win the Soul

The beauty of this world is Christ’s tender smile coming to us through matter.
–Simone Weil, Waiting for God

Beauty captivates the flesh in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul. It constitutes, then, another way in which the divine reality behind the world invades our lives. Where affliction conquers us with brute force, beauty sneaks in and topples the empire of the self from within.
–Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

A Lenten take on Beauty and her power to win the day over the “empire of self.” How ironic that artists, traffickers in beauty, maintain such a reputation for inflated ego. Perhaps as it finds itself going down in flames, that interior nemesis must blaze out ever brighter before it is transformed.
How can we relinquish our control and be the servant of our art?

Comments welcome.

14 thoughts on “Beauty’s Campaign to Win the Soul

  1. In order to relinquish our control we must put ourselves under the control of that burning force within us to create, the Holy Spirit, if you will. Then, in listening, responding and loving our art will serve to revive, refresh and renew those to whom it has been sent to serve.

  2. I have a sense that much of our error about artists comes from a familiar error about art, that it is primarily an “expression,” and is profoundly an expression of a “self.” I’m thinking, however, that the genuine artist is the one who—having labored to acquire uncommon skills in language, or pigment, or clay, or sound, etc., that is, having acquired uncommon skill in the shaping of materials—thereafter trusts that in the midst of such shaping, something other than an expression of the self is glimpsed. Thereby, one serves one’s art, and in return the art serves to enhance one’s apprehension.

  3. Perhaps there’s such a thing as an “artistic ego”. If so, what would that mean? How might that be different from an inflated ego (which also does exist in many artists, of course).

  4. Another quote from Simone Weil, not so much about ego but maybe we could call it the artist’s vocation as servant of Beauty:
    “The beauty of the world is the mouth of a labyrinth. The unwary individual who on entering takes a few steps is soon unable to find the opening. Worn out, with nothing to eat or drink, in the dark, separated from his dear ones, and from everything he loves and is accustomed to, he walks on without knowing anything or hoping anything, incapable even of discovering whether he is really going forward or merly turning round on the same spot. But this affliction is as nothing compared with the danger threatening him. For if he does not lose courage, if he goes on walking, it is absolutely certain that he will finally arrive at the center of the labyrinth. And there God is waiting to eat him. Later he will go out again, but he will be changed, he will have become different, after being eaten and digested by God. Afterward he will stay near the entrance so that he can gently push all those who come near into the opening.”
    ― Simone Weil, Waiting for God

    1. Yeow! I like it! Many times, over the years, I’ve tried to voice my conviction that Big Beauty was an overwhelming, all-consuming transformative thing, but never succeeded as well as Simone here… I think because I was shy about putting God into the formula. A bit more about ego: I once got to talk to a gifted musician who was, I guess, also a bit of a mystic. They told me that the trick to really inspired playing was to “let go of all that control stuff”. Personally, and if this seems like a big leap bear with me, I’ve never been any good at prayer, and I suspect it’s because I couldn’t “let go of all that control stuff”. I’m a latecomer to the plastic arts, having spent most of my career stumbling after the literary muse, so it was with surprise that I encountered a sort of ego-less state when I was absorbed in the physical manipulation of matter. Many labels have been applied to this fusion of imagination and action, but in this context, it occurs to me that in those moments I am being eaten by God.

  5. If I look deeply at, and into, that which I am drawing; and draw only what I see, then the object will change me. When I draw beautiful things, this beauty is depicted on the page through my eyes and heart. There is no place for ego in this process. Unfortunately ego tends to be bigger than it ought. Instead of an inflated ego I struggle with an ego which says – oh you’re not a real artist…or… you can’t do this “form” justice…. and that ego is as disabling to the spirit as the inflated ego. Our work, as artists, is to allow the beauty of God’s creation to fully enter before we begin, and that is work indeed.

  6. Regarding the struggle against the interior naysayers, I would recommend Scott Cairns’ definition of the artist posted above as a ready defense against
    ​any tendency to buy into the Cult of the Artist as ​Genius and the Expressive Individualism it celebrates.

    1. Please explain “Expressive Individualism” … a romp around Google yielded inconclusive and contradictory results.

  7. In the context of exploring the meaning of an artist’s call Expressive Indiviualism, a phrase coined, I believe, by sociologist Robert Bellah would be an attitude which values self advancement above all else. Without taking on society at large, it is interesting to note how common it is for creative people to say, with Moira, posting above, “I worry that I am not really an artist . . . .”

    1. I guess I’m a bit old-fashioned… when I think of Individualism I imagine Walt Whitman’s “I” … you know, “For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you” which doesn’t seem to synch up with current usage.
      Anyway, to the point of being “not really an artist” I, too, am familiar with the noonday demon schlumpfing around the studio, asking ‘Who do you think you’re fooling’…. However, upon reflection I think, for me at any rate, the distress grows out of the thought that I’m not reaching anyone… I’m most emphatically not doing it to please my Self. I’m also not concerned with “pleasing” others. Rather, as I sit by the mouth of the Labyrinth, I wonder why I can’t attract anyone’s attention.

  8. How can we relinquish control and be the servant of our art? I don’t think we can do this on our own. First, I don’t think we can just “let go” of the self, nor would we want to. The self is a gift from God, and as psychoanalyst Ann Ulanov writes, “[T]he Self brings us bulletins of what transcends our ego—the archetypal psyche. . . . [The Self’s reality] acts like a bridge to what transcends our whole psyche—to what we symbolize by the name God” (Spiritual Aspects of Clinical Work 327). Jung writes, “What you call ‘deselving’ I call ‘becoming a self’: what previously seemed to be ‘ego’ is taken up into a greater dimension which dwarfs and surrounds me on all sides, and which I cannot grasp in its totality. In this connection . . . [we] rightly quote Paul . . .: ‘For in [God] we live, and move, and have our being’ (Acts 17:28)” (Spiritual Aspects of Clinical Work 308-309). I believe “becoming a self,” or individuation, is a flower that blooms in the soil of Christ’s sacrifice, in the sun of the Father’s grace, and in the rain of the ongoing relationship with the Holy Spirit, who helps us confess our shadow and receive forgiveness. In “Lycidas: A Poem Finally Anonymous,” professor and critic Stanley Fish observes that “the energy of the poem derives not from the presence of a controlling and self-contained individual, but from forces that undermine his individuality and challenge the fiction of his control” (Glyph 8, 1981: 1-18). In “Lycidas,” Milton describes “sweet Societies / That sing, and singing in their glory move,” that is, community, and it is this community that the poem celebrates and this coming-together that is the reason the poem ends with the direction, “To’morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new”—because community is what true individuation is about. Ann Ulanov reflects on Philippians 2:7-8 and notes in Finding Space that in order to “come to God, we must undergo our own small kind of kenosis, an emptying that mirrors the large one of God” so that we “come home to our true creaturely reliance on the One who created us” (63). We pray for the grace to individuate so that we can come to know God and others as we know ourselves; then, with a growing, solid self, we have something to empty, to make room for hosting and listening to others, for letting art come in, for seeing beauty in silence, for the nearness of the divine. So perhaps we are not then so much relinquishing control as we are recognizing and honoring that we have no control and that we’d prefer to be in relationship with and relying on God anyway, and perhaps we are not so much becoming a servant of our art as we are becoming a self who includes other, a self who sees the I-Thou relationship as central to all art, and who embraces becoming a servant of Christ first, while simultaneously being a student of writing or sculpture or painting or dancing or drawing or performing or photography or film. And then with the Christian mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg we might want to ask, “Please accept, Lord, this tiny improvement in my will, and help me change what in me is spiritually stupid because I want to lead a holy life and have community with Your saints on earth” (A Little Daily Wisdom 142).

  9. Of course, art is about the self. But not about the lone self, the isolated self. But it must be rooted in the particular “self” of the artist, the “poet” or maker. It is about something happening in the self, the journey into a more spacious place than we otherwise might know. It is an experience, finally, that joins my “self” to others in the experience that the poet Rilke calls simply “the Open.” In this sense, thought, artists are not only “traffickers in beauty” (first post). They are often those who face the horrors attending on life–writers of tragedies, poets of the elegy, painters of apocalypse. In such ways, artists live and create in ways that are porous to what is beyond us, that allow us to release the tight grip of control that occupies so much of our lives. Their primary purpose is to help us inhabit the world as it is, and only then to gesture toward some way through that world. This is beauty, even if it is full of the shock and brittle of existence. Perhaps especially when this is so. In so doing, the artist refuses to be alone, to leave us alone; her painting, his dance, her sculpture, his poem, open us to the community of suffering and rejoicing. Art that is true to this vocation “makes” such community (a)live.

  10. Draw Light into Darkness

    Like a new planet the mind
    Needs discovering and brave the souls
    Who dare not stay behind
    But move forward anticipating what unfolds.

    With silent sophistication,
    Few tools but a desire to explore, to know
    That out there, exploration
    Will be rewarded with something more.

    The terrain physically demanding,
    Taxes my perceptive powers and strength.
    Seeking, I gain new understanding
    Of myself, the surroundings, new wealth.

    With heart, sight, taste, touch, hearing,
    Probing feelings, aims and goals exploding
    As each new announcing
    Brings forth depths, emotionally challenging.

    Enlightenment as well as light
    Offers this mind a view unimaginable.
    So much better is the sight
    Peaceful too and more controllable.

    Fading darkness frettles away
    Pierced, wounded and shafted with light.
    Presently dawns a good new day
    Restored, this mind now in full flight.

    Get up, go, see and do,
    There’s more to offer than you know.
    Be bold, courageous too,
    The world needs the gifts within you.

    Kathleen E. Amoore 31/03/2014

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