Finding Grace in a Graceless World

Mays argues convincingly, at least to me, that the creation of beauty is critical to the well-being of both society and the individual for it is this creation that brings order to the chaos of our lives:

Let us explore the human mind as it engages in the creative act. This capacity to create — which we all have, though in varying degrees —is essentially the ability to find form in chaos, to create form where there is only formlessness. This is what leads us to beauty, for beauty is that form.

Beauty reveals a form in the universe-the harmony of the spheres, as Kepler called it. It is a form which is present in the circling of the planets. It is a form which is felt in the curves and balance of our own bodies. And it is present especially in the way we see the world, for we form and reform the world in the very act of perceiving it. The imagination to do this is one of the elements that make us human beings.

Beauty in this sense is essential not only to the arts but to science itself:

It is not by accident that Pythagoras was the inventor not only of a great deal of mathematics (every one studies the Pythagorean theorem in geometry in high school), but also the inventor of a number of important principles in the theory of music. The tone of a violin is a vibration of a string of a certain length. Pythagoras made the famous discovery that vibrating strings under equal tension sound together in harmony if their lengths are in a simple numerical ratio. So we have laws of harmony and discord, all derivative from form. To Pythagoras is attributed the lyrical line, “The stars in the heavens sing a music if only we had the ears to hear.”

Now in Pythagoras, art and mathematics were identified. This was a beautiful prediction of what was to come in our modern physics. The older concern with molecules and electrons has changed; our physicists are ready to admit that they don’t really know what those are. “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what,” says Sir Arthur Eddington. What they do know is the relationship of one form to another; they recognize the form. They know if the form is such and such, then we have such and such a physical object.

At first glance, this Classical definition of Beauty would seem to describe art prior to the 20th Century, but not modern art. It is clear that if we only think of art as something that pretty, we’re going to have a hard time fitting that definition to much of contemporary art.

Since many of his watercolors seem modernistic, it’s obvious that May would extend his definition of beauty to modern art, too. He cites Henry Miller,

I love the statement by Henry Miller when he says that, “the artist seeks to overthrow existing values . . . to sow strife and ferment, so that by the emotional release those who are dead may be restored to life.” Then “I run with joy to the great and imperfect ones, their confusion nourishes me, their stuttering is like divine music to my ears.”

Obviously this is not the definition of beauty that most people hold, which might also explain why many people “hate” modern art.

Mays argues, though, that by alerting us to the dangers of modern existence, art restores the harmony we all seek:

A great deal of modern art could be captioned under the cry, “Wake up, humanity! Be alive! Look at this world in front of you!” This is restoring the emotionally dead, resuscitating the feelingless robot, the mechanical condition into which we have been forced by adjusting to a hyper-technological civilization.

There is, on a deeper level, a very powerful relationship between beauty and ethical values. Beauty is that form in which everything is in harmony; and is that not also a definition of ethics?

Such insights, no matter how unpleasant they seem at first, harmonize our perception of reality with reality itself.

But May goes even further, arguing that art:

… can dispense grace. “Art,” Gregory Bateson proposes, is part of “man’s quest for grace.” Art and the beauty which it reflects enable us to integrate ourselves. We can make a synthesis between what Freud called the “primary” and the “secondary” processes.

The function of art can also be described by the term revelation. Art is a constant revealing of beauty as well as truth in a sense parallel to science but in the quite different form. Art produces new knowledge, new forms, often catastrophic in its endeavor to awaken people. The revelation in art comes as an immediate and unique experience. We look at a picture and it immediately reveals a new universe, a new form of experience. This is even true of a picture we have seen hundreds of times. The Miro lithograph hanging in my living room brings me a new experience almost every time I look at it. The world is something different from what I had assumed.

There is a grace that comes in such moments; a new depth of experience in ourselves is awakened. When persons say a particular piece of music carries them into another world, they are testifying to the revelation that is in this music. Beethoven himself once remarked, “Whoever understands my music will henceforth be free of the misery of the world.”

Grace comes as a gift. It is something we do not ask for and cannot command. Indeed, we do not know the new revelation even exists until it opens itself to us. We were living in a narrow world; now, with the grace that comes in art, we suddenly find ourselves in a new world we did not know was there. I recall once, on leaving an exhibit of Hans Hofmann’s work, with the words singing in my mind like a Hallelujah chorus, “If a human being has the courage to paint such paintings, life surely has meaning!” It is the reverse of Dostoyevsky’s sentence in the Brothers Karamazov, “If God is dead, everything is permitted.” If such beauty exists and gives us its grace, then life must be ultimately good.

Creativity gives us a grace in the sense that it is a balm for our anxiety and a relief from our alienation. It is grace by virtue of its power to reconcile us to our deepest selves, to lead us to our own depths where primary and secondary functions are unified. Here the right brain and the left brain work together in seeing the wholeness of our world.

And thus my painting and the creative sketching — indeed, everyone’s creative acts, whatever they may be — make constructive form out of the apparent formlessness of our lives.

I don’t think I’ve ever considered art in quite this way. I know I would never have used the word “grace,” a term I associate too heavily with Churches to use to describe art. After further thought I realized I have stated I have often sought spiritual inspiration in poetry. I absolutely agree that poetry at its best “is a balm for our anxiety and a relief from our alienation.”

What do you think?