Man the Arts

Among the unique and extroardinary abilities of humankind, surely his ability to create ranks first or nearly first. I have concluded that a Mozart or a Rembrandt inhabits every neighborhood, just waiting to be cultivated and directed in the direction of their gifts.

Think of how many people you know with beautiful voices that go unheard, with a natural capacity to see that never makes it to canvas, with a grace of movement that never sees the dance floor. 

When you consider how many people do make it to the big time on the wings of parental or pedagogical vanity, imagine what we would experience if our wings were grace and devotion to the God who is glorified when Freddy Mercury sings or Picasso paints or, yes, Christina Aguilera dances.

And there’s the trouble. Our creativity is an expression of the Image of God within us; it is among our highest joys because it is in our creativity that we are most like God in His creativity. It is what we are made for.

But the creative genius continously finds himself drawn to himself, since this talent is within him and mysterious. Rather than honor His creator, his temptation is to feature himself and to honor himself first.

As a result gifts are misdirected, their value diminished, and the staying power of their products disabled. One hundred years from now, it is not likely that many of the current superstars will be remembered – though some will, because they are so extraordinarily creative that the impulse to watch their performance is satisfying in itself.

I think, for example, of Karen Carpenter, whose music style rarely does much for me, but whose voice is unmatched in popular recorded music.

Last night I was re-visiting the Susan Boyle phenomenon on YouTube, where I discovered that they did a show about her life in Britain. I was not aware that Simon Cowell had produced a CD of her singing and that it sold 4.5 million disks in the first two weeks of distribution.

Susan Boyle has a marvelous voice and she is able to express deep emotion and beauty through it. People like to say she is no Ruthie Henshall, which is so utterly beside the point that it shows that they don’t understand what is happening when Susan Boyle sings. Amanda: “It was  a complete privilege listening to that.”

The same thing happened with Paul Potts. Listen to his version of Nessun Dorma. If you compare it to Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Mario Lanza, or even Aretha Franklin, you might complain that they are all better. Well, except for the last two. But it doesn’t matter.

Susan Boyle and Paul Potts are great singers who are now learning to sing even better. It may well be that Paul Potts is now equal to Domingo if not Pavarotti. I don’t know. I have great respect for the years of training that goes into the creation of any great artist. So I can see why some people might even be offended by the very (naive, I am sure) suggestion that it is possible that Potts has attained so great a stature. I wish we valued the arts enough to train more artists more thoroughly, but when the Image of God goes, the arts go.

But Paul Potts is in Germany right now, astounding people with his gift.

There is something magical about a sincere and modest soul being discovered in front of everybody’s eyes. It vindicates some deep hope we all hold onto, that the human spirit really does have something incomprehensibly great about it.

Have you seen Andrew Johnston?

When we enter into glory, we won’t be directing all our attention, as we do here, to making sure we have another meal tonight. In glory, we’ll be consumed by the arts: singing our hearts out in a music so pure Bach would be jealous, beautifying, decorating, revealing, unifying, harmonizing, communicating – all in ways that transcend the power of the words we use here to express them.

Here, the arts give us a foretaste of that glory and joy. But just a foretaste.

These considerations lead us to two challenges:

First, we need to cultivate our children’s artistic abilities, of any stripe, with eagerness and joy and devotion.

Second, we need to learn how to think wisely about all of the arts, knowing that they move our souls and direct our cultures and sustain our communities.

In short, man the artist needs to man the arts with wisdom and virtue.  Our well-being depends on it.

The Mechanism of the Organic: A Tribe Called Coleridge

A few beats in regard to the organic and mechanical components in the act of creation:

Concerning the creative process, there appears to be a connection between Aristotle’s Poetics and Poe and Coleridge. Aristotle seems to believe that creating art comes by “remixing” artistic elements and devices already in existence. Coleridge picked up on this and influenced Poe (and Flannery O’Connor). For Coleridge (and the Romantics), imagination was essential to the creative process. He divided imagination into three categories: Primary, Secondary, and Fancy. This is what he says about the first two:

“The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite of the eternal act of creation of the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, coexisting with the conscious will, yet still identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation.”

So, what do these three categories mean? It seems to me that the first, Primary Imagination, is almost like an out-of-body experience. It is pure imagination; it is spiritual and divine. Note here that it is not Aristotle’s remixing idea, which relates to Coleridge’s other two categories. Primary Imagination creates pure, new ideas. It is akin to Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” 

Coleridge’s Secondary Imagination is that which is filtered by our conscious, rational act of creating.  Hence, it is imperfect and impure. But of course it is entirely necessary and essential, for there would be no way to capture the primary imagination’s creation without it. And this seems to correlate with Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow” that is captured only by being “recollected in tranquility.”

Coleridge’s third category, Fancy, is rather Aristotelian. Here imagination creates by remixing already existing things in fresh, new ways– especially juxtaposing opposite or contrary things. In his Biographia Literaria, he says the imagination “reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image.”

Plato’s dictum “Great is the power of contradiction” relates nicely to this. So does the fruitful activity of comparison in the rhetorical canon of invention.

In conclusion, we see that all three are essential in the creative process. Coleridge’s Primary Imagination is akin to the organic, and his Secondary and Fancy categories are akin to the mechanical.

After all, as the clever and artistic nineties hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest asks in their “What?” track,

What is position if there is no contortin’?

What is a glock if you don’t have a clip?

What’s a lollipop without the Good Ship?

What’s America without greed and glamour?

          So we might also ask, what is organic without the mechanical?

Not a, not a, not a, not a darn thing

What’s Duke Ellington without that swing?

Form and creativity

Form does not limit creativity. It is the vessel in which creativity abides. It is the synergistic flesh through which the breath of creativity breathes. Form is the proof of creativity; its standard; its only evidence.

Creativity is precisely the act of in-forming matter with idea.

Why Should We Be First?

Modern schools undervalue what it means to be a human being. Therefore, they are dropping the arts like frozen hamburgers on an assembled bun. When we focus on an art, whether it be painting, dancing, swinging a bat, singing, or writing short stories, demands are placed on us that force us to draw from within us the powers of our human faculties. In other words, they humanize us; they make us human.

Being human is simply not a priority for the modern school. We don’t have the money for that. As a result, I must question whether our milieu is worth all the trouble we are enduring to keep it “competitive.”

U2B on Letterman

If you like U-2, I’m afraid you’re going to have to take a look at these.

What is beauty

Somebody asked me for my thoughts on a concise definition of beauty, so here they are: 

First, it’s terribly unfair to ask for a concise definition because the more concise you make it, the more people will understand the words differently.

Second, if you are going to define beauty you have to believe that it actually exists, which means that it is not merely “in the eye of the beholder.”

Third, I do believe that it exists and that it is an essential property of all that is good, just, right, appropriate, etc.

Fourth, that doesn’t make it easier to define.

Fifth, Thomas Aquinas gave a great description of the elements of beauty: wholeness (also translatable as purity, an interesting fact in itself), balance, and radiance (sometimes called clarity, but this confuses the issue – radiance is better).


Beauty therefore is a quality of an object that is most easily perceived when the object is whole/pure, balanced, and radiant.


A word on radiant: for an object to be radiant, there must be something that is “radiated.” That something is the idea being embodied in the object. For example, if you want to see a beautiful painting of a tree, then you must look for a painting in which the idea of a tree is embodied well.

 A beautiful tree itself is one that is healthy (whole/pure), balanced (it grows in a proportionate manner, which all trees are created to do so far as I can tell), and radiant (you can see the idea of a tree clearly in this tree because it is a wonderful type of the idea of a tree).

 That radiance bit is tough for moderns because we don’t value “ideas” in the Christian classical sense anymore and that is why our culture has experienced an aesthetic meltdown. We think something is beautiful merely because we enjoy looking at it or listening to it.

 The entire history and notion of artistic criticism and even moral judgment, however, arise from the notion that there are ideas and that those ideas need to be expressed well (appropriately) for a work of art to be successful.

 Art is, in short, not self-expression, but expression of an idea (not a concept in the head, but an idea woven into the fabric of reality).

 Beauty, therefore, is one of the most important ideas in existence. And it seems to be, as I said above, a quality in an object that is most easily perceived when the object is whole, balanced, and radiant, and when the observer has “eyes to see.”

 One final thought: the Greek word for beauty is Kalos, which can also be translated: the good, the noble, the fitting, etc. Very interesting.

Grieg meets Lynn: Look Out!

What happens when a great piece of music falls into the hands of a 1970’s rock band that calls itself an orchestra and has lots of outlets nearby?

Take a look at this:

Why artists don’t like limits

It is the nature of the fine arts to push the boundaries of expression because the idea can never be perfectly expressed. The trouble arises when the idea is set aside and boundaries are pushed for the sake of pushing them.

Solveig’s Song

Since Youtube exists and since I’ve begun posting songs that go beyond beauty I thought I’d add what might be my favorite. I’ll keep posting stuff like this randomly as I find it for you music lovers.

This one used to be hard to find because it seems symphonies prefer to play it instead of letting the lady sing it. I don’t have enough musical background to know why. But for pure mood, it’s hard to find a song that captures longing as only the northern European’s can express it. This is from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite. As I understand it, Solveig is mourning Peer Gynt’s wanderlust, which keeps him constantly moving from one adventure to another while she is at home, literally keeping the home fire’s burning, wondering where Peer is, wondering if he’s coming home, and probably pretty certain that she isn’t first in her heart. It’s a very sad story and this music captures Solveig’s grief quite beautifully. At least I think so. What do you think?