Human activity is not merely working producing useful things which are necessary for the preservation of life. The human spirit transcends this sphere of vital necessity. Man decorates his home he adorns his garment and his garden he builds not only a solid but a beautiful house he carves he draws he paints without any useful purpose merely from the inner drive for beauty and self-expression. He makes poetry he sings he invents stories he acts plays. If we ask for a word embracing all that it seems to be again as in the case of science the German language alone which dares to form this all-comprehensive concept of Kunst whilst the English and French following the Latin tradition speak of the liberal arts in the plural including in them also what the German calls Geisteswissenschaften. This daring comprehending conception which combines the arts of the eye with those of the ear has the great merit of leading our attention to something common in them all the element of creativity which is detached from all usefulness and intent merely upon creating beautiful work for the enjoyment of its beauty.
Many attempts have been made to solve the riddle why men do all this. It cannot be our task to add one more to a hundred existing theories of art but merely to see how from the Christian faith this most mysterious and at the same time most enjoyable phenomenon of culture is to be understood and what its relation is to the Christian faith.
At first sight art seems to be wholly independent of religion. Kunst comes from können; a Künstler is a man who can do something that others cannot. Similarly we use the word artist sometimes in a very general sense. We speak of the art of riding of skating of tailoring and so on. But we are conscious that by art in the proper sense we mean something higher. Mere virtuosity is not yet art although the transition may be gradual. We speak of art in the proper sense where works of permanent value are created. Often art has been defined as the production of the beautiful and therefore the secret of art has been identified with the secret of beauty. But the idea of beauty seems inadequate to indicate the mystery of art. What has Hamlet or King Lear what has Goya's “Bull Fight” what has Strauss’ “Eulenspiegel” to do with beauty? Beauty is a fascinating mystery but art is more mysterious than beauty.
Why do men create works of art? We put aside all accidental motives such as gaining one's living love of fame and power. The work of art is so much the greater as these motives are less prominent. Art is surrender to something supra-personal. It originates from an inner urge. It is pledged to a spiritual “ought” which is almost as severe as the moral one; we speak of artistic conscience. We honour Rembrandt who in his early days a spoilt and prosperous favourite of society in his later years lost the favour of the public because he painted according to his artistic conscience without any compromise with the taste of the public so that he died in poverty.
We know that the Aristotelian theory which gives first place to the imitation of nature is inadequate even for the explanation of painting whilst in all other arts the model of nature hardly plays any rôle. In any case whether it be in poetry painting or music the work of art is the expression of something inward passing on that inwardness to the one who enjoys it. Art therefore in all its branches is expression capable of impressing. But in distinction from speech it is without direct reference to the “receiver”. It has an objective intention making it to a certain degree independent and indifferent as to whether there is somebody who might enjoy it or not. In medieval glass paintings there are parts which can normally hardly be seen by anybody but which are just as carefully designed and painted as the visible parts. The artistic expression is so united with the inward feeling that both cannot be detached from each other. The artistic form is externalised inwardness. The true artist does not like to speak of an “idea” of his work he is—emphatically—not a double of the philosopher. Form and inwardness are one. The artist creating his work creates a second reality distinguished from nature by its anthropomorphism It is materialised soul and exalted nature. The work of art is the product of imagination. The German word for imagination Einbildung is an aesthetics in a nutshell. The power of imagination is the capacity to externalise inwardness or to spiritualise matter. Once more we ask: Why do men do this? And why do others enjoy the results? A negative reason is obvious: They want to transcend existing reality because for some reason it does not satisfy. Artistic creation is somehow a correction and completion of reality. The dramas of Shakespeare show us people like ourselves. Why then this duplication of the human tragedy and comedy? The persons of Shakespeare's tragedies are no duplicates of those of every-day experience they are the products of a sifting enhancement which cuts away what is casual and enlarges the essential. Art is condensation omitting the unimportant and magnifying the important; art intensifies and elates it brings order to the chaotic gives form to the casual and shape to the shapeless it exalts and ennobles the material reality to which it gives form.
What for instance is the meaning of the verse in poetry? If man wants to say something important he tries to make as great a distance as possible between that and mere talk. He wants to liberate his speech from every-day casualness he gives it gebundene Form. The free submission under a law the mounting of springing life in a self-chosen discipline the firm shape of that which otherwise is shapeless gives his speech lasting form nobility.
Art then is the attempt of man to raise himself out of the casualness lowness transitoriness of every-day life to a higher existence. This is the elevating effect of all art whatever its content may be. There is nothing elevating in the content of Othello but in its form which gives to human passion a purity a necessity and an intensity by which it represents a higher form of existence. All art strives with more or less success after perfection which cannot be found in reality. Art is an imaginary elevation of life in the direction of the perfect.
Imaginary indeed! Of course a Greek temple or a Gothic cathedral are not imaginary but very real built of massive blocks. But the beauty of this work is an imaginary elevation of life a perfection which does not belong to ordinary existence but stands apart. Art does not change our life. The aesthetic solution of a problem by which a poet gets rid of it is no real solution no real liberation. Art originates from and lives within imagination; it is an imaginary reality similar to the dream. As long as we dream happily happiness is real but when we awake this happiness is gone. It cannot be integrated into our reality; it stands outside of that continuity which we call reality. Reality is the same to-day and to-morrow but the dream of to-night will not be the dream of to-morrow. When the sound of Bach's Double Violin Concerto which filled me with heavenly joy has faded away it still somehow remains with me for a while like a beautiful dream when I awake. But then comes reality which is not heavenly joy but sorrow and conflict which the beauty of Bach's Concerto cannot alter.
This is the limit of art. It is imaginary playing perfection. It is the greatness and the delight of art to be perfection; it is its limitation to be merely imaginary perfection. It is the danger of art that it is so powerful although imaginary. Is there really a danger in art? Is art not that one thing in our life for which we can be thankful and which we can enjoy without reserve? This indeed is our first response: as Christians we say: art is one of the great gifts of God the Creator. Works of art are not produced as a matter of course. Talent or genius is the decisive element and this is a gift of the Creator. It is not in vain that the word “talent” is taken from the Biblical parable which speaks of trusteeship. What then is its danger? It lies close to its very essence. Its essence is to be imaginary its danger is that imaginary perfection may be confounded with real perfection. Art then becomes a substitute for religion. One looks for something in art which it is not able to give: real elevation real perfection. This confusion is what we call aestheticism. Art is not to be blamed for it and it can be said that the great artists have rarely become victims of this temptation. This confusion of imagination with reality happens more often to those who enjoy art than to the productive genius.
Furthermore it must be said that art does not really displace religion but rather fills a vacuum in the soul which ought to be filled by faith. But we cannot evade the question whether there is not a fundamental opposition between art and faith as expressed in the second commandment of the Decalogue. “Thou shalt not make unto Thee a graven image nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth.” Can the believer in face of this unambiguous prohibition enjoy art without reserve? One might reply that the divine prohibition is not referred to art as such but to idolatry that is to pantheistic confusion of Creator and creation. The question however remains whether art as the work of imagination and as imaginary perfection does not involve a fundamental conflict with faith in the invisible perfect One from whom alone comes real perfection. Is there not a secret opposition between the enjoyment of heavenly beauty in the imaginary world of art and the hope in the real heavenly redemption? Is not art at its best some kind of parallel to pantheistic mysticism both being an anticipation of heavenly bliss here and now?
It seems to me we must not be extreme on either side. The true artist is no ecstatic who forgets about reality. Great art has always been rather tragic than happy just as we can say that tragedy is the highest form of art. In tragedy and in all tragic art man is conscious of his predicament and of his need for redemption. It is only the artist of the second rank who wants to deceive men and himself with the belief that art itself can solve the contradictions of human reality. One great poet defining the origin and essence of his art says: und wo der Mensch in seiner Qual verstummt gab mir ein Gott zu sagen was ich leide. We need not therefore take too seriously that mystical or pantheistic danger great as it may be but we must take account of the opposite possibility that art can by its capacity to intensify and to emphasise the essential show to man with particular impressiveness his real situation as a creature needing redemption.
We have to face the problem of Christian art. First of all Christian art is not merely a possibility but a historical reality. Since the decay of the Roman Empire during more than a thousand years European art has been “Christian”. At first this does not mean more than that the majority of the works of architecture in this era were Christian churches from the Byzantine basilicas of Ravenna and Monreale to St. Peter's in Rome and the baroque churches of Germany and Austria. It means furthermore that the sculpture of these centuries is primarily Church decoration that the subject-matter of painting too is drawn mostly from Biblical stories of Christian legends that poetry and music up to the time of Bach are dedicated to the service of Church life. It is then an indubitable fact—although a fact which needs interpretation—that during more than ten centuries art in all its aspects was an expression primarily Christian in essence and served the Christian Church. The question remains however in what sense we can speak of Christian art.
We should beware from the outset of two extreme views: the one is a naïve confusion of Christian art with art the contents of which or the themes of which are Christian. When certain painters of the 16th century Renaissance treat Biblical themes or Christian legend it is obvious that this connection between Art and Christianity is merely an outward and casual one. Sometimes as in the case of the great Peter Breughel one might even call this relation ironical. Even if we allow for the fact that the religious expression of an Italian is in any case more declamatory and dramatic than that of a North European and even if we grant that Roman Catholic Christianity in itself is more externalised than Protestant still we must confess that there is a kind of Renaissance art which in spite of its Christian content cannot really be called Christian. On the other hand we cannot acknowledge the formalist theory that it is of no importance for art to have a Christian content or indeed any content at all. Here then we are up against the difficult problem of form and content in art.
First it cannot be denied that in art form and not content is primary. It is great art when van Gogh paints a sunflower when Daumier paints a boulevard scene. It is not great art when Kaulbach in an enormous picture interprets the Reformation. One might say then that content is nothing and form everything. Futhermore what should “content” mean in pure music? But on the other hand could you seriously contend that it does not matter whether Michelangelo chooses as his object the Biblical story of Creation and the Fall or treats some scene of every-day life? Do you think that Bach could express his deepest feelings as in his B Minor Mass just as well by using some banal worldly text? Or that it was by chance that Rembrandt in his later years turned more and more exclusively to Biblical stories? What after all is form and content when an inward world has to be visibly or audibly incarnated? The relation between art and religion between art and Christian faith cannot be accidental even though there exists supreme art without any noticeable relation to religion. There must be some deep connection between art and religion and in particular between art and Christian faith. What is it?
Let us start with Greek tragedy. It may not be of decisive importance that the Greek theatre grew out of a religious ceremony just as the great manifestation of Greek architecture and sculpture originated from religious life. But tragedy as such—the phenomenon of the tragic—cannot be understood without man's relation to the moral order of the world. Without tragic guilt no tragedy. It is not by chance that a Christian tragedy does not exist. Not because there was not enough dramatic talent to form a tragedy but because Christian faith and the tragic understanding of life are irreconcilable. This form of art then tragedy has a definitely religious but certainly no Christian basis. How could you separate here form and content? Take a parallel from within Christian times: the Biblical oratorio and the musical Mass where the text supplies incomparable musical possibilities. Certainly there do exist oratoria of an entirely secular character; the musical form of an oratorio is not necessarily tied to the Christian content. But it cannot be a matter of chance that so many of the greatest works of music are those in which Christian texts are interpreted by music.
Even if we understand musical art merely from the point of view of dynamic expression we would still have to take account of the fact that there are emotions of the soul tensions and contrasts and therefore a dynamism which cannot be found apart from religious nay even Christian faith. If you think of the “Sanctus” or the “Kyrie eleison” of Bach's Mass you can hardly deny that such music could not be created but by a deeply Christian composer. Take another example: It is hardly to be denied that the Roman Catholic faith has a closer relation to the arts of the eye than the Protestant that on the other hand Protestant church music has reached heights which no Catholic composition has attained to. Roman Catholic faith tends to the visual its relation to the visible is essentially positive whilst Evangelical faith clings to the Word and has only an indirect and uncertain relation to the visible. That is why painting disappears in the Protestant Church whilst church music acquires an importance which it never had before.
The relation between art and religion art and Biblical faith must not be studied merely to answer the question as to what importance the religious element has for art; but also from the other viewpoint to answer the question whether religion and Christian faith do not in themselves tend towards artistic expression. The Christian community through the ages has been a singing community. Christian worship is hardly thinkable without a hymn psalm chorale or anthem. The praise of God joyful thanks and passionate supplication of the congregation almost necessarily take shape in singing. There is hardly a more alarming though infallible criterion of the decline of Christian community life than the decadence of Christian church music in the last two centuries. The Christian hymns that have been invented and sung during the last century have little to do with art whilst the choral melodies which abounded in the first two centuries of the Reformation churches were works of art of the first order; even Bach who did not himself produce one showed almost envious admiration of them.
Not every live Christian is ipso facto also a church musician but where musical talent comes within the life-stream of faith and within the magnetic field of a true Christian community church music is born inevitably. The same can be said with regard to the relation of faith and poetic form. All the great prophets of Israel from Amos to the anonymous writer of the exile were also great poets. The weakening of poetic power goes hand in hand with the weakening of prophetic originality in the later Old Testament prophets. There is hardly a word of Jesus which is not a little poem and some of His parables are poetry of the highest order. We can hardly imagine Luther's prophetic genius apart from the powerful rhythm of his hymn “A mighty fortress is our God”. That is Luther! Who is able to delimit here prophetic faith and poetic expression? Both are so united in this hymn that the power of faith and the power of expression cannot be distinguished.
A similar relation is to be observed conversely: in respect of impression. The religious hymn is not merely a necessary expression of faith but also an effective means of faith. It is as if sacred music “tuned the soul” for faith. As the Marseillaise was a powerful factor in spreading the spirit of the French Revolution in a similar way really Christian music can kindle faith. The music of Bach and Schütz has this effect but not that of Wagner. There are works of Bach to which though they are pure music without any text one could add the adequate Biblical words. We know by now that his most abstract composition Die Kunst der Fuge is Christian theology expressed in the form of immensely complicated fugues.
Something similar is a common experience in the sphere of architecture. A Gothic cathedral generates a certain kind of reverent feeling without there being any direct indications of the cultus. The very structure of the Gothic church being an expression of medieval religion and theology impresses the mind with that same spirit from which it originates. It is utterly inept to build a modern bank in Gothic style. If the so-called Gothic civil architecture of the Middle Ages does not have this character of dissonance it is because in that era all life was permeated by the spirit of its theology and piety. How far however this Gothic structure is Christian and how far neoplatonic mysticism is its root is another question.
If then there exists an indubitable relation between faith and art on the side of expression as well as on that of impression we cannot avoid the question what the fate of art will be in a thoroughly secularised society where faith has ceased to be a formative factor. Indeed this question is not merely academic in our time. It would not be historically correct to claim on the basis of what has been said before that the decline of religion must necessarily carry with it the decay of art. History gives many clear examples to the contrary. Greek art reached its zenith at a time when religion had already begun to decay. The same is true of Renaissance art in the 16th century and French painting was at its best in the age where positivist and even materialist philosophy dominated. Again; a similar observation can be made about German music from the time of Mozart onwards the only exception confirming the rule being Bruckner. And if instead of speaking of epochs we think in terms of individual artists it would be hard to discover any definite proportion between artistic power and perfection on the one hand and religious intensity on the other. Alongside Michelangelo and Fra Angelico we have Raphael Leonardo and Titian; alongside Rembrandt we have Peter Breughel and Vermeer; alongside Bach we have Gluck and Strauss not to speak of certain schools of first-rate art with a decidedly frivolous conception of life as background.
Let us remember once more that Kunst comes from können that artistic genius is a natural disposition and as such indifferent to religion or any philosophy of life. Whether a man who is born with creative genius is deeply religious or indifferent to religion does not in itself increase or diminish his creative capacity. But in spite of this we venture to contend that in a society where religious faith is dead or has been dead for a while art also decays. It is difficult to prove this assertion from history because whilst there have been times of religious decline there never has been an epoch of predominant atheism. There may be one exception to this rule: our own age as far as certain countries are concerned. But this period has not yet lasted long enough for us to draw definite conclusions. All the same our assertion does not hang in the air for there are strong reasons for its validity.
Whilst it cannot be said that faith or religious power is a necessary presupposition of art two statements can hardly be denied. First that creative genius combined with religious depth produces ultimate artistic possibilities which otherwise do not exist. Secondly no artistic life can thrive on dehumanised soil. Where men are no longer capable of deep and great feelings where the spiritual horizon has lost infinity where the understanding of life is devoid of all metaphysical or religious depth art cannot but degenerate to mere virtuosity and creative originality exhausts itself in inventions which may be witty striking or pleasant but which cannot move the depth of the heart. The grand passions which are the source of all genuine art are not a phenomenon of merely psychological dynamic. Grand passions are not merely a matter of temperament or instinct. Their greatness originates not from natural dispositions but from spiritual tensions which do not exist any more where thinking clings to the surface of things.
We touched on this point when we spoke about tragedy. Christian faith in itself cannot accept the tragic view; but being in itself the victory over tragedy it presupposes the understanding of the tragic. Where there is neither understanding of the tragic nor Christian faith where all relation to something transcendent and absolute has disappeared where crude naturalism and materialism have taken the place of religion and metaphysics great passions deep feelings and those mysterious longings of the soul out of which great art is born disappear also. The decay of the truly human necessarily brings with it the decay of beauty and mystery. This decay of the truly human however cannot be avoided in a materialistic world. When man is cut off from the third dimension of depth when he lives on the surface of mere utility animal instinct and economic rationality the element of humanity vanishes. This assertion I think has been sufficiently proved in the first series of these lectures.
We now are in a position to see the dual fact: art in its dependence on and its independence of religion. The dependence is absolute only in an indirect sense relative and partial in the direct sense. In so far as the depth of human existence is founded ultimately in the “third dimension” in religion and metaphysics and in so far as the Christian faith produces the deepest and most human kind of existence art is dependent on it. In so far however as in the individual case and for a certain time this deep humanity can exist after the faith which has produced it has disappeared like an evening light after sunset like the marvellous Abendrot in our Swiss Alps art can persist for a certain while in individuals or during a whole generation after the sunset of faith. But this Abendrot cannot be of long duration. The stock of human values created in a time of faith is soon exhausted in a time of faithlessness and with it the possibility of real art. The humanity of man is much more historical than we usually think and that is true of art.
I think we are justified in applying this general observation to our time although we have to do it with great caution. If what I have just said is correct we should expect that the secularisation of modern mankind—which although fortunately not complete is the characteristic feature of the modern age—must have its effects on art. And we should guess that this effect must be a certain loss of depth and at the same time a tendency in two directions: barbarism or crudeness as a result of the lost distinction between man and animal nature on the one hand and a certain abstractness as a result of formalism because of the disappearance of metaphysical and religious content. Now with all the reserve which my little knowledge of contemporary art puts upon me I think that these tendencies are indeed quite obvious in the artistic production of our time although the reaction against them is also to be felt and in a quite remarkable degree. But this reaction against barbarism and formalism is at the same time also a reaction against secularisation and to this extent proves our thesis.
Let me point out another feature of modern art which is a necessary result of what I called the loss of the third dimension of depth. Where men lose their religious faith art is apt to take the place of religion. That danger which as we have just seen is immanent in all art becomes real. Art itself becomes the highest value aestheticism becomes the religion of the time. It can hardly be denied that this is true for a good many of our contemporaries. The imaginary perfection and elevation of life which art gives them becomes a substitute for real salvation. They live in their imaginary world of artistic creation as in a sort of earthly heaven or paradise measuring all life by their art and artistic genius. If I am not wrong this is one of the elements which account for the sad condition of the French nation. The prevalent aestheticism of French cultural life has broken or at least seriously damaged its moral backbone. The religion of art is a poor substitute for true religion as a basis of civilisation.
Still real faith has not vanished. On the contrary it is just in the sphere of modern art that we find along with barbarism and formalism most impressive signs of a spiritual awakening parallel to the reawakening of Christian theology and religious philosophy. Perhaps we may venture to say that the art of our time confirms what we have seen happening in other fields that the low point of the secularist movement is already passed. At any rate the battle is on and all of us are engaged in it.
To close—let me take up once more the question raised in the beginning. Why do men create works of art? What is the function of art in the human household? For the creative artist himself this question hardly exists. To him art is a “calling”. To some of the greatest artists it is a divine calling. They follow an inward “must” which permits no further derivation except the religious one. For most men however who are not artists but mere lovers of art the answer is from the Christian point of view: art is the noblest form of resting from the struggle of life closely related with the quiet of the Sabbath in the Biblical sense. All work even the highest spiritual work produces a kind of hardness and cramp. The man who knows nothing but work becomes soulless. Art is the noblest means of re-creation. It cannot redeem our soul but it can “tune the heart” even for the highest: for communion with God. It never produces or creates faith but it can support the Word of the Gospel which creates faith. It can open the closed soul and help it to relax in the most human way from the stress of everyday life. That is why we sing in our church services and why we should not underestimate the function of real church music. But apart from this highest function man needs relaxation especially if he is engaged in intellectual work. Art is the beneficent mediator between spirit and sensuality. It is a spiritualisation of the sensual and the sensualisation of the spiritual. It is a necessity primarily for those who do not live in immediate contact with nature. Art is therefore before all a necessity for the city man. What Luther and Bach have said of music is true of all art: it is the servant of God to help his sorrowful creatures to give them joy worthy of their destiny.