Monday, July 26, 2010

Metaphysical Summer

Attempts to overcome metaphysics having been shown to be themselves irrepressibly metaphysical, metaphysics is again in the air.  Consider Dan Siedell's compelling review of Gabriel Bunge's The Rublev Trinity. Siedell quotes philosopher Jean-Luc Marion's Crossing the Visible, where he suggests that Nicaea II, the council that vindicated icons, "formulates above all and—perhaps the only—alternative to the contemporary disaster of the image." Siedell then takes the philosopher's insight into firm art historical terrain:  "The icon is the theological foundation of all painting, secular and religious."  We can hope any who missed this crucial insight from Siedell's God in the Gallery will get it this time around.

The fiercely brilliant (and if you doubt that adjectival combination, read the last paragraph of this review) art critic Maureen Mullarkey provides a remarkable testimony to just such an insight.  After years of hesitation, and despite extensive experience in New York both reviewing and creating contemporary art, Mullarkey has come around to seeing the wisdom of the Byzantine aesthetic.  Spend a considerable amount of time not just reading Patristics, but marinating in the Orthodox liturgy, and you'll likely agree.

What does this have to do with metaphysics?  Everything.  Interest in the icon is not just for those who like painting.  The wisdom of Byzantine art was not in its style but in the iconic, symbolic horizon to which that style successfully testified.  Fruitful as the icon may be for painters and art historians, it would be a mistake, one almost laughable in its small-mindedness, to limit the Byzantine iconic perspective to the realm of "art". Consider a not so familiar passage of John of Damascus:
We see images in creation which faintly reveal to us the reflections of God, as when, for instance we speak of the Holy and eternal Trinity imaged by the sun, or light, or a ray, or by a spurting fountain, or a gushing stream, or a river, or by the mind, or speech, or the spirit within us, or by a rose bush, or a flower, or a sweet fragrance (De imaginibus oratio I).
No narrow "art theory" there.  Icons are merely the fish that swim in that ocean.  (An ocean, incidentally, in which the Protestant Jonathan Edwards swims just as happily.)  The word for that ocean, following Aristotle, is "metaphysics." Like all words that have been around for a while, it's been abused and misused, but it's eminently recoverable.  Abusus non tollit usum.

The thing that Siedell is after, that Mullarkey intuitively grasps, and that Damascus and Edwards effortlessly understood, is a thick metaphysical horizon.  Make no mistake, the word is getting out on this.  In the latest Mars Hill Audio journal, Ken Meyers interviewed Stratford Caldecott, James Matthew Wilson and Thomas Hibbs to discuss the kind of realism that can sustain such metaphysical grit.  I highly recommend shelling out the few bucks to listen in, but the same idea is on offer, at considerable length, in one of Wilson's essays, entitled Saint Augustine and the Meaning of Art.  Even if symbolism and meaning have been systematically eviscerated thanks to a fashionable academic cyclone that has long since passed, there is nothing about such a turn of events that prevents the immediate recovery of the previous symbolic arrangement.  In Wilson's memorable words:
The meaning of the world that we usually describe as constituting culture, or a culture... does not depend primarily upon our social conventions. Rather, the signs of a culture are founded on natural signs, and, indeed, are themselves natural signs in whose fashioning our intellects cooperate, and for whose knowledge and joy they exist. Given how destructive the wars and social changes of the last century have been—above all the change in thought that has tried to reduce even the human person to a fungible fact for exploitation—we should take great comfort in that fact. The meaning of things, which our cultures may embrace and develop, nonetheless does not depend on us for their existence. And so, when we see a painting or some other work of art—the remnants, say, of some half-ruined memorial statue, in some empty square, at the edge of a red-light district in Brussels—we are seeing not the illegible signs of a lost culture. We are seeing a sign whose meaning has, for the moment, been lost to us, and whose intelligibility only awaits someone with reason, sense, and patience enough to uncover it.
Call them Neo-Byzantine, Edwardsian or Maritanian, there seem to be an increasing number of such someones.  But - and this is Wilson's point - it wouldn't even matter if there were not.