Why do we make art? Why do we make it when sparrows, ravens, dogs, monkeys, elephants, do not make it? People have unique experiences which are so transporting and sometimes overwhelming, sometimes revelatory of such new or significant things, that spending an entire life to record this material can be time well spent.
It is paradoxical that sometimes great creators isolate themselves from others; perhaps they like to create small “universes”. Nonetheless, usually they are at least deeply immersed in the traditions of their medium. They tend too to have interdisciplinary interests. The painter is an amateur historian; the sculptor is very serious about poetry; the musician enters analysis and reads psychology; the actor studies politics and sociology; the poet ties himself to an orthodox religion. For my brother’s travail discloses secrets to me, and my art breathes through conversation with those finished products. While I, Asher, personally long for the meat of this intellectual inquiry, I am still nursing on the child’s milk of sentiment and expression. But this is most necessary for song.
Though the richest vein of art I imagine must of necessity glorify God with high purpose, the vast array of human concerns is still our travail and remains our private glory as creatures made in His image. Though monkishness is most essential, other themes like romance still belong to the deepest places of our heart. Do we not even speak of Christ as the Bridegroom, the Church as the Bride?
The way we revolve around culture can be greatly therapeutic. Could our roving through culture be ever indicative of the real state of our hearts, and reflect the intentions of our free will, though we may think of it as entertainment, education, or culture? When we are at home, do we stay in our room sleeping? Are we spending time cleaning the outdoor areas? Are we planted on the couch? Is it not true that if all things we do have an ethical aspect, then each action (at home or as culture consumers) has an ethical nature? This is to say the ethical manner of the way we listen to music, or the way we watch TV on the couch for that matter, is reflected in the specific turn of our dialogue with the media, and moreover this ethical nature of our relation to art is present even when when our humanity takes center stage of the relation.
This is all said in a kind of appreciation of what is set forth in this video of an orchestra in rehearsal for a performance of Mahler’s 9th Symphony. Mahler, who denied his Jewishness and claimed he was a Catholic because of professional pressure, is nonetheless in an almost world-historical relation to German music. At least, according to conductor Leonard Bernstein, speaking German to this German orchestra, Mahler is the end of the German classical tradition, and was aware of it. Mahler also saw himself as a musical visionary of an apocalyptic future. So if this is true, and Mahler’s imaginative incorporation and reworking of so many German musical cliches was due to his position as the one who makes the summary for the defense, then even if he is in terms of organized religion a non-participant, in terms of Adamic Man, he is an anointed king in the realm of the human heart both regarding raw passion and the desire for aesthetic order.
Mahler is like a high priest in conducting forces that speak of human civilization in early 20th century Germany. And Bernstein takes very seriously his role in bringing out Mahler’s witness, looking both backward and forward. For both men, this artistic path meant bringing mind and body to serve in the work, to bring the self to the alter and lay bare the message contained inside of themselves.
But can we say after all that human art, and human civilization, is religious? Can we say the unbelieving heart, striving in the world, is religious, even when Christ contrasts what is Godly with what is worldly? It is not that art is always beautiful, or that art should always be defended. Obviously civilization, and the world likewise, cannot always be defended and are not at all always godly.
Nonetheless, all our travail, all our history, is part of the drama of our interaction with the Lord, whether we cling to Him and become saved, or fall away. And because we are always in the Lord’s story, and always have some relation to Him, even if only as sinners with darkened hearts, our art and our civilization is in that sense always religious. That term is very controversial, but in any event, we always live as the people of Christ, betraying Him or serving Him. We are the people He came to save, and the people He has made in His own image. So I just want to honor the extreme service and sacrifice of people like Bernstein and Mahler who give their lives exploring the depths of human meaning.