Monday, January 12, 2009

Things Mean Things

A very intriguing article from James Matthew Wilson on the gap between the normal way we approach art and the curious way it is deconstructed in the schools. And the way we need to come back to it for it to make any sense at all. From the conclusion:

The meaning of things, which our cultures may embrace and develop, nonetheless do 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. The imaginary theology student in the auditorium, whatever his ignorance of the career of Botticelli, was prepared to see Augustine, the Saint, in a painting of Augustine. Moreover, he was able to see the life of Augustine stretching out in back of and before the painting. He saw not an “indeterminate” splash of paint on canvas but a complete person who, in that canvas, awaits the opportunity to confront us with his meaning.

As the painter and poet, David Jones, argued a half-century ago, art reminds us in a gratuitous way—that is, by way of a kind of grace that signifies, or speaks, to us—of the rich, polysemantic layering of signs that constitutes the world itself. While we may limit or short-circuit our ability to read into things, by ignoring the words of this world that tell us something inconvenient, or by moving too quickly to allow ourselves time to listen, the intelligibility of all creation remains present in potency. Should we for a moment listen to those words, we will hear, as Augustine heard, all things proclaiming, “God made me.”

Hence, the particular aptitude of art, which perhaps only the student prepared to ignore certain academic posturing can detect: it reminds us that all words are intelligible not because of our inventions and conventions, not because they stand in subordinated reference to our intellects. Rather, the world makes sense in itself and to us, because its words depend on the Word, on an intelligence that makes all things to be.

When the latest obscene performance artist in Chelsea, or scholar of Japanese animation at Duke, wonders why the conservatives despair as the apparent trivialization and “deconstruction” of art in our day, one may tell them, it is because such conservatives fear the loss of yet one more means of discerning the truth in things. But, again, we have grounds for a sense of exile, but not for despair. The meaning of things inheres to those things; the words of this world do not depend on us.
More here.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: