Bernini, "The Rape of Proserpina" (Detail)

Art is, in a specific sense, about control. In any of its forms – music, performance, painting, writing, etc. – there is, after all, a great deal of mastery at work. The artist is in command of fingers, body, or brush. What takes shape does so out of the artist’s will. But art is also decidedly about surrender, and the collision between control and surrender always threatens to destroy both art and artist.

One of the many historical tropes to take and ruin art runs as follows: Renaissance art obsessed itself with balance, proportion, and harmony – in short, skilled order; modern art, wrested from the shackles of order, concerns itself with freedom of expression and nonconformity – in short, skilled chaos. Modern art is superior because it is no longer interested in cold calculation and synthesis. Art is thus interpreted, more and more, as perhaps the greatest sign of the reign of human freedom. We create; we are free. Art’s increasingly radical lack of form is lauded as its increasingly radical freedom. The syllogism is so engrained that to question its presuppositions, that chaos is somehow less about control than order, is tantamount to heresy.

Art, apparently, desires its freedom without any logic to defend it.

But really: in what way is anarchy any more free of an obsession with control than is symmetry? Surely anyone facing a rioting mob, or perhaps simply an unruly toddler, will understand that control is evoked in chaos just as much as it is in a call to order. And art, whatever its era, is also deeply invested in control.

What does art control? In the simplest sense, the artist is out to control the expression of the art. What appears, and how, is under the purview of the artist at hand. Impressionism might well blur its brushstrokes, but that is also the decision of the artist. Baroque art, with its stark light and shadow, quite deliberately shapes the angles of its subjects. So, too, does dance, where the artist’s whole body moves precisely according to the felt scheme.

But this is not quite what is at stake.

Art concerns itself most of all with beauty. Every mode of expression is bent, willfully, to become a vehicle for what is beautiful. Even should the derisive postmodern artist present to us a calculated horror, we are horrified because it is not-beautiful: art retains its relationship to beauty when it tries to betray it.

So, in fact, art attempts to control beauty. Beauty, which refuses to be controlled and which forever slips from the artist’s grasp in either decay or failure. G.M. Hopkins frames the question in the opening of “The Leaden Echo”:

How to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away?

Artists respond with varying impulses to the problem, but the problem itself remains the same. How is one to keep beauty from vanishing just enough to express it, if only for once? Many modern artists answer with chaos, acknowledging beauty’s evanescence. Classical artists answer with order, acknowledging beauty as if it were palpable. (Modern art has the tang of the gnostic.) Either way – words, colors, images – all is bent in order to capture what is beautiful, or else proclaim our wretched inability to do so.

Do not mistake me here: to cry out in despair at ever seeing beauty does not mean to have given up control. Ugliness is no refuge. In denying beauty, the dark attempt to control it still lives. If we cannot really control it, after all, would we claim the power to deny it? Surely that power escapes us, too.

Then again, art, for all its control of expression, stretches itself on a rack not so much to grasp beauty as to lay down before it. Artists often speak as if a specific insight comes to them, one that they must serve practically (or perhaps really) as a slave. Early Greek poets speak of being intoxicated by a muse, whom they follow at any cost. “Speak, muses, speak!” the Greek invocation began, so that the poet – under another power – would become the prophet of impossible beauty. English Romantic poetry adopted this trope like a glittering adornment, not quite as raw as for the Greeks, but for all its pretension Romanticism was still aware that the poet’s words in fact served some other master.

There is yet the sneaking suspicion that (at least) the poet – worst of the offenders, implicating the other arts – lays the self to bare in order to entice beauty, as with a trap. Consumed in pathos, the poet presented now as the unwilling subject of beauty’s entanglements, the pain itself is made into glory. Tragedy becomes a banner of success, and beauty, apparently inverted, is now finally at bay in the darkness of loss. Beauty has been snuck upon, as in the night, and thrown into yet another cage.

If it is in a cage, it is no longer beauty. Every answer is a dead end. There is in this, perhaps, something almost inevitably violent about the act of art. Perhaps Plato was right to throw the poets out of his ideal city.

All is, at least at this point, tragic. Inescapably so. Art must operate according to careful control: even the freedom of self-expression most come to some kind of order, else it is no expression at all. In other words, it is art is not a skill if control is not somehow applied. At the same time, art must operate according to careful surrender: beauty is always beyond its grasp. The pretense of total control only locks beauty out of reach more.

Again, G.M. Hopkins surmises the outcome as “The Leaden Echo” closes:

O there ’s none; no no no there ’s none:
Be beginning to despair, to despair,
Despair, despair, despair, despair.

Threatened on both sides, by surrender and by order, we must wonder now in what way art exercises itself – if it does at all. Many artists despair, and in beautiful tones give themselves up to the night of total unknowing.

Christian art walks a different path: recognizing both the need for order, since created truth must find its cohesion in Truth Himself, and the need for surrender, since Truth Himself transcends. Surrender now has a specificity, a palatable coherence even in the recognition of its limitation – surrender is to the Triune God. There is nothing more specific, unique, and simultaneously mysterious. G.M. Hopkins’s twin to “The Leaden Echo,” called “The Golden Echo,” responds in just this way: “Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” So beauty receives its luminescence from God, and the Christian deliberation over surrender – no chaotic thing, but surely as passionate – is also illuminated in art.

Now, however, we really walk the knife-edge.

Surrender has not necessarily had its venom removed, and the titanic urge to control the beautiful may yet wound both art and artist. One rather interesting example is a Christian (and non-Christian) insistence that art is in some way a co-creation. We create with the Creator, and thus show forth our status as the image of God. This is not untrue, necessarily, but it is also extremely dangerous. Has “co-creation,” after all, comprehended the problem? In what way do we create, and in what way do we not? The term itself says nothing either way, and its only precision rests in the act of creation. It does not orient the act, except to say that it is in some way accomplished in tandem with God. The accent on creation also fails to address the problem of surrender, often felt in the most passionate of artists, and I must wonder if “co-creation” is perhaps a Christian recapitulation of modern art’s confusion. It has not escaped the battle between careful control and sensuous self-gift at all; it has only translated it into another idiom, hoping that it would resolve it. Translation, of course, does nothing of the sort.

Now I simply speculate as to a better solution.

I begin to think, perhaps, that the very old (and apparently retired) Aristotelian ways of thinking serve us better. There is, in classical metaphysics, a careful consideration of types of causality. These vary according to the action, and to the question one asks about the action. Of interest to me is instrumental causality: an instrument is used in order to do something else. Both the instrument and the agent (the actor) cause what occurs: both myself and my hammer are involved in the “instrumental cause” (myself as the instrumental agent, the hammer as my instrument). Even should I use my own body, my body itself becomes my instrument: my conjoined instrument.

Thomas Aquinas is often criticized for taking instrumental causality and, with it, rendering the sacraments a cold and distant thing. We imagine a giant mechanism that dispenses grace. Instruments become a means for separation. In fact, however, the entire breadth of this metaphysical field is meant to emphasize, again and again, the intimacy of God’s actions in the case of the sacraments, and to emphasize the intimacy of our own involvement. In other words, instrumental causality is transformed in Thomas’s thought into a living, dynamic operation. God, the agent, unites himself with us – we who are his willing instruments. We are permitted, and must be permitted, vital responsiveness. The ultimate, governing analogy is Christ’s own humanity: his humanity, with a fully human will, is the instrumental cause of our salvation. It does not get more intimate or responsive than that, and Aquinas imagines we are brought into similarly daring closeness to God.

So, then, Christian art (and the Christian artist) would need to be transcribed according to sacramental analogies, most of all the great sacramental analogies Aquinas draws. The artist is an instrument, a willing instrument, of God – surrendering in freedom, and restricted in action according to the central agent (God). The contours are, therefore, shaped by both God and artist, but precisely with respect to the artist’s self-gift to God. Art is, then, a “forfeit,” and, like all things forfeited to God, made beautiful. As G.M. Hopkins would have it in his riddles:

When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder
A care kept. – Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where. –
Yonder. – What high as that! We follow, now we follow. – Yonder, yes yonder, yonder

[Full text of “The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo“.]