Frantisek Kupka, "The Way of Silence"

“Plato kicks poets out of his ideal city,” Dr. Long explained to the class. He looked over at me. “I’m sorry, Anne.”

I shrugged. The danger that classical philosophy and theology felt from the arts, particularly poetry and drama, is not new to me. In fact, despite an almost irresistible affinity for art, I strongly sympathize with Plato.

There is, in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s prodigious Trilogy, an entire volume dedicated to the long and difficult relationship between the Church and the theatre (Theo-Drama I: Prolegomena). He could have written a separate volume for every form of art. Though religion on the one hand adapts art with a kind of ease – think, in the West, of those sculptures and those paintings and those architectural innovations – it also continually wrestles with art. The danger is always present: are we mistaking the beautiful image for the truth?

If theologians are creatures of the Tradition, the complex Tradition with its many faces, then one of the burdens of that Tradition is this fraught relationship with art. There are some in that living history who claim that poetry is the most superior form of theology (Ephrem the Syrian); there are others who claim it is the least helpful (Augustine, perhaps Aquinas). I think I understand qualities about which both faces of the Tradition speak.

There are triumphs. St. John of the Cross, for example, wrote brilliant mystical poetry. Spanish poetry, secular or otherwise, has yet to eclipse his work. His poems are rich with theological meaning, and excellent in their craft. Aquinas himself wrote one of the best Latin poems in the Middle Ages, Pange Lingua Gloriosi Corporis Mysterium. This poem in particular gives a vivid reason for our use of art. It describes the immensity of the mystery of our salvation, and in particular it considers the mystery of the Eucharist:

Verbum caro, panem verum
verbo carnem efficit:
fitque sanguis Christi merum,
et si sensus deficit,
ad firmandum cor sincerum
sola fides sufficit.

Word made flesh, true bread
effected into flesh by the word:
and wine made into the blood of Christ.
If the senses are deficient,
to the strengthened, sincere heart
faith alone is sufficient.

[translation mine]

Thomas’s hymn turns around the visceral reality of the Eucharist: the Word was made flesh, and in the Eucharist the bread and wine are made into the flesh and blood of the Word. The first makes possible the second, and this increases the involvement of our senses while also stretching them to a sort of perceptive breaking-point. What we see and taste is bread and wine. Yet, it is much more true to say that we see and touch Christ in the Eucharist, even though if we sat and described the sight that reached our eyes, we could only describe bread and wine. We see Christ, truly, all while never leaving behind our physicality. The next stanza emphasizes this paradox: we bow in adoration of the true sacrament (Tantum ergo Sacramentum/ veneremur cernui), while faith supplements our senses (fides supplementum/ sensuum defectui). Adoration is expressed physically (we bow, cernui), yet still faith supplies the perfection of our physicality.

The hymn leaves many of these ideas implied rather than expressed; or rather, they are expressed through a sort of implication. Our encounter with the words of the hymn on the one hand operates with a bare physicality or literalness: I can understand that they are about how the Word was made flesh, and how Christ is really present to us in the Eucharist. I am familiar with these ways of thinking, as they are part of the fabric of my lived faith. At the same time, the real richness is supplied when I listen to the hymn with an imaginative power that allows me to comprehend – through the faith I live – what is not bluntly explained by the poem. The words in their physicality become open to greater meaning, not as a barrier against truth but as my path to it. My imagination supplies the “physical” words with their perfection. In this way, the hymn analogously mimics my encounter with the Eucharist. Aquinas’s stanzas imitate the truth they confront.

At its best, art’s imitative power repeats to us experiences that we already have, or have the potential for having, and by that imitation unveils something about those experiences. Moreover, art allows us to confront the ways in which truth always bears mystery. What we comprehend is not simply exhausted into a series of facts. Art shows us this because art implies, because it leaves things unsaid even while it expresses, and because it means more than one thing.

At its worst, however, art can manipulate the surface of physicality without implying anything at all. Like a thin metal sheet struck with a hammer, the shapes and sounds reveal their hollowness. Art can result in a material physicalism that is the opposite of Aquinas’s sacramental physicality. Then art becomes simple manipulation, by which I mean that it moves us without our good in mind. Art is made into propaganda, and it does not transcend or challenge. Religious art is capable of propaganda as much as secular art can be. Many of the kitsch art popular in Catholic bookstores does not illuminate so much as it produces a thin and sugary response.

Plato and Augustine were, in part, worried about exactly that sort of manipulation. Both recognized that art has an incredible power to move us, and to convince us. Its grandeur can twist.

I do not mean that when art is sorrowful or even dark that it is always twisting us. Many times it is telling us something real about tragedy. Art still has my good, has the Good, in mind when it discusses the lack of good. Even when art is being fantastic, by which I mean working mostly through fantasy as opposed to “reality,” it is fully capable of telling us something real. As we already saw with Aquinas’s poem, the real is more complex than empirical fact or bare physicality.

Plato is quite concerned that art descends into mere mimicry, an empty imitation. What I think that Plato is concerned with in the case of “mimicry” – in the case of poetry and the theatre especially – is a thing’s likeness to its topic. Likeness, for Plato, is generally positive: a thing’s resemblance to the Good, for example, is the more praiseworthy the more that likeness increases. But it is also possible to mimic without resembling the concern at hand. To lie.

Everything is capable of lying, so we have to ask why Plato – and Augustine, in his way – is so concerned with art in particular. I think his worry has to do with art’s peculiar, which is to say especially strong, relationship to beauty. Beauty is able to enrapture us: to draw us in, move our emotions, turn our minds through affective imagination. So art, in a unique way, is able to make lying – mimicry without likeness – beautiful and appealing. This is why, to think in particularly modern terms, art is almost always used in propaganda. Propaganda is not always in itself bad, perhaps, but it is certainly dangerous: I can watch an effectively filmed and edited commercial for the Marines and feel moved to join them without having considered the merits of violence or service at all. I have been appealed to without any necessary reference to either truth or goodness.

A marked example with a long history is that of Anti-Semitism in art, whether in plays or other depictions. Here art has, over centuries, employed itself in the service of mimicry without likeness: abusing our desire for beauty so as to relate the “ugliness” of a people to us. Does art in this case but imitate the culture of which it is a part, or is it shaping that culture? I think the answer is uncomfortably complex.

Plato detects something real about art, and that is its ability to imaginatively grapple with what we do not understand by taking advantage of what we already sympathetically grasp. I have called this elsewhere a “distance,” the peculiar distance that art is especially oriented toward engaging. By distance I mean something inherently good that can nevertheless become bad: a distinction or difference that actively stresses both the likeness and unlikeness between two things. Aquinas’s hymn, to return to our example, shapes the various distances of faith and perception to illustrate the imperfections of our senses as well as the miraculous physicality of faith. This is good. But art, as in the case of Anti-Semitism, can also reinforce a distance that is untrue – and renders it (at least superficially) beautiful.

The trouble is that art is always related to distance. This is one of the ways that it is able to move us, as we saw. This is art’s peculiar talent. If there were no distance at work – no likeness and unlikeness together stressed – then we would not have art, but rather a reproduction. The thing itself, and not its imaginative play. Art is always related to distance, to mimicry and its various layers of resemblance. Plato is right to detect this fact, and he does not trust this fact. Is he also right not to trust it?

More to the point: in what ways is artistic distance good, and bad, for theology? Theology always stands before its subject in poverty (in distance!), yet it most of all bears a responsibility to resist lies.

Again, I think the answer is uncomfortably complex. I am aware of the problem as a student of theology, and also as a student of poetry. Academic and artist both. I am, moreover, never sure which part of me is more terrified of lies: the academic, or the artist?

Were I to stand with Plato in his ideal city, I might beg him to make me and the other poets leave. I could neither deny how deeply beholden to poetry I am, nor deny its danger. As a poet, wouldn’t I know that danger more intimately? Don’t I? Have I not felt that strange power to manipulate distance, however great or meager my artistic skill? I choose the words, the punctuation, the spaces with immense care. Aware of how each manipulates, and yet in another sense quite unaware. Passionate and passionless, shaping images without full knowledge of the distances they span.

I might well beg Plato to exile me. And yet it might well be the case that no one, poet or Plato, can live in the ideal city without uniting likeness and unlikeness in the best manner human powers possess: through imagination. Much as we feel the threat to truth, we – in this life, anyway – might not be capable of knowing truth without image.

And this, too, is good. Dangerous and good.