The Beautiful and the Very Beautiful

In the course of arguing in favor of the belief that God created the universe ex nihilo, the third century church father St. Methodius of Olympus asserts that “we must say that it is in the nature of things for arts to be produced in men out of what has no existence.” While the intent of Methodius’s treatise is not to discuss the nature of art nor of human creativity more generally, the assumption underlying his argument is nonetheless a worthy starting place for a discussion of these subjects within a Christian paradigm. Methodius is arguing, in short, that just as human beings create works of art, seemingly, from nothing, so did God create the world from nothing. If man is capable of such a thing, Methodius asks his opponents, then is not God as well capable and to an even greater degree? From this can readily be extrapolated the underlying assumption that this creativity inherent in human nature is an aspect of the likeness of man to God. One can argue from human creativity to divine creativity precisely because human creativity is derived from and is, in a manner of speaking, an imitation of divine creativity. Furthermore, it is in the application of this creative faculty that the difference between the artist, strictly speaking, and the artisan—or, to use terminology of a more recent innovation, the difference between the fine arts and the arts more generally—is to be discerned.

The Genesis account of the creation of the cosmos and man provides scriptural substantiation for these extrapolations from Methodius’s statement. The opening of the book, of course, proclaims, “In the beginning God created . . .” (Gen 1:1). And this is all that the reader approaching the Bible for the first time knows about God by the end of the first chapter: he creates. He creates “the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1); light (1:3); the firmament (1:6); land (1:9); plants and trees (1:11); the sun, the moon, and the stars (1:16); fish and birds (1:20); land animals (1:24); and, at last, human beings (1:26). He is, in addition, a creator who admires his own work a great deal. As he creates, the reader finds that God stops occasionally to observe and proclaim of what he has created that “it was good” (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25) and, at last, following the creation of man, “very good” (Gen 1:31). It is not too much to imagine God as an artist at work, after each addition putting down his brush for a moment, stepping back from the easel, and commenting in approval at what he has accomplished so far: it is good.

The choice of wording in the Septuagint, the popular Greek translation from the original Hebrew of Genesis used by many early Greek-speaking Christians, Methodius included, is indicative of the general orientation of the passage as a whole. The Septuagint records God’s proclamation that his work is καλόν and, in the final emphatic iteration of Genesis 1:31, καλὰ λίαν. The word καλόν carries with it the meaning of “good,” as is expressed in most English translations and in the original Hebrew, but with the additional meanings of “noble” and, perhaps most importantly for the connotations of this passage, “beautiful.” And, following the creation of man, the creation is very good, very noble and very beautiful.

The reader approaching Genesis for the first time, then, will find that God is a creator and an admirer of what is beautiful. At the apex of his creation is the thing that makes it in the end not only “beautiful” but “very beautiful,” namely, a creature “in our image, after our likeness” (Gen 1:26). The obvious implication is that these beings whom “God created . . . in his own image, / in the image of God he created him; / male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) must, given that they are indeed like him, also be creators and admirers of the good and the beautiful. Further infused into their nature—and it may be assumed by the reader of this account that this too derives from their likeness to God—is the attribute of rulership. God proclaims just before (Gen 1:26) and just after (Gen 1:28) creating man that they will “have dominion” over the earth and over its sundry other inhabitants.

These two characteristics of man as derived from his likeness to God, his creativity and his dominion, are brought together in the vocation assigned to the first man by God, that of gardner. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it,” says Genesis 2:15. Similarly, the primeval man is called upon by God to exercise both dominion and creativity in his naming of the animals. “Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them,” says Genesis 2:19. “And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” The man, through the exercise of his own creative faculty, adds to and, in a sense, completes the work of God. While “God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens,” it is man who decides “what he would call them.” While it was God who “planted a garden in Eden” (Gen 2:8), it is man who is called upon “to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). And even God waits to “see what” he will do (Gen 2:18). While the cosmos is καλόν—good and beautiful—from the moment of its creation by God, it is only καλὰ λίαν—very good and very beautiful—following the creation of man.

While he does not seem to have had the biblical story of creation in mind in this instance, T. S. Eliot’s comments on the creative activity of the poet in his essay on “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism” serve as a useful commentary on the creativity inherent in man’s nature as it appears in Genesis. Poetry, he says, is able to “make people see the world afresh, or some new part of it. It may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves, and an evasion of the visible and sensible world.”

More true, perhaps, in the postlapsarian world than in the world of the primeval garden, what Eliot draws attention to here is the ability of the poet—and of the artist more generally—to participate in the divine creative activity by constantly renewing and revealing the world. The gardner participates in the creative activity of the divine by assisting in the yearly process of the apparent death and rebirth of nature. The poet does the same by revealing and identifying the world of the subconscious, thereby allowing man to make sense of the world of experience, both inner and outer. The painter reveals and renews the world on his canvass by allowing the mind to focus on the beauty of the singular phenomenon he has taken as his subject. In this “evasion of ourselves” and “of the visible and sensible world” we behave destructively; through the renewal and revelation made possible in and through our artistic faculties, we participate in creation.

In his Critique of Judgement, Immanuel Kant reasons in a similar direction when attempting to define the sublime. According to Kant, “it comes that the sublime is not to be looked for in the things of nature, but only in our own ideas.” There is, after all, he continues, “nothing . . . in nature, no matter how great we may judge it to be, which, regarded in some other relation, may not be degraded to the level of the infinitely little, and nothing so small which in comparison with some still smaller standard may not for our imagination be enlarged to the greatness of the world.”

Man’s imagination so far surpasses nature, then, that it is not in nature itself, but in this activity of man upon the world that one finds the truly sublime. “Sublimity, therefore,” he writes a bit later, “does not reside in any of the things of nature, but only in our own mind, in so far as we may become conscious of our superiority over nature within, and thus also over nature without us (as exerting influence upon us).” And it is the artist who allows us to realize and to exercise our dominion over nature through his creative endeavors. Yet again, we see that creation is  καλόν before man’s creative cooperation with God and dominion over the world, but can only be καλὰ λίαν—to be identified with the sublime—with man’s active, imaginative participation.

What Kant refers to as the sublime, Richard Wagner describes as “Das Wunder,” or wonder, in his Opera and Drama. “The poet,” he writes, “must . . . take the phenomena of Life and compress them from their viewless many-member-edness into a compact, easily surveyable shape.” Each facet of the cosmos is, after all, individually καλόν, but only collectively, only when viewed as a whole, and only when viewed after the introduction of the human element, καλὰ λίαν. The poet or the artist must take up the various individually καλόν elements and bring them into such an intelligible and orderly unity that they become καλὰ λίαν as a complete composite. “In virtue of this Wonder,” says Wagner, “the poet is able to display the most measureless conjunctures in an all-intelligible unity.” Like the primeval gardner, the poet makes sense of the created order by endowing it with a humanly orderliness. “The poetic daring,” he continues, “which gathers Nature’s utterances into such an image, can first for us be crowned with due success, precisely because through Experience we have gained a clear insight into Nature’s essence.”

Wagner is quick to point out, however, that this “insight into Nature’s essence” gained through poetry is not the mere building up of systems of doctrine and dogma. “Now, for the operation of its message, the poetising intellect has absolutely no concern with Faith, but only with an understanding through the Feeling,” he writes. Writing of T. S. Eliot, Russell Kirk offers an assessment of the relationship between Eliot’s poetry and Eliot’s faith that provides illumination for Wagner’s claim. “One does not look to Eliot—or to Dante, or to Shakespeare—for irrefragable demonstration of dogma or for an ingenious philosophical system,” writes Kirk. He concludes, “All that poetry of Eliot’s kind can attain is to express one man’s understanding through emotion.” The poet is able to distill and to crystallize experience and emotion. The poet and the artist do not concoct grand theories to explain phenomena; rather, they are able to bring the shared phenomena of human existence to greater clarity and depth.

W. F. Hegel, in his Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, similarly finds that “the universal need for expression in art lies . . . in man’s rational impulse to exalt the inner and outer world into a spiritual consciousness for himself, as an object in which he recognizes his own self.” It is the task of the artist, then, to take up the material provided by nature, both the nature internal to man and the nature external to man, and to transform this nature into something intelligible by man because it is, in part, a product of man. The first man’s act of naming the animals, for example, allowed him to make these animals into something intelligible to him by creatively endowing them with some piece of himself through the names by which he calls them. He did not, notably, create a system of classification for the animal world as a whole. Rather, he knew them each individually and experientially rather than systematically and theoretically.

This provides a line of demarcation by which the artist may be measured against the artisan, or, for that matter, the scientist. While the artisan and the scientist deal in similar matter, they do so for quite different purposes. It is not the prerogative of the artist to systematically explore and classify the material world, as it is for the scientist, for example; the prerogative of the artist, instead, is to reveal and renew that material world. The job of the scientist, in short, is to explain, while the job of the artist is to appreciate. Each of these methods leads to understanding, though of different sorts.

The artisan is closer to the artist in that he works to shape the materials of the natural world into an aesthetically pleasing shape. What is lacking, however, is the component of creativity. The difference here is like the difference between the first, prelapsarian vocation of the primeval man and the second, given as part of the curse following the Fall. While he was at first a gardner, placed in “Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15), he became a farmer. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” says God to Adam, “in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen 3:17–19). While the gardner and the farmer both work in the same material of soil, water, plants, and sunshine, the two perform their respective works for divergent reasons. The gardner will “work” and “keep” the earth; he performs his work as a creative participation with nature. By bringing into it human orderliness, he beautifies the natural landscape, and through human creativity he assists the natural process. The farmer, on the other hand, toils that “by the sweat of [his] face [he] shall eat bread.” While he must cooperate with nature, he does so in order to grow the food necessary to survival. Farming, like the work of the artisan, is a necessity. It is what must be done for survival. Gardening, like the work of the artist, is a superfluity performed out of an innate need in man to bring order and to create, but not out of material necessity. It is always one feature of any garden that it is beautiful. It is possible for a garden to consistent entirely of flowers and other plants that will never be eaten but only gazed upon with an admiring eye. The same is not true of the farmer’s field. The field is rarely beautiful and, when it is, the beauty is at best an incidental byproduct of the similarity of the farmer’s vocation to that of the gardner. The intent of great stretches of straight rows of cornstalks is always that they be harvested and consumed, never that they be gazed upon, never that they be admired. The farmer and the artisan may occasionally, and typically accidently, make something καλόν, but only the work of the gardner and the work of the artist can be declared in truth καλὰ λίαν.

The Silver Age of Russian Culture

The Silver Age of Russian culture during the first two decades of the twentieth century, roughly from 1898 to 1918, was a period simultaneously marked by a burst of creativity and a foreboding pessimism. This dichotomy and the general diversity of the era make it a difficult time to accurately summarize. Russian artists, composers, poets, authors, and other cultural figures of the Silver Age exhibited “aestheticism, mysticism, decadence, sensualism, idealism, and pessimism,” as well as a “sense of uncertainty and disintegration, of deep skepticism about all received truths and certainties, and a pessimistic foreboding … though also hopeful anticipation.”1 In short, there is no easy way to describe the full range of Russian culture during the Silver Age.

The beginning of the Silver Age of Russian culture is generally identified with the publication of the periodical Mir iskusstva, or The World of Art, by Sergei Diaghilev and Alexander Benois in 1898. The periodical, published bimonthly for its first two years and monthly after 1900, was intended “to lead its Russian readers away from Realism … and to introduce them to the freer styles that were flourishing throughout Europe.”2 Diaghilev and Benois saw Russian art of the late nineteenth century as stagnant and overly focused on the concrete. Through The World of Art, they attempted to expose Russian audiences to the art then popular in Western Europe and elsewhere throughout the world, which tended toward the abstract and the innovative. Their hope was that this exposure to new forms of art would act as an impetus for Russians to take up these new styles themselves. Their hopes quickly came to fruition.

“What followed was a cultural explosion,” according to historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg: “almost overnight there sprung up in Russia a rich variety of literary and artistic creeds, circles, and movements.”3 While a variety of young artists took up the call put out by Diaghilev and Benois, outstanding figures in the visual arts of this period include, for instance, Mark Chagall and Kazimir Malevich. Chagall pioneered a new form of painting that avoided the extremes of either realism or complete abstraction. According to James Johnson Sweeney, an expert in modern art, “this is Chagall’s contribution to contemporary art: the reawakening of a poetry of representation, avoiding factual illustration on the one hand, and non-figurative abstractions on the other.”4 His unique style was a significant influence on surrealism.

Kazimir Malevich, meanwhile, established the foundations for a new style of art he referred to as “Suprematism.” In contrast to other, more representational artistic styles, Suprematism embraced the abstract and instead focused on basic geometric shapes like circles and squares. Perhaps the most well-known exhibition of Suprematist art was Malevich’s 1915 exhibition in Moscow, which he titled “0.10: The Last Futurist Painting Exhibition.” The most remarkable feature of the exhibit, which included a number of Suprematist paintings, was the placement of the Black Square, a solid black square on white canvas, in the icon corner, the place where Eastern Orthodox icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other important religious figures would traditionally be placed in a Russian home. Though initially “most reviewers voiced incomprehension and even scorn in viewing these experiments in abstraction as a new way of seeing,”5 and even Malevich’s friend and coworker Vladimir Tatlin broke with him over the exhibit, Malevich and his Suprematist school continue, like Chagall, to exert a considerable influence on artists even today. In addition to his influence, his popularity has also continued to increase; one of his paintings, Suprematist Composition, painted in 1916, sold for $60,002,500 at Sotheby’s in 2008.6

Closely connected to the new movements in art were the new movements in musical composition and performance; Malevich, for instance, designed the set for the 1913 Russian Futurist opera Victory over the Sun. In addition to this connection between artists and composers, many of the same themes and styles predominated in Russian music, which tended to focus on “the lyrical and elegaic to the mystical, Dionysian, and even apocalyptic.”7 The composers Sergei Rachmaninov and Alexander Scriabin represent two of the extremes of Russian musical culture in the Silver Age.

In the words of Riasanovsky and Steinberg, “Rachmaninov’s work exudes gentle and lyrical spirituality, aestheticism, melancholy, and fatalism.”8 His two most important choral works, for instance, are both settings for services of the Orthodox Church, one for the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1910) and the other for the All-Night Vigil (1915). Ivan Moody, a modern British composer whose work is also deeply influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church’s liturgical traditions, has written of Rachmaninov’s setting for the Liturgy that “musically, the Liturgy today seems steeped in the spirit of archaic chant inflections, however modern it may have seemed at the time of its composition.”9 This ability to combine the ancient and the modern into a single cohesive whole characterizes the greater part of Rachmaninov’s works.

Alexander Scriabin, in contrast, was primarily “influenced by an eclectic mixture of Chopin, Wagner, Nietzsche, symbolism, and religious mysticism” in the form of the Theosophical occultism advocated by Helena Blavatsky; as a result, his work “offers a mix of Dionysian emotions, mystical spirituality, and pure sound.”10 His Poem of Ecstasy (1908) and Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910), for example, both revel in the sensuality, emotion, and individualism which Rachmaninov’s compositions sought to transcend.

In spite of the differences between the two composers, however, Rachmaninov and Scriabin retain a number of similarities. Their compositions both draw and build upon previous Russian music and contain a great number of religious, especially mystical, undertones and philosophical influences. In this, they are both examples of the musical currents in Russia during the Silver Age.

Like music, poetry remained an important conduit for self-expression during the Silver Age, just as it had during earlier periods of Russian history. However, also like music, poetry took on a distinctly different flavor during the Silver Age. The poetry of the acmeist school, which favored a principled clarity, simplicity, and personal theme to poetry, for instance, focused on subjects such as “love, beauty, and sadness.”11 The first published work of Anna Akhmatova, one of the most preeminent of the acmeist poets, for example, “reads like an intimate diary of a woman in love.”12 Consonant with the acmeist focus on simplicity and individuality, “Akhmatova speaks about simple earthly happiness and about simple intimate and personal sorrow.”13 Like Russian music of the Silver Age, and in great contradistinction to earlier ages, poetry of the period reveled in the sentimental, the emotional, the sensual, and above all else the personal.

Though each of the great figures of the Silver Age of Russian culture is unique in a variety of ways and different from his or her contemporaries in style, approach, and interest, there are a number of features which bind all of the great artists, poets, composers, and other cultural creators of the Silver Age together and which allow them to constitute a single and important age in Russian culture. The Russian cultural Silver Age is characterized by both a radical departure from previous currents in Russian culture and a remarkable continuity with previous themes. The Silver Age perhaps stands out most especially for the vibrant creative spirit that ran throughout the arts and for the focus on intimacy, personality, and the individual. When the Silver Age finally ended with the rise of the Bolsheviks to power in 1918, a period of great cultural growth and exploration closed on a terrible note that, with its consistent undertones of foreboding, it perhaps expected all along.

Notes
1 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 450.

2 Michelle Potter, “Mir iskusstva: Serge Diaghilev’s Art Journal,” National Library of Australia News Vol. 15 No. 10 (July 2005): 4, accessed 11 March 2012, http://www.nla.gov.au/pub/nlanews/2005/jul05/

3 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 450.

4 James Johnson Sweeney, Marc Chagall (Manchester: Ayer Publishing, 1969), 7.

5 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 456.

6 Sotheby’s 2008 Financial Highlights ~ Sales of $5.3 Billion in a Down Year,” Art Knowledge News, accessed 11 March 2012, http://www.artknowledgenews.com/Sothebys_2008_Financial_Highlights.html

7 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 453.

8 Ibid., 454.

9 Ivan Moody, “Rachmaninov: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom,” Hyperion Records, accessed 11 March 2012, http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/al.asp?al=CDH55318

10 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 454.

11 Ibid., 451.

12 Leonid I. Strakhovsky, “Anna Akhmatova—Poetess of Tragic Love,” American Slavic and Eastern European Review Vol. 6 No. 1/2 (May, 1947): 2.

13 Ibid.
References
 
Moody, Ivan. “Rachmaninov: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.” Hyperion Records. Accessed 11 March 2012. http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/al.asp?al=CDH55318
Potter, Michelle. “Mir iskusstva: Serge Diaghilev’s Art Journal.” National Library of Australia News Volume 15 Number 10 (July 2005): 3-6. Accessed 11 March 2012. http://www.nla.gov.au/pub/nlanews/2005/jul05/
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Sotheby’s 2008 Financial Highlights ~ Sales of $5.3 Billion in a Down Year.” Art Knowledge News. Accessed 11 March 2012. http://www.artknowledgenews.com/Sothebys_2008_Financial_Highlights.html
Strakhovsky, Leonid I. “Anna Akhmatova—Poetess of Tragic Love.” American Slavic and Eastern European Review Volume 6 Number 1/2 (May, 1947): 1-18.
Sweeney, James Johnson. Marc Chagall. Manchester: Ayer Publishing, 1969.