Written by Vladimir Moss


     To those who, like the present writer, have derived such pleasure and benefit from the great classics of world art and literature, such as Bach and Beethoven, Rembrandt, Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, it would seem obvious that art, and the artistic faculty, are implanted in man by God to bring him closer to Himself. At the same time, it is no less evident that the great mass of contemporary “culture” not only does not bring anyone closer to God, but is in fact an instrument – a very powerful instrument - of the devil. How are to understand these antipodes of the artistic spirit? Under what conditions does art ascend to God, and – descend to the devil? How, and to what extent, can a Christian take part in the cultural life of his age?

Man the Artist

     God reveals Himself first of all as the Creator – in the words of the Symbol of faith, the “Maker” or “Poet” (PoihthV) of all things visible and invisible. In a sense, therefore, man, as being in the image of God, is also a poet, a creator – not as an incidental or minor aspect of his being, not as a mere “talent”, but essentially, by virtue of the image of God that is in him. And he makes things both visible and invisible. The visible things are the works of his own hands, and his own visible actions. The invisible things are his inner thoughts and feelings. His aim is to bring all that is his, visible and invisible, into one harmonious whole which will be a beautiful likeness of his Creator. It is, with the help of God, to make himself into what the Russians call a prepodobnij, a being “very like” his Creator – in other words, a saint. Thus man is a work of art created by God in order to mirror Himself - but with this difference from “ordinary” art, that the Artist has given to His creature a share in that artistic work, enabling him to correct the faults that the fall has introduced into it, to shape himself into a truly beautiful likeness of God.

     Image and likeness are not identical, according to the Holy Fathers. The image of God, according to Christian thought, is man's rationality and freewill, which is made in the image of God's absolute Reason and Freedom. The likeness of God is the virtuous life, which makes us like God in His perfect Goodness. We all have the image of God - that is, we are all free and rational; but sin has destroyed the likeness of God in us. The aim of the Christian life, therefore, is to restore the original likeness. This process of restoring the likeness is compared to a painter's restoration of an old portrait whose original features have become overlaid by dirt. As St. Gregory of Nyssa writes: "Just as painters transfer human forms to their pictures by means of certain colours, laying on their copy the proper and corresponding tints, so that the beauty of the original may be accurately transferred to the likeness, so… also our Maker also, painting the portrait to resemble His own beauty, by the addition of virtues, as it were with colours shows in us His own sovereignty."

     That is why prayer, the Christian's main path to Godlikeness, is called "the science of sciences and art of arts". For, as Colliander writes, "the artist works in clay or colours, in words or tones; according to his ability he gives them pregnancy and beauty. The working material of the praying person is living humanity. By his prayer he shapes it, gives it pregnancy and beauty: first himself and thereby many others."

      Artists themselves have often sensed this truth. Thus when W.B. Yeats wrote, in Sailing to Byzantium:

Gather my soul

Into the artifice of eternity, 

the word “artifice” was highly appropriate, insofar as the poet was hoping that his soul would be worked upon by God in such a way as to make a truly artistic offering, fit for entrance into eternity, somewhat like a Byzantine icon...

      The Russian philosopher S. L. Frank writes: “Man is in one respect a creature in exactly the same sense as the rest of the world: as a purely natural being, he is part of the cosmos, a part of organic nature; in man’s inner life this fact finds expression in the domain of involuntary mental processes, strivings and appetites, and in the blind interplay of elemental forces. But as a personality, as a spiritual being and ‘an image of God’ man differs from all other creatures. While all other creatures are expressions and embodiments of God’s particular creative ideas, man is a creature in and through which God seeks to express His own nature as spirit, personality and holiness. An analogy with human artistic creativeness will make the point clearer.

     “In poetry (and to some extent, by analogy, in other arts) we distinguish between epic and lyric works, between the artist’s intention to embody some idea referring to the objective content of being, and his intention to express his own self, to tell of his own inner world, and as it were to make his confession. The difference, of course, is merely relative. The poet’s creative personality involuntarily makes itself felt in the style of an ‘objective’ epic; on the other hand, a lyric outpouring is not simply a revelation of the poet’s inner life as it actually is, but an artistic transfiguration of it, and therefore inevitably contains an element of ‘objectivisation’. With this proviso, however, the difference between the two kinds of poetry holds good.

      “Using this analogy we may say that man is, as it were, God’s ‘lyric’ creation in which He wants ‘to express’ Himself, while the rest of creation, though involuntarily bearing the impress of its Creator, is the expression of God’s special ‘objective’ ideas, of His creative will to produce entities other than Himself. The fundamental point of difference is the presence or absence of the personal principle with all that it involves, i.e. self-consciousness, autonomy, and the power of controlling and directing one’s actions in accordance with the supreme principle of the Good or Holiness…”

      Man as a work of art is like an unfinished symphony. All the essential elements or content are there, implanted by God at conception; but the development and elucidation of that content into a perfect form remains incomplete – and God calls on us to complete it. Without that development and completion man is a still-born embryo. But man the artist works on this unfinished material and brings it to perfection, to a true likeness of God, “unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4.13). Thus man as artist works on himself as work of art in order to reveal the harmony latent in God’s original design.


The Motives of the Artist

     Why do artists create? There are broadly three answers to this question: the classical, the romantic and the pornographic. The classical answer is: “to create a thing of beauty” – and, if the artist is religious, he will add: “to the glory of God” (with which words Haydn ended all his works). The romantic answer is: “to express myself”. He is not likely add: “to the glory of God”, because it is not at all obvious, -whether he is religious or not, - how expressing himself will contribute to the glory of God. The pornographic “artist” works for commercial gain, and nothing else. His aim is neither to create a work of beauty, nor to express himself, but to elicit certain reactions in his clientèle – reactions for which they are prepared to pay him.

     The classical artist is the least self-centred, the least influenced by fallen emotions and purposes, and the most open to the workings of grace; which is why the works of classical artists such as Bach and Handel were recommended by the Optina fathers for people living in the world. It is a different matter with what we may loosely call “the romantic artist”. The question arises: is the romantic artist condemned to express only his own fallen self or the demonic forces that express themselves in his fallen nature? Regrettably, the answer must be: yes, to the extent that he subscribes to the romantic ideology of self-expression. After all, "a fool has no delight in understanding, but in expressing his own heart" (Proverbs 18:2) - the romantic artist is concerned above all to “express his own heart”. Some romantic artists, such as the late Beethoven or Bruckner, were able to “classicise” their work, making it capable of glorifying God and not the artist himself; but they were exceptions. For if the artist is honestly expressing his own nature, since that nature is fallen, he will undoubtedly be expressing its fallenness. As Metropolitan Anastasy (Gribanovsky) of New York writes: “If you want to look deeper into the soul of this or that writer, read his works more attentively. In them, as in a mirror, is clearly reflected his own spiritual character. He almost always creates his heroes according to his own image and likeness, often putting into their mouths the confession of his heart.” But since even the best impulses of the fallen man are more or less corrupted, such corruption cannot fail to be perceived by the sensitive listener, viewer or reader.

      That is why romantic art is so much better at expressing evil in all its forms than good. “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh” – and the heart is corrupt in man from his youth, being “deceitful above all things”. As Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov wrote, speaking of the romantic artists of his day: “People who are endowed with talent by nature do not understand why they have been given this gift, and there is nobody who can explain this to them. Evil in nature, and especially in man, is so masked that the morbid enjoyment of it entices the young man, and with the whole warmth of his heart he gives himself to lies hidden by a mask of truth… Most talents have striven to represent human passions extravagantly. Evil in every possible variation is represented by singers, by painters, by music. Human talent in all its power and unfortunate beauty has developed in the representation of evil; in the representation of good it is generally weak, pale, strained…"

     Nevertheless, the exact expression of one’s inner life has a moral value in itself, because it is telling the truth about oneself. Moreover, the process of expressing an emotion in art changes it, “objectivising” and in a sense transfiguring it. As A.N. Wilson said of the great novelist Leo Tolstoy, “it was only through the artifice of literature that he was able to comprehend or impose a shape on the inchoate business of existence… The intolerable chaos and agony of life, as well as its unmanageable pleasures and its fascinatingly irreversible history, can be mastered. Through the medium of prose fiction, it was possible to transform experience itself.”

      Truth is always to be honoured, even if it is, as it were, “lower-level truth”.

      Metropolitan Anastasy writes, “the word has its ethics: the latter demands that it be pure, honourable and chaste. Where this rule is not observed, where language is the plaything of passions or chance moods, where it is bought or sold or people simply lightmindedly take their pleasure in it, there begins the adultery of the word, that is, the betrayal of its direct and lofty purpose.” But where the rule is observed, it follows that the verbal expression even of one’s fallen emotions has value if it is done precisely and honestly, without any attempt to embellish or glorify them.

     For example: if I feel angry, and then write a poem about my anger, the process of trying to analyze and express my anger in words actually changes the nature of that anger, masters or controls it in a certain sense. As Shakespeare put it in Sonnet 77:

Look what thy memory cannot contain

Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find

Those children nurs'd, deliver'd from thy brain,

To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.

     In this sense the process of artistic creation is a little like the confession of sins. Only in confession we do not simply express or control our sins; confession is not just psychotherapy. We also sorrow over them and judge them in the sight of God, so that He may destroy them and therefore change the content of our souls.

     Thus one can create good, if not great art from base materials. By objectifying that baseness and conveying it exactly to his audience, the artist to a certain degree “takes the sting” out of the baseness. It is in this context that we can see how the imaginative faculty, which in the ascetic life is invariably associated with deception, can be used in the service of truth. Shakespeare described this process in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as follows:

The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

 Before the imagination has produced its work, the content of the artist’s mind is “unknown”. But as his work comes into being, so does the content of his mind become known to him; now it has “shape”, “a local habitation and a name”. Thus by giving an objective, sensory correlate to his emotions, the artist is enabled to know them and judge them… This is the paradox of good art, that in creating images that do not exist in nature it puts up “a mirror to nature”, in Hamlet’s words. But such good, truthful art can become great only if the fallen content of the art is not only accurately expressed but also correct judged, so that a revulsion from it and a striving for something higher is also conveyed to the listener. If that is achieved, then the material is no longer base and the work becomes like David’s 50th Psalm - not merely the expression of emotion, not even psychotherapy, but confession and repentance.

     An example of art that is striving towards confession and repentance, but does not quite reach this goal, is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144:

Two loves I have, of comfort and despair,

Which like two angels do suggest me still;

The better angel is a man right fair,

The worser spirit a woman colour'd ill.

To win me soon to hell, my female evil

Tempteth my better angel from my side,

And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,

Wooing his purity with her foul pride.

And whether that my angel be turn'd fiend,

Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;

But being both from me, both to each friend,

I guess one angel in another's hell.

Yet this shall I ne'er know, but live in doubt,

Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

The artist is here struggling to evaluate his feelings for two people. He recognizes the fallenness of his emotions, and theirs, which is why he describes them in terms of angels and demons, purity and pride. And yet he fails to evaluate precisely what is going on, and so the sonnet suffers from obscurity. It is obscure to him, and therefore also to us. Fallen passion has not yet been mastered sufficiently to produce great art.

     The true artist seeks the truth about himself. He is like Sophocles’ Oedipus:

Born as I am, I shall be none other than

I am, and I shall know me who I am.

 However, in seeking the truth about himself, the true artist will inevitably, again like Oedipus, come up, not only with truths about himself that are deeply disturbing, but also with the higher powers that rule his nature and destiny. In other words, artistic truth, consistently pursued, leads to religious truth. “In the soul of the artist,” says St. Barsanuphius of Optina, “there is always a streak of monasticism, and the more lofty the artist, the more brightly that fire of religious mysticism burns in him”.

      We see this progression in several of the greatest artists. Thus Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, is also his most religious, in which he seeks to “drown” his “so potent art”, in the far subtler, deeper and more lawful art of the Creator:

             But this rough magic

I here abjure; and, when I have required

Some heavenly music (which even now I do),

To work mine end upon their senses, that

This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,

And, deeper than did ever plummet sound,

I’ll drown the book.

 And the very last words he wrote before his voluntary retirement were words on the ultimate impotence of “pure” art, and the need for God’s mercy:

Now I want

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;

And my ending is despair,

Unless I be relieved by prayer,

Which pierces so, that it assaults

Mercy itself, and frees all faults.

As you from crimes would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free.

     Another example of successful self-expression is St. Augustine’s Confessions. And yet the very rarity of successful “confessions” of this kind demonstrates the difficulties and dangers of the genre. So deeply is man attracted even to the sin that his mind condemns, that the confession of another’s sin in public, however honestly dissected and condemned, may give a certain “glamour” to the sin for some of his listeners. Thus when St. Augustine described his sexual falls, and then his famous prayer: “Lord, make me chaste – but not just yet”, we may be tempted to sympathize with him in his fall - and perhaps even applaud his prayer… For, as Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov writes, “a pastor who gives his most intimate to this flock, who opens his heart and offers to them his confession is playing a dangerous game with a double-edged sword: he will either be trampled into the dirt at the doorstep of his cathedral, or he will be admired and hallowed… Could it be that St. Augustine’s tragedy is that the generations of Western Christians that followed him mistook some of the symptoms of his illness for stages of spiritual ascension?”


The Case of Gogol

      St. Nectarius of Optina said that, in addition to ordinary art, "there is also greater art - the word of life and death (the Psalms of David, for example). But the way to this art lies in the personal struggle of the artist. This is the path of sacrifice, and only one out of many thousands reach the goal.”

      One of those few was the poet Alexander Pushkin. In his later years, under the influence of such men as Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow and Tsar Nicholas I, he came closer to the Orthodox Faith, with the result that both his poetry and his ideal of art became deeper.

      Ivan Andreyev writes: “The essence of the ‘theory’ of Pushkin and Zhukovsky (it was not formally clothed into a system, but practically and unerringly carried forward in life and creativity) consisted in the following. The poet had to be completely free in the process of his creativity. No social or moral or even religious ‘orders’ could be presented to him. But the poet as a person had spiritually to grow without ceasing, that is, become perfect in a religio-moral sense, remembering the ideal of Christian morality: ‘Be ye perfect, even as your Heavenly Father is perfect’. And if he were to grow himself, his creativity would grow with him.”

     A still more instructive example is that of the novelist Nikolai Gogol. During the last part of his life, under the influence of the Rzhev Protopriest Fr. Matthew Konstantinovsky, then Elder Macarius of Optina and towards the end also of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, he gradually turned away from writing altogether and even burned his best work.

      Many blame Fr. Matthew for this. He is reported to have said: “Artistic talent is a gift of God…. True, I advised [Gogol] to write something about good people, that is, to depict people of positive types, not negative ones.”

      Some churchmen did not share the ascetic approach to art of Gogol and his mentors. Thus Archimandrite Feodor (Bukharev), as Robert Bird writes, “in his famous ‘Letters to Gogol’ elaborated a markedly different approach to the religious significance of artistic creativity. Archimandrite Feodor regretted the way that Gogol, who had once ‘unconsciously’ followed Christ in his ‘powerful and free creative work’, had fallen under the influence of the ‘slavish fearfulness and mercilessness’ of Father Matvei Konstantinovsky, who rejected everything that ‘did not openly bear the imprint of Christ’. Writing of his own appreciation of the irreligious Belinsky, Archimandrite Feodor wrote: ‘He gave to these texts his own thought, and I understood them in the proper way, and in accordance with this I understood his entire discourse. And therefore it turned out that, by following the system of his thoughts, which distorted Christ’s truth, I in my own mind developed a living system of Christ’s truth itself.’ Summing up this hermeneutic model, Archimandrite Feodor noted that he ‘no longer stopped at the mere letter of the texts which are studied in theological scholarship,’ but rather sought to engage their theological spirit in dialogue with non-religious authors. From this general premise Bukharev concluded that any genuine literary or intellectual work can inspire a Christian: ‘another tendency of thought and discourse, without explicitly recognizing Christ as its leading principle, nonetheless can be under His invisible leadership and be led by Him to be of direct use to faith and love for Christ’s truth.’ Significantly, Archimandrite Feodor’s work was not approved for publication by Metropolitan Philaret. Philaret alleged that Bukharev saw the mere ‘flickering of the light’.”

      Gogol came to believe that his work would be harmful because of the imperfection of its creator; as he put it, “One should not write about a holy shrine without first having consecrated one’s soul”; and in 1845 he burned the second half of his masterpiece, Dead Souls. But he could not keep away from writing, which was his life, and in 1851 he began again the second part of Dead Souls, which was highly praised by those friends to whom he read it…

      However, on the night of 11th to 12th February, 1852, he burned the manuscript of the second part of Dead Souls for the second time. Then he made the sign of the cross, lay down on the sofa and wept… The next day he wrote to Count A.N. Tolstoy: “Imagine, how powerful the evil spirit is! I wanted to burn some papers which had already long ago been marked out for that, but I burned the chapters of Dead Souls which I wanted to leave to my friends as a keepsake after my death.”

      “What were the true motives,” asks Andreev, “for the burning of the completed work which Gogol had carefully kept, accurately putting together the written notebooks and lovingly rebinding them with ribbon? Why did Gogol burn this work, with which he was himself satisfied, and which received an objective and very high evaluation from very competent people who had great artistic taste? Let us try to answer this complex and difficult question.

      “In his fourth letter with regard to Dead Souls, which was dated ‘1846’ and published in his Correspondence, Gogol gives an explanation why he for the first time (in 1845) burned the chapters of the second part of his poem that he had written.

    “’The second volume of Dead Souls was burned because it was necessary. ‘That will not come alive again which does not die’, says the Apostle. It is necessary first of all to die in order to rise again. It was not easy to burn the work of five years, which had been produced with some painful tension, in which every line was obtained only with a shudder, in which there was much that constituted my best thoughts and occupied my soul. But all this was burned, and moreover at that moment when, seeing death before me, I very much wanted to leave at any rate something after me which would remind people of me. I thank God that He gave me strength to do this. Immediately the flame bore away the last pages of my book, its content was suddenly resurrected in a purified and radiant form, like a phoenix from the ashes, and I suddenly saw in what a mess was everything that I had previously considered to be in good order. The appearance of the second volume in that form in which it was would have been harmful rather than useful.’… ‘I was not born in order to create an epoch in the sphere of literature. My work is simpler and closer: my work is that about which every person must think first of all, and not only I. My work is my soul and the firm work of life.’…

      “Such was the motivation for the first burning of Dead Souls in 1845.

     “But this motivation also lay at the root of the second burning of the already completed work – but now much deeper, depending on the spiritual growth of Gogol.

      “In his Confession of an Author written after Correspondence, Gogol for the first time serious began to speak about the possibility of rejecting his writer’s path in the name of a higher exploit. With striking sincerity he writes (how much it would have cost him!): ‘It was probably harder for me than for anybody else to reject writing, for this constituted the single object of all my thoughts, I had abandoned everything else, all the best enticements of life, and, like a monk, had broken my ties with everything that is dear to man on earth, in order to think of nothing except my work. It was not easy for me to renounce writing: some of the best minutes in my life were those when I finally put on paper that which had been flying around for a long time in my thoughts; when I am certain to this day that almost the highest of all pleasures is the pleasure of creation. But, I repeat again, as an honourable man, I would have to lay down my pen even then, if I felt the impulse to do so.

     “I don’t know whether I have had enough honour to do it, if I were not deprived of the ability to write: because – I say this sincerely – life would then have lost for me all value, and not to write for me would have meant precisely the same as not to live. But there are no deprivations that are not followed by the sending of a substitute to us, as a witness to the fact that the Creator does not leave man even for the smallest moment.’…

     “Three weeks before his death Gogol wrote to his friend Zhukovsky: ‘Pray for me, that my work may be truly virtuous and that I may be counted worthy, albeit to some degree, to sing a hymn to the heavenly Beauty’. The heavenly Beauty cannot be compared with earthly beauty and is inexpressible in earthly words. That is why ‘silence is the mystery of the age to come’.

      “Before his death Gogol understood this to the end: he burned what he had written and fell silent, and then died.”

      St. Barsanuphius of Optina described Gogol’s motivation as follows: “Gogol wanted to depict Russian life in all of its multifaceted fullness. With this goal he began his poem, Dead Souls, and wrote the first part. We know in what light Russian life was reflected: the Plyushkins, the Sobakevitches, the Nosdrevs and the Chichikovs; the whole book constitutes a stifling and dark cellar of commonness and baseness of interests. Gogol himself was frightened at what he had written, but consoled himself that this was only scum, only foam, which he had taken from the waves of the sea of life. He hoped that in the second volume he would succeed in portraying a Russian Orthodox man in all his beauty and all his purity.

      “How was he to do this? Gogol did not know. It was at about this time that his acquaintance with Elder Macarius [of Optina] took place. Gogol left Optina with a renewed soul, but he did not abandon the thought of writing the second volume of Dead Souls, and he worked on it.

      “Later, feeling that it was beyond his power to embody in images that Christian ideal which lived in his soul in all its fullness, he became disappointed with his work. And this is the reason for his burning of the second volume of Dead Souls…

      Shortly before he died, Gogol wrote: “My work is of such a kind that without the obvious help of God every minute and every hour, my pen cannot move. My power is not only minimal but it does not even exist without refreshment from Above…”


The Inspiration of the Artist: (1) The Demonic

      So is an artist unable to depict any but dead souls, until his own soul has come to life under the influence of grace? And does the artist, if he is fully consistent in the pursuit of his calling, inevitably end up in a monastery? Before inquiring into these questions, it is necessary to inquire more deeply into the inspiration of the artist.

      It has been the conviction of artists since earliest times that in creating their works they are not merely expressing themselves, but are under the influence of some super-human “muse”. “People often try,” writes Metropolitan Anastasy, “to approximate genius to holiness as ‘two phenomena’ which, in the words of one thinker, ‘go beyond the bounds of the canonical norms of culture’. The kinship between them is based on the fact that the genius is usually given wings by inspiration that Plato called ‘divine’: this is the true breathing of the Divinity in man, which distributes its gifts to each, where and to the degree that it wants. The ancient pagan philosophers, poets and artists, beginning with Socrates and Phidias, vividly felt within themselves the presence of this or that higher power overshadowing them during the time of their creativity. Not in vain did the latter fall face down before one of his best compositions in reverent emotion. The same feeling was given also to other highly gifted people in recent times.”

      Even the chess genius Emmanuel Lasker felt this beauty akin to divinity. As another genius, Albert Einstein, put it in his foreword to Hannak’s biography of Lasker: “What he really yearned for was some scientific understanding and that beauty peculiar to the process of logical creation, a beauty from whose magic spell no one can escape who has ever felt even its slightest influence…”

      At the same time it must not be forgotten that the “divinity” involved may be evil as well as good. Therefore the following words of the Moscow Patriarchal theologian Igumen Ioann (Ekonomtsev) must be taken with a great deal of caution: “Creativity in essence… is our likeness… to God”. He calls on us to reject our superstitious fear of the possibly demonic nature of creativity, for “true creation is always from God, even if the author himself does not recognize this and even if we are times find it seductive and dishonourable… The condition of creative ecstasy is a condition of deification, and in this state it is no longer man who creates, but the God-man”.

      Ekonomtsev is here reiterating the false “dogma” of the Romantic era – the moral superiority of the artist. Imagination for the Romantics was much more than the ability to fantasise, as Jacques Barzun writes: “Out of the known or knowable, Imagination connects the remote, interprets the familiar, or discovers hidden realities. Being a means of discovery, it must be called ‘Imagination of the real’. Scientific hypotheses perform that same office; they are products of imagination.

      “This view of the matter explains why to the Romanticists the arts no longer figured as a refined pleasure of the senses, an ornament of civilized existence, but as one form of the deepest possible reflection on life. Shelley, defending his art, declares poets to be the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’. The arts convey truths; they are imagination crystallized; and as they transport the soul they reshape the perceptions and possibly the life of the beholder. To perform this feat requires genius, because it is not a mechanical act. To be sure, all art makes use of conventions, but to obey traditional rules and follow set patterns will not achieve that fusion of idea and form which is properly creation. It was Romanticist discussion that made the word creation regularly apply to works of art…

      “Those Romanticist words, recharged with meaning, helped to establish the religion of art. That faith served those who could and those could not partake of the revived creeds. To call the passion for art a religion is not a figure of speech or a way of praise. Since the beginning of the 19C, art has been defined again and again by its devotees as ‘the highest spiritual expression of man’. The dictum leaves no room for anything higher and this highest level is that which, for other human beings, is occupied by religion. To 19C worshippers the arts form a treasury of revelations, a body of scriptures, the makers of this spiritual testament are prophets and seers. And to this day the fortunate among them are treated as demigods…”

      The word “creation” was understood by the Romantics almost literally, as creation ex nihilo. Thus art for the Romantics was not only a path to truth: it created truth. Thus, as Sir Isaiah Berlin writes, “whatever the differences between the leading romantic thinkers – the early Schiller and the later Fichte, Schelling and Jacobi, Tieck and the Schlegels when they were young, Chateaubriand and Byron, Coleridge and Carlyle, Kierkegaard, Stirner, Nietzsche, Baudelaire – there runs through their writings a common notion, held with varying degrees of consciousness and depth, that truth is not an objective structure, independent of those who seek it, the hidden treasure waiting to be found, but is itself in all its guises created by the seeker. It is not to be brought into being necessarily by the finite individual: according to some it is created by a greater power, a universal spirit, personal or impersonal, in which the individual is an element, or of which he is an aspect, an emanation, an imperfect reflection. But the common assumption of the romantics runs counter to the philosophia perennis in that the answers to the great questions are not to be discovered so much as to be invented. They are not something found, they are something literally made. In its extreme Idealistic form it is a vision of the entire world. In its more familiar conduct – aesthetics, religious, social, moral, political – a realm seen not as a natural or supernatural order capable of being investigated, described and explained by the appropriate method – rational examination or some more mysterious procedure – but as something that man creates, as he creates works of art; not by imitating, or even obtaining illumination from, pre-existent models or truths, or by applying pre-existent truths that are objective universal, eternal unalterable; but by an act of creation, the introduction into the world of something literally novel – the unique expression of an individual and therefore unique creative activity, natural or supernatural, human or in part divine, owing nothing to anything outside it (in some versions because nothing can be conceived as being outside it), self-subsistent, self-justified, self-fulfilling. Hence that new emphasis on the subjective and ideal rather than the objective and the real, on the process of creation rather than its effects, on motives rather than consequences; and, as a necessary corollary of this, on the quality of the vision, the state of mind or soul of the acting agent – purity of heart, innocence of intention, sincerity of purpose rather than getting the answer right, that is, accurate correspondence to the ‘given’. Hence the emphasis on activity, movement that cannot be reduced to static segments, the flow that cannot be arrested, frozen, analysed without being thereby fatally distorted; hence the constant protest against the reduction of ‘life’ to dead fragments, of organism to ‘mere’ mechanical or uniform units; and the corresponding tendency towards similes and metaphors drawn from ‘dynamic’ sciences – biology, physiology, introspective psychology – and the worship of music, which, of all the arts, appears to have the least relation to universally observable, uniform natural order. Hence, too, celebration of all forms of defiance directed against the ‘given’ – the impersonal, the ‘brute fact’ in morals or in politics – or against the static and the accepted, and the value placed on minorities and martyrs as such, no matter what the ideal for which they suffer.”

     As Adam Zamoyski notes, this rebelliousness common to the revolution and romantic art brought them closer together. This was especially obvious during the “July Days” revolution in France in 1830. “’People and poets are marching together,’ wrote the French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve in 1830. ‘Art is henceforth on a popular footing, in the arena with the masses.’ There was something in this. Never before or since had poetry been so widely and so urgently read, so taken to heart and so closely studied for hidden meaning. And it was not only in search of aesthetic or emotional uplift that people did so, for the poet had assumed a new role over the past two decades. Art was no longer an amenity but a great truth that had to be revealed to mankind, and the artist was one who had been called to interpret this truth, a kind of seer. In Russia, Pushkin solemnly declared the poet’s status as a prophet uttering the burning words of truth. The American Ralph Waldo Emerson saw poets as ‘liberating gods’ because they had achieved freedom themselves, and could therefore free others. The pianist and composer Franz Liszt wanted to recapture the ‘political, philosophical and religious power’ that he believed music had in ancient times. William Blake claimed that Jesus and his disciples were all artists, and that he himself was following Jesus through his art. ‘God was, perhaps only the first poet of the universe,’ Théophile Gauthier reflected. By the 1820s artists regularly referred to their craft as a religion, and Victor Hugo represented himself alternately as Zoroaster, Moses and Christ, somewhere between prophet and God.”

      The close affinity of romantic art with the revolution permits us to speculate whether some of the more famous and powerful works of romantic art were actually inspired by the devil. For example, the operas of Wagner, or Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring are very fine music, the products of real genius - of that there can be no doubt. But they are extremely dangerous from a spiritual point of view. Speaking very schematically, we could say that Wagner’s Ring cycle is Nazism in music (which is why Hitler loved it so), just as The Rite of Spring is Bolshevism in music.

      The identification of art and demonism can be still closer. Thus the decadent artists of the Symbolist movement in Russia wanted to capture the Divinity in artistic symbols. For them, symbolism took the place of religion; it was a new kind of religion.

      “In the Symbolist aesthetic,” as J.W. Burrow writes, “the intense focusing on the thing taken as a symbol, the perception of its numinous aura, gave access to another, as it were, parallel, invisible world of light and ecstasy.”

      This “parallel, invisible world of light and ecstasy” was demonic. Thus the Symbolist painter Michael Vrubel achieved fame with a large mosaic-like canvas called “Seated Demon” (1890), and went mad while working on the sinister “Demon Downcast” (1902).

      Symbolist ideas are most vividly expressed in the music and thought of the composer Alexander Scriabin, who in his First Symphony praised art as a kind of religion. Le Divin Poème (1902-1904) sought to express the evolution of the human spirit from pantheism to unity with the universe. Poème de l'extase (1908) was accompanied by the elaborately selected colour projections on a screen. In Scriabin's synthetic performances music, poetry, dancing, colours, and scents were used so as to bring about supreme, final ecstasy. Similar ideas on the stage fusion of all arts were elaborated by the poet Andrej Bely and the painter Vassily Kandinsky. In 1909, after a spell in Paris with the impresario Diaghilev, Scriabin returned to Russia permanently, where he continued to compose, working on increasingly grandiose projects. For some time before his death he had planned a multi-media work to be performed in the Himalayas, that would bring about Armageddon, "a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald the birth of a new world."

      Another of Diaghilev’s composer-protégés, Sergei Prokofiev, was also influenced by Symbolism - and Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science. Among the propositions of his theory of creative action were: “1. I am the expression of Life, i.e. of divine activity. 2. I am the expression of spirit, which gives me power to resist what is unlike spirit… 9. I am the expression of perfection, and this leads me to the perfect use of my time…”

      These strivings for mangodhood – but in defiance of the God-Man - among Russia’s creative intelligentsia were associated by them with a revolutionary future that rejected the past more or less totally. Hence the brief fashion for the European movement of Futurism with its radical rejection of the past and all past and present ideas of what is beautiful and tasteful. In reality, however, these strivings were as unoriginal as the revolution itself proved to be, and were rather a sign that Russia’s future would consist, not in producing a radically new civilization, but in a catastrophic regression to her pre-Christian, pagan past.

     Much of modern pop music is satanic in origin. Fortunately, however, it is also bad art, so it has less influence on those who love good art - which is one very good reason for educating people in good art. However, bad art of this kind can still influence people at a subconscious level, because it introduces the demons. We are seeing terrifying examples of this in the West today.


     The children of an American missionary in Africa were once playing pop music with the window open. Soon the local witch doctor visited the missionary and asked him: "I did not know that you had renounced your God, Christ." "But I haven't." "But the music you are playing is the music we use to call up our gods..." The missionary immediately went and destroyed the records his children were playing…

      Sometimes even the most "spiritual" and classical of music can be corrupting. Let us take Mozart's Requiem. Everyone agrees that this is beautiful, profound music. But the emotion it conveys is that of a soul in despair, a soul facing death and hell - and Mozart died while composing it. We know that Mozart did not live a good life, and that his last opera, The Magic Flute, which was composed just before his Requiem, was actually a Masonic opera. So he had good reason to fear death and what awaited him after death. So the emotion is deep, and the expression of it perfect, as we would expect from such a master. But is it good for our souls to experience feelings of despair, even if they are artistically controlled and mastered?

      Sometimes even “Orthodox” music may fall short insofar as it elicits fallen emotions in the listener. Thus St. Barsanuphius of Optina said of one setting of the Paschal Canon of St. John of Damascus, “that kind of melody can evoke only tears of despair, rather than a joyful state. No, sing it the ancient way.”

      St. John of Kronstadt is well known for his rejection of the theatre. If we have such difficulty being ourselves, we should not encourage people trying to be someone else. And he advised testing the effect of every work of art on one’s spiritual life…

     As we have seen, art is good as art (if not in any other way) if it is the exact, truthful expression of the emotional contents of the artist's mind, whether the content itself is good or bad, profound or superficial. It is great if the expression, or form, is accurate, and the content is good rather than bad, profound rather than superficial. But there is also art that is bad as art in that it fails to express its content clearly. And there is art that is good as art but evil in every other way because its content is evil, and its inspiration – from the devil.


The Inspiration of the Artist: (2) The Divine

      The Holy Scriptures tell us that David was able to drive away the evil spirit from Saul by playing his harp (I Kings (I Samuel) 16.23). Again, when King Joaram of Israel, King Joasaphat of Judah and the king of Edom were undertaking a common expedition against the Moabites, they asked the Prophet Elisha to reveal to them the will of God concerning the outcome of the war. “Bring me a minstrel,” said the prophet. “And it came to pass that when the minstrel played, the hand of the Lord came upon him” (IV Kings (II Kings) 3.15). Again, “one of the greatest contemplative minds of Christianity, St. Gregory the Theologian, was at the same time a religious poet. His verses are mainly filled with a lyrical mood. ‘Exhausted by illness,’ he writes, ‘I found in poetry joy, like an old swan talking to himself in the sounds of his wings.’ At the same time he wanted through his poetic compositions to give ‘young people’ and all those who most of all love ‘the art of words as it were a pleasant remedy, something attractive and useful in persuasion’.” These examples demonstrate that art can truly be infused with grace. It can express not simply the contents of a fallen soul, but a soul striving for God and placing everything “under God’s gaze”. For, as St. Nectarius of Optina said: "One can practise art like anything else, but everything must be done as under God's gaze.”

     Now this would seem to contradict the word of St. Barsanuphius of Optina: “Some say that science and art, especially music, regenerate a man, granting him lofty aesthetic delight, but this is not true. Under the influence of art, music, singing, etc., a man does indeed experience delight, but it is powerless to regenerate him.” Again, replying to the composer Paschalov who said that music tore him away from everything earthly and he experienced great sweetness listening to the great classical composers, the elder said: “Nevertheless, this aesthetic sweetness cannot take the place of religion.”

      But there is no real contradiction here. Art in and of itself, as simply the expression in words or colours or sounds of a mental content that produces aesthetic delight, cannot regenerate the soul, and cannot take the place of religion. But if that art is the expression of confession and praise, of prayer and thanksgiving, then it is no longer merely art, but religious art, and partakes of the regenerative grace of God.

     Even in the writings of secular poets we find inspired works whose inspiration is godly. Consider, for example, Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error, and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

     It is not certain whether Shakespeare is writing here from a personal experience of the true, undying love he describes, or his imagination of it. In any case, his sympathy for this ideal is clearly unfeigned, and gives to the whole sonnet a note of clarity, profundity and truth.

      Or consider Fyodor Tiutchev’s poem, “Our Age”, in which he describes the unbelief of the intelligentsia from the point of view of a true believer:

Not flesh, but spirit is today corrupt,

And man just pines away despairingly.

He strives for light, while sitting in the dark,

And having found it, moans rebelliously.

From lack of faith dried up, in fire tossed,

The unendurable he suffers now.

He knows right well his soul is lost, and thirsts

For faith – but ask for it he knows not how.

Ne’er will he say, with prayers and tears combined,

However deep before the closéd door his grief:

“O let me in, my God, O hear my cry!

Lord, I believe! Help Thou mine unbelief!”

Here profound truths – religious truths – are conveyed more powerfully with the aid of the poet’s talent.

       A famous example of secular words bordering on the sacred and Divine is Dostoyevky’s “Pushkin Speech”, which took place fifty years after the “July Days”, in 1881, and represented the Divine opposite of that demonic manifestation from the era of the French revolution.

      Metropolitan Anastasy writes: “However accustomed people are to crawling in the dust, they will be grateful to every one who tears them away from the world below and bears them up on his powerful wings to the heavens. A man is ready to give up everything for a moment of pure spiritual joy and bless the name of him who is able to strike on the best strings of his heart. It is here that one must locate the secret of the amazing success attained by the famous speech of Dostoyevsky at the Pushkin festival in Moscow. The genius writer himself later described the impression produced by him upon his listeners in a letter to his wife: ‘I read,’ he writes, ‘loudly, with fire. Everything that I wrote about Tatiana was received with enthusiasm. But when I gave forth at the end about the universal union of men, the hall was as it were in hysterics. When I had finished, I will not tell you about the roars and sobs of joy: people who did not know each other wept, sobbed, embraced each other and swore to be better, not to hate each other from then on, but to love each other. The order of the session was interrupted: grandes dames, students, state secretaries – they all embraced and kissed me.’ How is one to call this mood in the auditorium, which included in itself the best flower of the whole of educated society, if not a condition of spiritual ecstasy, to which, as it seemed, our cold intelligentsia was least of all capable? By what power did the great writer and knower of hearts accomplish this miracle, forcing all his listeners without distinction of age or social position to feel themselves brothers and pour together in one sacred and great upsurge? He attained it, of course, not by the formal beauty of his speech, which Dostoyevsky usually did not achieve, but by the greatness of the proclaimed idea of universal brotherhood, instilled by the fire of great inspiration. This truly prophetic word regenerated the hearts of people, forcing them to recognize the true meaning of life; the truth made them if only for one second not only free, but also happy in their freedom.”

     Thus to the end of his life the Slavophile writer Ivan Aksakov remained under the influence of the Speech. As Dostoevsky wrote: “Aksakov (Ivan) ran onto the stage and declared to the public that my speech was not simply a speech but an historical event! The clouds had been covering the horizon, but here was Dostoevsky’s word, which, like the appearing sun, dispersed all the clouds and lit up everything. From now on there would be brotherhood, and there would be no misunderstandings.”

     Here we see the transition from aesthetic to religious emotion. The difference between the two is similar to the difference between a concert-hall and a church. Religious emotion unites one man with everyone else in the church in a way that never happens in the concert-hall. In the concert-hall, you may be deeply moved, and your neighbour may be moved, too, so that you both communicate in a certain sense with the soul of the composer. But the communication with the composer is one-way; you do not communicate with other listeners; and, of course, God may or may not be in the emotion communicated. Orthodox art, however, - and we may call Dostoyevsky’s “Pushkin Speech” a special kind of Orthodox art - is much more than one-way communication; it is living communion, making the hearts of the listeners one both with each other and with the Divine Composer.

      The word “culture” comes from “cult”, reminding us that the original context of cultural productions was religious worship. And it is in religious worship that art, music, architecture and poetry all find their true home and most potent expression. And most of all, of course, in the worship of the true religion, Orthodox Christianity.

      Thus “when the holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Prince Vladimir is likened to ‘a merchant seeking the good pearl’, this comparison in relation to him acquires an especially deep meaning. Like a wise inventor, he searched for a long time for the true and pure and valuable pearl, trying out various religions until he found it in Eastern Orthodoxy. He determined the value of this pearl by the sign of its beauty. In the latter was revealed for him and for his ambassadors the superiority of the Orthodox Faith, and this, of course, was not only the perception of external aesthetics, in which Byzantium was so rich, giving in its art a synthesis of the best artistic achievements of East and West, but above all of the spiritual beauty which shone from under the external forms of the majestic ecclesiastical art of Byzantium. Both in the church singing, and in the iconography, and in the architecture of the Orthodox Church there is a special rhythm which serves to reflect the eternal heavenly harmony. The Church masters not only had to sharpen their work, but also their very spirit, in order rise to the heights, to hear there the heavenly music and bring it down to earth. Impressed upon all of our ecclesiastical splendour, to this day it serves as an immediate revelation of the truth of Orthodoxy. Its language is much more understandable for everyone than the language of abstract theological concepts, and through it first of all the Orthodox Church realizes her mission in the world.”


Conclusion: The Music of the Soul

     Only God is a true Creator, in that only He can create out of nothing. Man is a creator only derivatively, in that he creates out of something already in existence, rearranging and reforming elements that have already been created by God. And yet in that rearranging and reforming of his nature, a nature distorted and disturbed by sin, lies the whole meaning of his existence. For to the extent that he succeeds in reforming his created nature in accordance with the Divine Archetype, man allows the Uncreated Light of God Himself to shine through his nature. Man the artist becomes man the supreme work of art, man the likeness of God.

     The purpose of art in its original, true context and designation is to help man in the work of harmonising the warring elements of his soul, to find “the music of the soul”. For “rest for the soul,” says St. Barsanuphius of Optina, “equals blessedness, which equals music, the harmony of all the powers of the soul.”“The instrument [of the soul] is there, the piano is open and ready, a row of white keys is before us, but there is no piano player. Who is the Player? God. We must labor ascetically, and the Lord will act according to His promise: ‘We will come unto him, and make Our abode with him’ (John 14.23). He will come unto us and play our instrument (Batiushka tapped me lightly on the chest).”

      Since the Renaissance, and especially since the Romantic movement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, art has been abstracted from its original function and context in religion. This has allowed a new, often demonic content to enter into it. Nevertheless, insofar as secular art strives towards harmony (which, unfortunately, cannot be said of much modern art), it can help the soul that is sunk in disharmony to a limited extent.

     Thus Archpriest Lev Lebedev compares the phenomena of culture to “a ladder, on the steps of which it is possible to go down and up… For those who live in the Church and are nourished by its very rich spiritual food, being drawn by the secular works of art is a movement down the ladder. But for those who are torn away from faith and the Church, who often know almost nothing about the Church, but are accustomed to look on writers, poets, artists and composers as their teachers, the works of secular art which directly or indirectly speak in a good spirit about God and the Divine can become steps upward to faith and the Church.”

      At a certain point, when the soul is already beginning to hear the sounds of the Divine Harmony consistently, it will lose its need and taste for the harmonies of secular art. Thus St. Brendan the Navigator was once seen putting cotton into his ears at a concert of the Irish bards. When asked why he did this, he said: “If you had heard the music of the angels, you would not delight in this music.”

      Again, St. Barsanuphius said of himself: “When I was in the world, I loved opera. Good, serious music gave me pleasure and I always had a subscription – a seat in the orchestra. Later on, when I learned of different, spiritual consolations, the opera ceased to interest me. When a valve of the heart closes the receptivity of worldly enjoyments, another valve opens for the reception of spiritual joys...”

      For the man for whom this other valve has opened, only the art of the Orthodox Church, and the music of prayer, will be delightful. “This music [of prayer],” says St. Barsanuphius of Optina, “is often spoken of in the Psalms: ‘The Lord is my strength and my song…’ (Ps. 117.14); I will sing and I will chant unto the Lord’ (Ps. 26.7); ‘I will chant to my God as long as I have my being’ (Ps. 103.35). This singing is inexpressible. In order to receive it people go to monasteries, and they do receive it: one after five years, another after ten, a third after fifteen, and a fourth after forty. May God grant you, too, to receive it; at least you’re on the road to it.” 

     However, on the path to this consistent dwelling in the music of the soul, there will be days when, because of our fallenness, even the music and words of the Orthodox Church fail to move us. For, as Shakespeare put it in The Merchant of Venice:

Such harmony is in immortal souls,

But whilst this muddy vesture of decay

Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

And so we have to work ascetically on ourselves in order to feel or hear the grace of the words or music in our souls deeply and constantly.



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