The Creativity of Yes: The Marian Role of the Viewer

About a month ago, Wes Vander Lugt drew my attention to an article on the work of artist Guy Chase.

In the article, the author James Romaine differentiates between an ‘experience of art’, in which the viewer allows the artwork to enlarge the boundaries of her imagination, and ‘art appreciation’, in which the viewer judges the artwork according to her pre-existent criteria of what she ‘likes’. The former allows the artwork to act on and change the viewer; the latter cuts the viewer off from the power of the artwork. In an ‘experience of art’, the viewer says ‘Yes’ to the artist’s attempt to communicate with the viewer. In ‘art appreciation’, the viewer says ‘No’, unless the artwork fits within the schema of ‘good art’ created by her past experience.

The need for the viewer to say ‘Yes’ to the art, to let it act on her, instead of saying ‘No’, reminds me of two things: 1) the necessity of the ‘Yes, and…’ response in improv, which is the response which allows and prompts further growth and creativity; 2) C.S. Lewis’s insistence on the reader’s ‘reception’ of literature, allowing its spell to work on him, instead of ‘using’ it for a predetermined end (discussed in An Experiment in Criticism).

In order for the artwork to be fruitful in the viewer’s life, the viewer must be like Mary, giving her Fiat to the artist’s request to communicate new life to her through the spirit of the artwork. By saying ‘Yes’, the viewer lets the spirit of the artwork enter and create new life within her, so that when she goes away she bears the artwork’s Logos (Word/Symbol/Meaning/Message) within her. To use Lewis’s phrase, the artwork has created an ‘expansion of [her] being’.

Just as ‘Yes, and…’ in improv is generative, because the acceptance of an offer allows an improviser to build upon his performance partner’s creativity, so Lewis’s insistence on reception is generative, because only by accepting a story on the terms on which it is offered – as a story – can the reader receive whatever Logos the author is trying to communicate. If the reader refuses to receive it as a story, and instead tries to use it as a moral lesson or a philosophical treatise, he will kill its ability to generate within him the life that it carries.

However, the necessity of saying ‘Yes’ to the artist in order fully to receive the artwork makes the viewer vulnerable. How can the viewer be sure that the artist will not betray her trust, and force some deadly thing upon her which will instead drain her life? Artists must be aware of their responsibility to help and not harm their viewers and ensure that their art is life-giving.

Critics can help strengthen the bonds of trust between artist and audience through their explanatory role. When I first looked at Deluge, one of the paintings described in the article, I didn’t particularly like it, but once the artist’s intentions and methods were explained to me later in the article, I grew in understanding and affection for it. Just walking people through art they might not understand, gently and with love, helps them learn to receive the artist’s message and increases their willingness to replace their future ‘No’ with ‘Yes’.

9 Comments

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Cole, thanks for this reflection on responding to works of art. I think that your emphasis upon selflessness is an excellent one. I think there is so much to be gained by opening ourselves up to works of art, and trying to find room for them within our lives to speak to us in their otherness.

    While I appreciate the point about not using a work for a predetermined end, isn’t there a sense in which we come to works of art in an interested (rather than merely disinterested) way? Your use of the concept ‘Yes and…’ seems to point to this because the improvisor is not merely interested in receiving, but he or she is also interested in moving what they receive in new and fruitful directions. Likewise, one might make the point that responding to a work of art can also be creative in the sense of bringing our own questions, thoughts, and experiences to bear upon the work of art that we receive. On this view, one could say that the viewer or reader is not only interested in receiving the meaning that the author communicates through a work of art, but that the viewer or reader is interested in drawing out and extending this meaning in ways that are consistent but also novel, and potentially completely unexpected by the author.

    Because you are making a comparison between Mary and the response to the work of art, a similar point might be made about her. Is it best to see her faithful obedience to God as something merely passive, or does it have an active element as well?

    • Cole Matson says:

      Jim,

      Yes, I take your point about interestedness and the necessity for further action, as opposed to just passivity. To use the improv example, success in improv assumes the existence of two (or more) players who are both interested in the same goal – creating an interesting, entertaining scene – and are agreed on the means to go about it – namely, accepting and building (“Yes, and…”). Similarly, the artist-audience relationship can only bear fruit if both the artist and audience desire a similar good (though I’m unsure how much their desires need to overlap, since I think audience members can receive good from artists whose worldviews are utterly opposed to their own – e.g. C.S. Lewis enjoying A Voyage to Arcturus as an exciting spiritual adventure which helped prompt his own Out of the Silent Planet, even though he thought the Logos of Voyage to A. to be ‘so Manichaean as to be almost Satanic’).

      It seems there may almost be two opportunities for “Yes”: “Yes, I desire to receive the art”, and then after the reception, the response: “Yes, I affirm”, or “No, I reject”. I’m trying to decide whether the second is directed only at the art’s Logos. So, for example, if Lewis had said “No” at the point of reception – instead “using” it as a philosophical treatise, and thus rejecting it as such – he would not have been able to enjoy Voyage to A. as an artwork. On the other hand, once he had received it, his response was a further act of creativity. He rejected the Logos, in that he did not want that Manichaean philosophy to bear fruit in his life (i.e. in his own moral behaviour and view of the world), but he affirmed its artistic strengths, and tried to take the same approach to create a work of science fiction which reflected the Logos which he believed to be true and to which he was committed.

      So it seems there are many ways in which we can respond to a piece of art, whether by rejection, building upon it to create something new, letting it affect our behaviour, etc. But before this action of response, we must choose to be passive, to say “Yes” and receive the artwork as a whole. Only once we have taken it within ourselves can we know and understand what we are responding to.

  • Michelle Roise says:

    Very interesting post. As an artist of sincere Christian belief I have always felt this tension in embracing any work of art, but it has been especially so in regard to film. The medium so fully engulfs you, and I have felt betrayed so many times, that despite my love of visual art, I feel hesitant to enter the cinematic world for fear of being drawn (charmed?) away. From what? From whom? What can separate me from the love of God?! Reading your post and putting this feeling down in words, has caused me to recognize this feeling as fear. My usual mode of reluctantly watching a movie with my family is to multi-task (remaining uncommitted to the captivation of the screen) with something else simultaneously rather than “submit all” to the will of the producer/director over my own thoughts, feelings and time. I begin to see the impoverishment of my own life and my family’s because of this approach. Can anyone else relate to or address this peculiarity? Your proposal of accepting the work fully and THEN choosing to “receive it or not” has potential, though I feel my old, personal red flags going up already…

    • Cole Matson says:

      Michelle,

      Glad the post was helpful. I acknowledge that it can be necessary to avoid some pieces of art, and we must each use our own judgement. However, I think acting out of a place of freedom and trust rather than fear will be more fruitful in the long run. God can speak to us through all sorts of art, even if we judge they are artworks we shall not revisit.

      Cole

  • James Romaine says:

    Cole

    I love your post. You took this idea in a direction that I had not anticipated and thereby taught me something new. Thank you.

    You are absolutely correct when you write, “However, the necessity of saying ‘Yes’ to the artist in order fully to receive the artwork makes the viewer vulnerable. How can the viewer be sure that the artist will not betray her trust, and force some deadly thing upon her which will instead drain her life?” Yes, this is a question of trust. I can testify that my trust has been “betrayed” at times. There are artist whom I do not “trust.” There are other artists whom I now trust completely. I would say that it is better to have trusted and been betrayed than to have never trusted at all.

    I also agree with you that “Critics can help strengthen the bonds of trust between artist and audience through their explanatory role.” I think it would be good to describe the critic as someone who introduces the viewer to artist, like friends and lovers, whom they trust.

    Sincerely

    James

    • Cole Matson says:

      James,

      Thank you very much! I’m glad you liked the post, as I enjoyed your article. I’m absolutely with you when you say “it is better to have trusted and been betrayed than to have never trusted at all.” I’m also with you when you say that a critic is a person “who introduces the viewer to artist, like friends and lovers, whom they trust.” Both phrases point to artists, viewers, and critics as people in community, responsible to one another, and caring for one another’s welfare.

      Cole

  • Cole Matson says:

    James,

    Thank you very much! I’m glad you liked the post, as I enjoyed your article. I’m absolutely with you when you say “it is better to have trusted and been betrayed than to have never trusted at all.” I’m also with you when you say that a critic is a person “who introduces the viewer to artist, like friends and lovers, whom they trust.” Both phrases point to artists, viewers, and critics as people in community, responsible to one another, and caring for one another’s welfare.

    Cole

    P.S. – I tried posting this comment several times a few days ago, so let’s see if it works any better now…

  • Michelle Roise says:

    I so appreciate all the Transposition posts and comments. I am able to learn something new and helpful each time I visit.

    Thanks for the further exploration of this particular issue that has bothered me for some time and for your helpful counsel against “fear.” I agree, “it [will be] better to have trusted and been betrayed than to never have trusted at all”. My guess is that by careful attention it will more often bring blessing than betrayal; growth is an invigorating process!

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