One Thousand Words or So

Driven to Abstraction

The first issue in my (re)subscription to Image Journal arrived today. As promised, it has something about Flannery O’Connor’s college journal in it. I haven’t come across it. I just took the magazine out of its plastic wrapper and am paging through from back to front. Don’t ask me why. Sometimes I start at the end and word my way back. The first—no, scratch that—the second thing that caught my eye was an essay by Philip Metres titled, “Singing the Darkness: On Russia, Suffering, and Poetry.” I’ll have to dive right on into that one.

The first thing that caught my eye was the cover. It sports a selfie taken by Flannery O’Connor when she was in college. The quality of the image of Flannery’s reflection in a mirror leaves something to be desired, but there’s a certain charm there. Perhaps it is the photo’s similarity to many of the store window self-portraits taken by Vivian Maier.

As I continue leafing through to the front, I find an ad for “Flannery O’Connor Review,” billed as “The longest-running journal dedicated to the works of a woman writer.” I can send a check for $15 to the address listed to receive this journal, but what, exactly, is it? Why is no website listed? And why, maybe most of all, do I need to be told that Flannery is a “woman writer”? I know she’s a woman. Yes, if Georgia College, which, apparently, runs “Flannery O’Connor Review,” did not differentiate between male and female writers, it would not be able to use that oh-so-compelling tagline, but why we do act like a woman writing well is an amazing feat? Anthony Esolen’s essay on Sigrid Undset in last month’s Magnificat compelled me to finally buy Kristin Lavransdatter and start reading it, but his assertion that Undset is the greatest female novelist to have ever been published rubs me the wrong way. First, because I’m getting tired of opinions and competitions* (I want to find competition on the baseball field, not in the world of art); and secondly, because he differentiates between novelists and female novelists. I’d rather have him tell me that he loves Undset’s writing and that Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Then, I’d like him to show me why he finds Undset’s writing exceptional.

Okay, I’ve come to Flannery’s college journal. I think the whole thing is here. According to the introduction, the entries filled only 30 pages, but I’m just skimming. When I sit down to read the whole thing, I’ll know more. The magazine contains a few pictures of Flannery and pictures of her journal. I had never seen these photos, and I appreciate to the chance to get a few new glimpses of the writer (and her handwriting).

That was a nice little preview. I’ll have to soon make time to read Issue No. 94 from cover to cover. In the meantime, I’d like to take a look back at the chapter I recently read in Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save the World. Specifically, I need to find what Jacques Maritain said about art, because I was thinking about it yesterday, when I was writing that day’s post.

According to Wolfe, twentieth-century Catholic philosophers Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson devoted a significant amount of time to aesthetics, and both were “unabashed champions of modern art.” Wolfe says that they claimed that painting began to falter when Giotto “discovered” perspective, thus starting the world of art on a path toward representational painting. Cezanne and the revolution of modern art, on the other hand, helped to right the ship. Wolfe explains that all this hinges upon the definition of art, which is not about imitating reality, but about creating beautiful objects that “enable us to see through nature to deeper meaning.”

To help clarify, Wolfe includes an excerpt from Gilson’s Painting and Reality:

During the long episode that lasted from the end of the fifteenth century to the beginning of the nonrepresentational art, painters, instead of remaining firmly established on the ground of nature, progressively or regressively shifted over to the ground of imitation, representation, and, in short, exchanged making for knowing. Imitation—that is, representation of reality as it appeared to be—stands on the side of science or, to use a more modest word, knowledge. Reduced to its simplest expression, the function of modern art has been to restore painting to its primitive and true function, which is to continue through man the creative activity of nature. In so doing, modern painting has destroyed nothing and condemned nothing that belongs in any one of the legitimate activities of man; it has simply regained the clear awareness of its own nature and recovered its own place among the creative activities of man.

Yesterday, I wrote about resistance to change, specifically resistance to the way in which art can change us.  Here, though, I’m talking about resistance to art itself—perhaps most pronounced when it comes to abstract art. The loudest battle cry has likely been one in which abstract art is denounced as a sign of nihilism and despair, but proponents see in it an attempt to recover the mythical and sacred in the midst of a society that seems to become noticeably more industrial/technological and less human/spiritual on a nearly daily basis.

Something Flannery wrote about art seems to apply here: “Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.” Yes, it takes effort to understand art. It takes effort to truly understand anything. How many of us are willing to invest the time and energy? How many of us are willing to say, “I’m not well-versed in that, so I’ll have to refrain from voicing an opinion?”


*My oldest child used to try to compete with his siblings to see who could eat dinner fastest—not that it was much of a competition, because he was the only interested in trying.

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