Humility and Confessional Art

6:00:00 AMJulia Premus

Humility is perhaps one of the most misunderstood virtues. We imagine humility as the equivalent of self deprecation or belittlement, not only in how we present ourselves to other people but also before the Creator. How many times do we respond to compliments with minimizing remarks that undermine our talents and achievements? Some simply believe it to be the moral choice to diminish the role that we play in the act of creation. Humility is sometimes described as keeping the focus on the Creator and ignoring and sometimes even devaluing human existence. But is the Creator not working within us as well - and as Christians, do we not believe that the Creator took on human form and absorbed into himself all of human experience? Is not learning about the fullness of the human condition, in all its glories and depravities, what teaches us most about the depths of our own Creator’s love?

As Dietrich von Hildebrand writes in his book, Transformation in Christ:

“For, even in the perspective of our relations with our fellow men, true humility has its origin in our right response to God, which implies [...] our awareness of the glory and omnipotence of God, and of our own creaturely finiteness.” (1)

Humility is, I believe, nothing more than perfect self-awareness. However, perfect self-awareness is not something we can achieve in this state. We as human creatures are blind to the fullness of ourselves - the galaxies of cells living within us, the majestic biological processes that sustain us, the intricate complexities of our psychologies. However, we are given the ability to deduce through reason an understanding of those processes which drive lives - whether they be physiological, psychological, or spiritual. Humility is the ability to see not only ourselves but the human experience more clearly and honestly - and through that, to enter into a further understanding of the Creator and the depths of his complex relationship with us. He embraced our worst experiences not with a sense of patronization and ulterior motives, but with complete empathy and understanding of our fallen nature, pain, and exhaustion from the forces of this world. The Creator is not afraid of us - and nor should we be afraid of ourselves, and to examine the human experience as a way of understanding our own Creator better, who encompasses all of humanity into himself.

And the door to genuine humility is opened once a person makes a genuine confession of despair. When we despair, we are seeing ourselves more clearly, recognizing our need for the Creator and even crying out for a relationship with him. In many ways we are crying out for a change in the current state of affairs. In this way, a confessional of despair can be a catalyst for change.

Mary Doria Russell’s book The Sparrow is about a Jesuit expedition to a foreign planet near Alpha Centauri. After losing one of the young priests, the crew’s doctor has an outburst of despair and cries out with impossible questions. When she is chastised by other crew members for having this confessional outburst of despair, a priest named Father Sandoz defends her, saying:

"It is the human condition to ask questions like Ann’s last night, and to receive no plain answers. Perhaps this is because we can’t understand the answers, because we are incapable of knowing God’s ways and God’s thoughts. We are after all only very clever, tailless primates, doing the best we can, but limited. Perhaps we must all own up to being agnostic, unable to know the unknowable. The Jewish Sages also tell us that God dances when his children defeat him in argument. When they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions like Ann’s are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up his answers, perhaps someday, we will understand them, and then we will be something more that clever apes, and we shall dance with God." (2)

What this character says is that by its very nature the quest of self-examination gives glory to the Creator by allowing us to truly confess our despair to him. This confessional aspect truly gives us a deeper perspective on our need for relationship with him in a despairing universe. When we ignore those aspects of ourselves that are less righteous and pretend they do not exist, we do a great disservice to him and do not experience the fullest relationship with him that we could. Modern and contemporary art movements reflect this societal examination of conscience and confessional aspect.

The movement of modern and contemporary art is one direction in which this examination of the self can be extremely enlightening and provide new resources to understand the complexities of the human person. To be clear, contemporary art refers typically to artwork made since World War II, often referring to artists who are still alive and producing work. Modern art, however, refers to a period which has already passed - a time between the 1860s and 1970s when artists began to challenge the traditional structures of society and academia, bringing us to examine human nature - and our beliefs - as had never been done in all of history (ex. Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf). It is here that satire and the study of the process, form, and content of creation itself (related to the idea of “meta”) began to take precedent as a form of confession. These pieces, over which there is much debate, are part of a phase of self-examination and an attempt to gain a deeper poetic appreciation for those basic principles of life we take for granted (i.e. color, form, shape, medium). If there is anything Dali’s surrealism tells us, it is that the reality of our world is one far beyond our five sense and societal constructs. Modern and contemporary pieces have also provoked conversations on topics beyond the piece itself, going so far as to examine the entire role of art in ways that no other pieces have previously provoked. (I also hope we all can never agree on what art is. It’s much more fun that way.) It is important to remember as well that it is unrealistic to expect contemporary art to replicate those works of the Renaissance, a time when of the fine arts was controlled by a wealthy few (primarily the Medici family and the Catholic Church) often with a strict set of political motives and artistic vision. Now that art has become more accessible to all people to create and showcase, it has entered into a new phase of self-examination that there were no resources for previously. While it is important to preserve and continue to practice the techniques of the past, it is also important to simultaneously welcome the new roles art plays and techniques now used to confess about the state of our world. I am personally excited for this new development. In future articles, I will discuss the value of these seemingly simplistic and at times subversive contemporary art pieces, as well as the poetic value of contemporary pieces that depict in particular human depravity, exhaustion, and despair.

1 - Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ. Kindle Edition. Page 2803.
2 - Russell, Mary Doria. The Sparrow. New York: Villard, 1996. Print. Page 201.

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