“In the confident strength of his impressionability the artist is akin to the child and the saint.”
– Saint Edith Stein, The Science of the Cross
Beauty leaves its mark.
Up until I studied abroad in Europe over a year ago now, I honestly hated philosophy. The language intimidated me and I found it puzzling to approach the world through such a curious lens. It wasn’t until I started learning about value response and objective beauty in my art class in Austria that it all started making sense to me. As I mentioned in my past post, The Calling of the Artist, the concept of beauty being objective stunned me, and I was left utterly changed by the implications of that truth upon my life.
There is a whole world outside the one inside my head that needs to be conveyed. It needs to be fought for. These were the thoughts that dominated my life for several months as I wrestled with such strange new concepts. Beauty is not subjective. It is. And it deserves my love, my time, my response, my work, my will.
Suddenly, beauty wasn’t a preference. It seemed to me to be a stamp that leaves its impression all around us. I think this is what Stein meant when she talked about the impressionability of the artist (1). It’s as if she wants the artist to self-reflect; if I encountered beauty today, would it leave its mark on me? Would I come away changed? Would I respond to the beautiful as it justly deserves? Is my life, my heart, an accurate image of the beauty that has been impressed upon me?
Children, as Stein points out, are impressionable. They are formed by so many factors in their environments. They’re blank slates! It is curious that she chooses the child as the model for the artist. There is something about the world of beauty being encountered by the artist, like the child, that is new every day. The artist must come with eager hands and an open mind to “transform into image any interior stirring and demands to be expressed exteriorly” (2). This, too, seems childlike; for children are always eager to relay their thoughts to anyone who will listen. The artist must develop this same eagerness and share their gifts with the world around them, as if it’s more of an evangelization than a showcase. In a world that denies the fact of beauty’s objective nature, the artist has become the missionary. For Stein, the missionary zeal necessary for an artist is like the wide-eyed zeal of a child: innocent and honest.
Saints, too, are impressionable. Every encounter with the Divine leaves the saint desiring more. The saint is like the lover in that neither the saint nor the lover can keep from speaking of the Beloved --- it is not hard for the saint to desire to speak of God, or for the lover to desire to speak of the beloved. In this way, the artist must be eager and (dare I say) desperate to speak of beauty through the works of their hands. For the artist or craftsman, art “is a symbol: that is, it comes from that infinite fullness of meaning into which every bit of human knowledge is projected to grasp something positive and speak of it” (3). The calling of the artist is identical to the calling of the saint in that “all genuine art is revelation and all artistic creation is sacred service” (4). Stein then goes on to point out that the artist’s job does not end in simply producing the art they feel inspired to produce, but in allowing themselves to act as though they have truly been imprinted by it. But imprinted with what exactly?
According to Stein, “the Crucified One demands from the artist more than a mere portrayal of the image. He demands that the artist, just as every other person, follow him: that he both make himself and allow himself to be made into an image of the one who carries the cross and is crucified” (5). The fullness of beauty has its source in God Himself, who is by definition the fullness of every good and perfect thing. In fact, He not only can be defined by perfect traits, but He is perfection. He is beauty. When the artist is stamped with beauty, it is the image and likeness of God that he is stamped with. We are more beautiful the more that we resemble God, who is beauty in the truest, richest sense.
Performing one’s art, then, is simply an exercise in being more like God, “because only with the production of the external expression will the inner image be fully formed and interiorly adopted” (6). Thus, art is an encounter, an extension of one’s interior musings on (and in cooperation with) the Divine Mind.
May we always be confident in the strength of our impressionability.
- Edith Stein, The Science of the Cross (ICS Publications, 2002).