John Berger, the art critic, wrote a brilliant article called ‘A Professional Secret’ (collected in his ‘Selected Essays’). It is a reflection, amongst other things, on the spiritual experience of painting. In it, he raises issues of epistemology – wondering why some paintings are ‘open’ and others ‘closed’ – as well as describing the related experience of actually painting.
Towards the end of the piece, he writes:
If one thinks of appearances as a frontier, one might say that painters search for messages which cross the frontier: messages which come from the back of the visible. And this, not because all painters are Platonists, but because they look so hard.
Image-making begins with interrogating appearances and making marks. Every artist discovers that drawing – when it is an urgent activity – is a two-way process. To draw is not only to measure and put down, it is also to receive. When the intensity of looking reaches a certain degree, one becomes aware of an equally intense energy coming towards one, through the appearance of whatever it is one is scrutinizing. Giacometti’s life’s work is a demonstration of this.
The encounter of these two energies, their dialogue, does not have the form of question and answer. It is a ferocious and inarticulated dialogue. To sustain it requires faith. It is like burrowing in the dark, a burrowing under the apparent. The great images occur when the two tunnels meet and join perfectly. Sometimes when the dialogue is swift, almost instantaneous, it is like something thrown and caught.
I offer no explanation for this experience. I simply believe very few artists will deny it. It’s a professional secret.
The act of painting – when its language opens – is a response to an energy which is experienced as coming from behind the given set of experiences. What is this energy? Might one call it the will of the visible that sight should exist? Meister Eckhardt talked about the same reciprocity when he wrote: ‘The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which he sees me.’ It is the symmetry of the energies which offers us a clue here, not the theology.
Every real act of painting is the result of submitting to that will, so that in the painted version the visible is not just interpreted but allowed to take its place actively in the community of the painted. Every event which has been really painted – so that the pictorial language opens – joins the community of everything else that has been painted.
There is probably too much in this to deal with in a short piece. It sounds like prayer. It is a brilliant example of phenomenology. One could use this as a way into discussing Florensky’s theology of icons; or as an example of the experiential basis for the doctrine of analogy. One could question the opposition Berger sets up between painting and Platonism; that is, whether the experience Berger describes is not, in fact, exactly what lies behind Platonism. (It certainly seems to me a paradigm of what Eric Voegelin liked to call, after Plato, the ‘metaxy’.) I would just like to question Berger’s setting aside of theology.
Throughout the Church’s history, people have commonly referred to the Bible and nature as the two books of revelation. And in one essay, the German writer J.G. Hamann cites Martin Luther in describing theology as ‘a grammar of the language of Holy Writ’. I think from Berger’s description something similar can probably be said of nature. The very experience described by Berger is extremely similar to that of mystical prayer. Moreover, the structural grammar of the experience ties in well with Trinitarian theology.
In another essay in the collection, ‘Understanding a Photograph’, Berger talks about museums as creating a cognoscenti when it comes to art. For him, museums take things out of life and therefore exclude people. People begin to feel that the works are ‘beyond them’. I wonder if Berger is not doing the same thing with theology. Maybe in bracketing off theology, he is making the same mistake of thinking that theology is beyond him, rather than realising that it is just real life, urgently lived.