“The constructs of the imagination tell us things about the human life
that we don’t get in any other way”
– Northrop Frye
The primitive yet profound insight of ruddy cave paintings, the national spectacle of heroism that is The Aenied, the glorious perfection and testament to form that is Michelangelo’s David, medieval tapestries flowing with gallant knights and pastoral landscapes, Wordsworth’s worthy words, Shakespeare’s poignant understanding of the human condition, the haunting nature of Starry Night, the American tragedy that is Jay Gatsby – all these works are widely recognized as some of the greatest expressions of art that humanity has produced. When confronted with them, we know that they are worthy of the title “art.” But, what is art? How do we define it? How do we differentiate art from other forms of human expression?
As I noted last week, “true art brings the abstract into concrete shapes. Art is never meaningless; art should create meaning and add to life. It should act as the bellows of our affections, stoking the fire of our imaginations to re-interpret our experiences into coherent meaning, and communicating truth to our hearts in a way that propositional statements are unable to do.”
Ultimately, art is the imagination incarnate. But what is the imagination? What does it mean to be incarnate? Before we truly start this series we should define our terms.
When I was younger and usually during summer (I was an indoor kid), I absolutely loved playing with Legos. I enjoyed putting the pieces together and (oddly enough) following the directions in order to produce the desired toy. However, once that was done and I was tired of it, I would smash the thing to pieces and they would go in my Lego drawer. Only after a few days passed, probably to cure my boredom, I would begin to construct vehicles of my own imagination: fighter planes, hidden bases, and missiles – lots of missiles. Yet, I didn’t do this simply because I liked constructing things. I did it because I liked constructing stories in my head, leading this character and that character, guiding heroes to fight villains. Through this practice, I was enacting how I wished the world to be: the clear distinction between good and evil, fighting with bravery, exploring unknown territory. I wasn’t just playing with toys; I was exercising my creative function and playing out my affections. Now, I’m certainly not saying that my time in my room with Legos was anything close to art, but it did stretch my imagination, which I define as a sort of worldview of the heart: the creative mental storage tank of our dreams, hopes, and thoughts.
While a definition of the imagination is hard to articulate yet easy to understand, the word “incarnation” is the reverse. Most Christians could (and should) be able to tell you what incarnation means, but many do not fully understand it. However, for those who do not know, incarnation literally means “taking on flesh.” The word’s most familiar usage describes God taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. The invisible God, the Creator of the universe and everything in it, “emptied himself, by taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7). Similar to this, incarnation relates to art by putting meat on the bones of ideas. Usually, when an artist has something to say, it remains in this abstract, nebulous form – such is the world of ideas. However, when that idea is given life (though a painting, sculpture, or a novel), it is brought into a more concrete mode that is accessible and visible to mankind. Therefore, one can say that art is the imagination made manifest.
Because art by its nature is reflective (on an event, nature, reality, etc.), art is a re-interpretation of our human experience into meaning, with attention to form, technique, and beauty. But the artist does not simply internalize her experience; she purposefully externalizes it. By presenting her work to the world, the artist does not keep her imagination a secret, but puts flesh on its abstract skeleton, and makes it dance (more on how this relates to our Creator and our divine image next week). Lastly, because it is not kept in a basement, we can say that art is also by its very nature communal. The artist does not just produce art for her own enjoyment and expression, but shares it, telling others, “Look! This is what I see!” And that is what art is: a common sharing of an embodied imagination.
*Look out next week for an exploration of why humans create art, what that has to do with our nature, and what J.R.R. Tolkien had to say about it.