I have a Picasso on my bedroom wall—a cheap print of a Picasso, that is. It’s a realistic portrait from his “blue period” called The Old Guitarist, depicting an aged man bent over his guitar. But don’t ask me to describe any of Picasso’s cubist paintings in detail because, for the most part, those have never made sense to me, leaving only faint and generally negative impressions.
I confess I’m no art connoisseur and have little theory to help me understand what makes the Mona Lisa better than Dogs Playing Poker. It’s a matter of taste, I suppose, though some might say it’s the difference between having some taste and having none. I won’t get into that argument. For me, both paintings share with my favorite Picasso a quality that makes them at least comprehensible, whereas for me, something like Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist lacks that quality altogether.
The former three pictures can be described as representational. They depict something recognizable, contain identifiable and fairly realistic objects, characters, or scenes. They might even suggest some sort of story. The Pollock I mentioned, however, is abstract. Specifically, it is a frenzy of splotches and crosshatches, quick lines in different colors and thicknesses, intersecting from all directions and layered in no decipherable pattern.
When I was younger I reacted strongly to paintings like Pollock’s, almost taking offense that something so chaotic and, well . . . messy, got away with calling itself art. I felt art should be orderly, should somehow reflect my understanding of God’s beauty, symmetry, and harmony. But my biggest bias was an expectation of (nay, insistence on) a readable narrative. I wanted visual art to offer an easy answer to the question, “What is this about?” or “What does this mean?”
My prejudices remained largely undisturbed until recently, when I stumbled across a contemporary painter’s explanation of the basic idea behind abstract art. One part especially caught my attention: that is, when the brain sees a realistically depicted subject or object in a painting, it processes what it sees, trying to connect it with familiar concepts and images. In many ways, he explained, the rational mind’s preconceptions and familiar associations can be distractions, preventing deeper engagement. But when the mind is not distracted by patently meaningful images, the unconscious is freer to connect with the work on an emotional, possibly even spiritual, level.
That resonates with me. I like the idea that the unconscious, or the spirit within a gifted artist, can communicate directly with the spirit of the viewer. I speculate that the reaction a Christian viewer might have to abstract visual art, if he or she were undistracted and truly open to it, might correspond with the extent to which the artist’s unconscious message lined up with biblical truth as affirmed by the Holy Spirit.
OK, maybe I’m reaching a little. But what if the very faculty that our creator gave us to hear from him when he speaks directly to our spirits is also given to us to discern the spirits in the created and crafted world around us? And what if my intellect—that rational part of me that leaps to identify what it thinks it already sees and hears and knows to be true—at times gets in the way of what I’m supposed to receive?
Of course, reason and intellect are God’s gifts too, and not to be disdained. But thanks to the indwelling Holy Spirit, sometimes we are simply given to know or feel something powerfully, beyond reason or intellect. So the next time we are compelled to dismiss what is before us as nonsense, whether a cubist portrait or a seemingly irrational step of faith, perhaps that’s the time to whisper a prayer and just keep staring. As we look deeper, much may remain mysterious, but we can trust God to make his truth manifest within us—and to grant us the grace to respond accordingly.