Art and God and Details

After writing this, I feel mentally inebriated, worn out, like I’ve birthed something. So, I apologize for the lame title. I just don’t have any creativity left. I was gonna go with “God Is In the Details,” but however applicable, it seemed trite. It may not be incredibly polished or profound, but I’ll admit my mind had fun chewing on these thoughts today and following every synapse of ideas…while that laundry that needs folding, those dishes that need washing, and this body that could have used a walk were all neglected.

I’m reading a collection of John Ruskin’s writings right now. Hmmm…how to describe Ruskin? Well, he lived, wrote, and taught in Victorian England. In fact, he and Queen Victoria were born the same year. (She outlived him by only one year.) In his day, writers like Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot were publishing their novels. The Irish were enduring their potato famine. The Americans were fighting their civil war. The Communist Manifesto was inciting revolutions against European monarchies. Poets like Wordsworth and Tennyson were writing, and artists like J. M. W. Turner (Ruskin’s all-time favourite, by the way) were painting. Did I mention Ruskin was an art critic? He wrote and lectured a lot on the subject of art. But he was a man with innumerable interests, a truly synthetic thinker who was convinced that all knowledge connects. He wrote about politics, education, economics, art, mythology, natural history, and the list goes on. I think that’s what makes him so fascinating to read. His work is chock-full of living ideas that overlap many disciplines.

The piece I read this morning is entitled “Of Truth of Space” from his multi-volume work Modern Painters. I’ll try my best to explain it because it set off fireworks of connections in my brain, and it’s a little difficult to narrate a fireworks show (mental or otherwise) in any sort of logical procession. He started this chapter by asking his students to draw a tiny circle and a tiny square on a piece of paper and colour them in. Then he had them put their pieces of paper at the opposite end of the room and notice what happens to those marks as they backed away from them. Try it. Eventually you reach a distance where you can’t discern which is which. This part reminds me a bit of the Sesame Street sketch where Grover demonstrates “near” and “far.”

Speaking of far, imagine looking at a field of grass from a great distance. Back up, like Grover, until you can no longer distinguish each blade of grass. You might be imagining just a huge mass of green, but I guarantee you would be able to distinguish it from a billboard sign painted in a similar shade! Even at a distance, you can still perceive its beauty and texture.

Ok, so that’s “far”. What about “near”? The detail in the natural world is amazing, isn’t it? Let’s imagine zooming in on a single blade of grass as close as we can. You quickly realize there is more detail there than your eye can perceive, right down to the cellular level and beyond. As Ruskin says, when it comes to nature, “…you always see something, but you never see all.” He points out that truly great artists, like Turner, paint in such a way as to suggest more than they represent. They don’t oversimplify what they see as they put it on canvas, nor do they paint more than they can perceive. It’s a delicate, almost magical balance. Ruskin says that, “…in art, every space or touch in which we can see everything, or in which we can see nothing, is false.” If an artist tries to make you feel like you’re seeing all there is to see or, conversely, to convince you there is absolutely nothing to see, you know that’s not true. And, if there’s one thing that Ruskin and his Pre-Raphaelites were after in art, it was truth!

I love applying this idea to nature. Yes, there are details we cannot see, whether we are “near” or “far,” but they are there. We know they are there, even if we can’t see them, and it enhances our enjoyment of nature’s beauty. Ruskin says that God has made it that way “to be a perpetual source of fresh pleasure to the cultivated and observant eye; a finish which no distance can render invisible, and no nearness comprehensible.” Isn’t it the same way with God Himself?! No distance can render Him invisible to me. And, yet, no matter how near I draw to Him, I discover anew just how incomprehensible He is to my finite mind.

I was narrating some of this to PJ this morning, and he pointed out that God’s activity in our lives is like that too. We can discern some of the details of what He’s up to, but there is always so much more we can’t figure out. We sometimes experience God by sight, but more often than not, we are forced to rely on faith. But the mystery of it all is that when we do accept God’s presence and sovereignty in our lives by faith, even those details we can’t see and understand, the details that are invisible to us, are still felt and form an enriching backdrop, as it were, to all that we can see and know. It reminds me of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus about the “wind” of God’s Spirit. “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

John 3:8

God is with us, at work within us and around us, and when we see and hear Him with eyes and ears of faith, we begin to notice that even the visible things of our lives take on a different depth and meaning. Like George W. Robinson wrote:

Heav’n above is softer blue,
Earth around is sweeter green!
Something lives in every hue
Christ-less eyes have never seen:
Birds with gladder songs o’erflow,
Flow’rs with deeper beauties shine,
Since I know, as now I know,
I am His, and He is mine.

Ruskin says Turner, and only Turner (I told you he was his all-time fave), was able to “render on the canvas that mystery of decided line, that distinct, sharp, visible, but unintelligent and inextricable richness, which, examined part by part, is to the eye nothing but confusion and defeat, which, taken as a whole, is all unity, symmetry, and truth.” There we see again his motif of wholeness, unity, and truth that is echoed again and again in his writings…the wholeness and unity of all knowledge and the truth-telling quality of great art. Look at this Turner painting. Do you see the sharp, distinct lines? But what happens if we look too closely? If we examine each individual line apart from the rest, it gives rise to unintelligible confusion. You must take it as a whole. When I do that, I feel like I can see every leaf on the trees (even though they are not each individually there). But you sense it, don’t you? You know the detail is there, just to the right degree, and in such a way that implies the rest of the detail that you are blind to.

Mercury and Argus by J. M. W. Turner

I can’t help but wonder about the state of affairs in the world as I think about these ideas today. All the suffering, all the fear taken line by confusing line leads us to a feeling of defeat, doesn’t it? Do we have the faith to take it in its wholeness today? To embrace all that we cannot yet see and understand while believing that God does? To glean some sort of comfort and purpose in this covid19 mess from the knowledge that there are details of our lives in which God is powerfully active, even when we can’t see Him? If it’s true in nature that “you always see something, but you never see all,” can we keep our eyes open to the “something”…to the gifts of grace we can see right now? They are there…in our homes, in our children, in our communities. And do we even dare to tenaciously believe, in faith, that despite the sickness and death we see right now, God is working at a deeper level, in ways we can’t see, to bring beauty and healing and hope?

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