Tapping into the 3D Imagination: Realizing Person Through Art

In In Tune with the World, Josef Pieper shows that Speech, Art, and Festival are all rooted in the affirmation of being, the praise of God. When one prospers, or suffers, the others are likewise affected. These three forms of expression suggest three dimensions of being through which we are fully realized. One of these is too-often overlooked when we discuss spiritual formation.

Regarding the first form of expression, Speech, no one doubts the need for Christians to develop greater facility with words and logic. The dimension that Speech reflects is foundational to the person, to the Catholic Faith, to the Liturgy.

Regarding the third dimension, Festival, we easily acknowledge the need for Sacramental forms. The Liturgy is the ritual festival – a form which serves to communicate God to his people. This third dimension corresponds to our notion of ‘three-dimensional’ as ‘most fully realized’.

As reflected in Art, dimension two, the metaphoric, is less obvious and therefore, as I’ve noted, often overlooked. This is a way of communicating through forms that link what is known to what is less familiar. It corresponds to the arts, but is not limited to artistic expression.

The Word and the Body of Christ are ‘content’ that directly affect the recipient. Metaphor is a movement through which capacity –  or ‘context’ –  is developed for the truth and the life of Christ within us. This ‘way in the middle,’ is often overlooked as an important aspect of human development.

Education is the sphere in which we learn to use words well, while formation in ‘Sacramental communication’ occurs primarily at church. Of course both ways of learning involve the home, as the parents are a child’s primary educators. But where and how do we develop a capacity for the giving-and-taking of artistic forms?

There’s no particular, actual place for us to acquire the kind of mind that drinks deeply of meaning from artistic forms, or yearns to create them to communicate meaningfully with others. The arts get left out of both education and liturgy.

Art may seem superfluous in the light of pragmatic goals, and unnecessary in the light of high spiritual goals. It is suspected of being messy, risky, self-indulgent, even decadent. So, we keep focusing on the transfer of content instead of the cultivation of capacity, in much of our verbal and sacramental formation of the human person.

Growth in the metaphoric dimension occurs as we move – and as we are moved –  between the active development of self and the action of God upon the self.  Back and forth we move and we are moved between a receptivity to God’s action upon the soul, and a response-ability to the reality we encounter.

The second dimension is this integrating, form-generating movement – from disintegrated dualism to 3-D wholeness, from communion to communication. The individual is at the center of that movement. His need to affirm, to re-present, what is whole, real, true, beautiful and good, and to bring to the foot of the Cross every reality that affects him, is the motive force, that calls for artistic expression and develops this dimension. How do the arts help?

Art teaches you:

  • To bear tension until it can be resolved creatively, to be free to act within constraints. Creativity involves resolving tension – between positive and negative space, between melody and harmony, between people with competing interests – with a new thing.
  • To see negative space creatively, as a part of a composition. Too often, we refuse to see the negatives, or we merely compromise, because we don’t have experience resolving seeming conflict creatively.
  • To deal with interference, frustration, mess…real struggle.
  • To better understand the dynamics of being formed by God –the author, the potter, the designer of the temple.
  • To value silence and interior spaciousness, non-doing and receptivity, holy leisure.
  • To use material things generously, as means rather than as ends.
  • To see persons as works of art, to be received with awe and respect.
  • To see deeply into things, and through them to their creators.
  • To know the difference between ‘idea’ and ‘real’ and to do the hard work of realizing ideas.
  • To draw others to Christ by means of your own vulnerability and pain.
  • To accept criticism and discipline as necessary conditions for approaching perfection.
  • To develop magnanimity and joy through self-donation.
  • To bring truth, and not propaganda, to the world.
  • To be a beginner (frustrated, inept, clumsy) and so to be a better parent, or teacher.
  • To participate in the Liturgy as in a great drama
  • To respond to the reality you encounter and thus, to increase your freedom, your sphere of response-ability.
  • Art has something to teach about economics. Creators and consumers understand ‘money,’ ‘work,’ ‘value,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘exchange’ very differently, and we need more artists to explore these insights.
  • Art develops an interior spaciousness, an inner architecture, which adds coherence and context to everything else you learn and experience.
  • Art stimulates creative playfulness in every area of life, and increases your sense that life is a surprising adventure.

To receive all this from ‘art’ we need practice creating forms that convey the truth, communicate Christ, realize ideas, re-present experience, respond to reality.

Being is a Work of Art

 ‘3-D human beings,’ with fully developed verbal, metaphoric, and sacramental dimensions, are needed for the New Evangelization. We must enter into the experience of being artists in order to be formed by the arts. It is not enough to know ‘about’ art, or to ‘appreciate’ art. You need to at least try to create something that carries your own response – to truth, to Creation’s beauty, to Christ, to the pain of someone you care about – to experience to some degree what it is to be an artist, even if you are not called to be a great one.

Works of art have meaning apart from the purpose they accomplish, the work they do, the money paid for them, or the scope of their influence. It is because we do not understand this about art that we do not fully understand the human person, and vice versa.

Our own work, effort, skill, and action are neither all-powerful, nor insignificant. Finding our way prayerfully within this tension is the ‘working out’ of salvation by which we craft our lives and our works of art.

When we use our materials to re-present, we create small vessels of encounter with God. As persons, we are such vessels. We will encounter people who can’t fully receive our Christ-lit personhood, our words of truth, our Sacraments. Through art, our speech becomes songs they can hear, and our liturgy becomes festival they can share.

Too many people skip over any attempt to actually create a work of art. “I’m not an artist,” is a statement I’ve heard many times, on inviting others to develop the metaphoric dimension more fully. I believe that artists must reassure others that this dimension is meant for human beings – for the full realization of human being – and not only for a small subset of specially talented people. Fully realized human beings will better communicate Christ.

By Charlotte Ostermann


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Charlotte: This was an excellent, thought provoking and personally challenging piece. As a homeschooling Mom to 2 small children, I am guilty of subordinating any art appreciation or engagement to more "pragmatic" subjects. However, my children gravitate naturally towards the creative, in their plan, in their writing, in their drawings, in their appreciation of the canvas of creation. It is me, the practical, list-making Mom, who needs to learn these lessons. Thank you for sharing!

So beautiful, Charlotte! And so true. I remember my mom asking me once what it was like to be a poet, or how I got my inspiration, or something like that. I replied that it wasn't so much a skill with rhythm or rhyme--although those are important as the creative limitations, the tensions you talk about--as it was a way of looking at life through metaphor. It wasn't just words, it was all my being, seeing, absorbing, and creating in wholeness. I think I will hang onto that checklist of things art should teach you as a reminder to myself when I'm working on my own writing. Thank you for this post!

Debbie, Mary, thanks for your beautiful comments. Believe me, RESPONSE is a little-known art form these days!

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