I have a daughter who is an artist. Her art is a gift that eludes me. The wonder is not so much in the skill of her hands but in her eyes. For having watched this phenomenon grow up and mature, I am certain of one thing: she sees the world in a way I do not. It is not so much that she sees beauty and that I see none, but that she seems able to follow that beauty and make it flow out of her pen. When I look at her work, I am moved to ask not, “How were you able to draw that?” but first, “How were you able to see that?”
I have read whole books on the process of drawing (I’ve always wanted to have that gift and I do not).
Parenthetically, I took my daughter with me to a week’s workshop with the renowned iconographer, Xenia Pokrovsky. Xenia said to me at the end of the week, “You’re too old to learn. But give me your daughter. I’ll make her an iconographer!” It was kind of her to attribute my clumsy work to my age and not to my complete lack of talent.
But what I have learned about drawing is that it requires you to actually draw what you see. And that’s the strange wonder of it. For I think that the artist must be seeing something that I don’t – when, in fact, they are simply seeing what they see. It is the non-artist (most of us) who is blind to the world as it is.
Every week or two, one child or another in the parish will present me with a picture – of me. Drawn in the service as a bit of a distraction, such drawings are always received with great thanks and a little marvel at what I see. And, I think, my art does not go far beyond theirs. For what I will see is not a picture of how I look (thank God!), but of how they think. Some things are very important in such drawings: the robes, not with detail, but the large phelonian for sure. Sometimes it is nothing more than a triangle with a circle on the top for my head. And, swirling from the circle is some representation of a beard (nothing on top, I fear). There is often a Cross on the triangle as well.
It is, of course, an abstraction – Picasso at age four. The process in which they are engaged, drawing what they think, will continue for the rest of their lives (if they are like me) and they will wonder why their art looks so little – like art.
But in time, and with some training, a person can learn to draw what they see. That sounds so simple – and it’s not. The habit of the non-artist is to draw what-they-think-they-see. But they do not see light and dark, shadow and shading. When I draw a nose, I try to draw a nose (the idea). When my daughter draws a nose, it is complex set of shape, shadow and shading. And – wonder of wonders – looks like a nose!
At this point in the article, you may be wondering if there is a theological point to all of this. Indeed, there is. For our perception of the world is equally abstracted – we do not see what we see – but what we think we see – and we constantly misrepresent the world to ourselves.
Jonathan Pageau, the Orthodox iconographer/carver, has written a number of articles (here, here, and here), that reflect on abstractions inherent in the modern mind. My favorite is his observation that “most of the time, the world is flat.” Meaning by that, that we perceive a flat earth. We do not see the earth turn, nor do we see it going around the Sun. We see the sun go around the earth. And so we speak of sunrise and sunset, not earthturn.
But Pageau notes that something has happened in the Modern mind. We now correct for ourselves the reality that we experience. We remind ourselves that what we see is not correct (scientifically). But, in fact, it is only true (in a relative, experiential sense) if we were standing somewhere in space looking back on our planet.
He describes this as something of an alienation from the world in which we live. We constantly “demythologize” our senses and pretend we see things from outer space. He notes that the language of Scripture and of the Church’s prayers accurately describe the world as we see it. Statements such as “the four corners of the earth” are completely understandable. Any child could follow what is being said. But the Modern must insist, with something of a knowing smile, “But the earth doesn’t really have four corners.” The Modern man, though living in the age of Einstein’s theory of relativity, becomes the least relativist of all men speaking of what “really” is.
Among the myths of Modernity is the insistence that truth can only refer to what “really” is in a very narrow “semi-scientific” meaning of the term. With this shift in point-of-view (from our eyes to telescope, microscope, video camera, etc.) we slowly lose the ability to actually see what we see. Today a family sits around a table in a restaurant, all looking at their phones, while the world that is actually present goes unobserved, including those who sit at table. A new instinct is emerging: whenever we see something we like, our camera/phone immediately rises so that what we actually see can be shared with those who are no longer actually seeing. For the world we now inhabit has reached an extreme pitch of abstraction.
This abuse and loss of our eyesight also alienates us from God. For the God who is everywhere present, does not exist in the abstract. He makes Himself present. And we see that Presence more clearly when we actually see what we see. Our modern habit makes us do quite the opposite – we think about what we see – and, in order to see God – we think even harder about what we see – failing to realize that our very abstraction pushes us ever more distant.
I recently translated all of this into something of a space/time consideration. For Modern man is also Historical man. More than at any time in history, we are aware of history. It is Modern man who created terms such as “Ancient, Medieval, Dark Ages,” etc. No one in the Dark Ages ever thought to himself, “I live in the Dark Ages.” Indeed, he never thought much at all about “time in history.” That’s a particularly modern habit. And it is an abstraction.
My observation is that, rather than being present to things-as-they-are, we are often present to things-in-abstraction. We go to the mall, and come away thinking about how our culture is in steep decline (or something similar). We experience weather, but consider it under the heading of Climate Change. Abstraction on top of abstraction and we wonder why our lives are filled with anxiety and anger!
We live our lives one moment at a time. We cannot live in a period of history. The self-awareness created by such abstractions is not actually a self-awareness, but a false consciousness in which we actually perceive ourselves to be living in an ideological construct and never actually in the world.
The Liturgy of the Church demands that we ignore such distractions. “Now lay aside all earthly cares,” we sing. This is not a call to think abstractly, but to pay attention (“Let us attend!”). For the Kingdom of God is come.
Then Jesus turned to His disciples and said privately, “Blessed are the eyes which see the things you see; for I tell you that many prophets and kings have desired to see what you see, and have not seen it, and to hear what you hear, and have not heard it.” (Luk 10:23-24)