In God’s Image: Do Good People Make Good Art?

Gregory Wolfe | Posted on 04/01/05

Near the beginning of the film Amadeus, the reigning court composer of Vienna, Antonio Salieri, wanders through a palace trying to guess which of the guests at a lavish party is Wolfgang Mozart, once a famous child prodigy and now a young man acclaimed for his genius as a composer. Salieri, who has risen from humble origins to his position of eminence through sheer hard work, is a deeply devout man, having vowed that he would offer his life and music to God if only God would grant him artistic genius. Momentarily distracted from his search by a passing tray of pastries, Salieri enters an empty room. Suddenly a woman bursts in, hotly pursued by a man who proceeds to chase her under a table. The man’s silly giggles and goosings are cut short when he hears a chamber orchestra begin a piece of surpassing beauty. “My music!” he says, and tears out of the room to take up the conductor’s baton.

Salieri is stunned. How is it possible that such an undignified, scandalous youth could be the creator of music as noble and elevated as that which is echoing through the palace? In a moment, Salieri’s world is undone: instead of rewarding piety and unremitting labor, God has seen fit to grant a callow brat a share of divine power.

Even if we acknowledge that Sir Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus involves a considerable amount of artistic license in embellishing and distorting the historical facts, the dramatic premise of the film (adapted from Shaffer’s stage play) somehow rings true. Creative genius often seems to be ladled out to those who are manifestly unworthy of it. Indeed, artistic genius has been so frequently bound up with vanity, neurosis, lust, and the rest of the Seven Deadly Sins that it might be considered more of a curse than a blessing. The literature of the West is replete with stories of geniuses whose hubris brings about tragic consequences, from Oedipus Rex to Doctor Faustus to Frankenstein and beyond. Whether in art, science, or politics, creative genius is a form of power, and power, as we all know, corrupts.

As these examples attest, the same capacity we speak of as creativity can also bring about destruction – of personal relationships, social order, and even of human life on a mass scale. We live in a time when human ingenuity has added a series of apocalyptic scenarios to our imaginations. Biological, chemical, and electronic terrors now compete with nuclear weapons in our collective nightmares.

So in what sense might we say that creativity is a virtue? Oscar Wilde, a creative individual if there ever was one, and an artist with his own share of problems, framed the question with his usual wit. “The fact of a man’s being a poisoner,” he once said, “is nothing against his prose.”

.....

If Wilde strikes you as suspect in voicing this opinion, given his own notorious troubles, how about those two paragons of reason and rectitude – Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas? They provide a philosophical basis for Wilde’s position by distinguishing between two different types of human action: making and doing. Doing involves human choices, the way we exercise our free will. In the realm of doing – or Prudence, as it has been called – the goal is the perfection of the doer. In other words, in our behavior we are seeking to perfect ourselves as moral agents.

But in making – or Art, if you will – the end is not the good of the artist as a person but the good of the made thing. The moment that art is made subservient to some ethical or political purpose, it ceases to be art and becomes propaganda. Art seems to require an inviolable freedom to seek the good of the artifact, without either overt or covert messages being forced into it. And history demonstrates that it is simply a statement of fact (to paraphrase Aquinas) that rectitude of the appetites is not a prerequisite for the ability to make beautiful objects. Thus our poisoner with his exquisite prose style. Or Picasso brutalizing the women in his life. Or the legion of artists and scientists who drank or drugged themselves to death.

Of course, many people have condoned – or at least downplayed – the anarchic and damaging behavior of the creative mastermind. One of the enduring legacies of the Romantic era is the cult of genius, which pits the heroic artist, attuned to Nature, against the moral norms of Society, which are seen as artificial and restrictive. A professor of mine once pointed out the enormous cultural divide separating a composer like Franz Josef Haydn, who (like Mozart) worked for a patron and saw himself essentially as a craftsman, and Ludwig von Beethoven, who was the independent genius par excellence, the titan with the knitted brow, prepared to enthrall everyone around him. The lives of Haydn and Beethoven overlapped for almost forty years, but the cultural sea change that took place over the course of those two generations was epochal.

It would be wrong, I think, to blame the Aristotelian-Thomist conception of art – that art is concerned with the perfection of the object and not that of the maker – for the rise of the Romantic cult of genius. For one thing, those philosophers were anything but antinomian in their thought; the artist was still subject to the laws of Prudence. Moreover, these thinkers had a broad definition of art, one that did not elevate the genius above the common man – the cobbler and the composer were, in a sense, on the same plane, a fact still alive in Haydn’s self-understanding.

The ultimate extension of Romantic ideas about the artist can be found in the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, for whom the genius was the superman, beyond good and evil. In the composer Richard Wagner, Nietzsche thought he had found an avatar of the artist. Wagner’s epic operas, with their sense of the ending of the old order of gods, followed by a new era of human emancipation, seemed to embody Nietzsche’s belief in the superman. But after Wagner composed Parsifal, based on the mythology of the Holy Grail and rooted in Christian metaphors, he was abandoned by Nietzsche, who accused him of “falling at the foot of the cross.”

There have been plenty of other creative individuals in the modern era who were quite content to consider themselves beyond good and evil, and their antics have done much to turn a large segment of the population against the arts.

.....

So where does this leave us? If creativity seems unequally distributed, can bring about destruction, does not intrinsically aid in the moral perfection of the creative individual, and has been tainted by the Romantic cult of genius, it doesn’t seem to warrant consideration as a virtue.

And yet there is something in most of us that accords a high measure of dignity and worth to the creative impulse. Nearly all the world’s religions are grounded in creation stories that also ennoble human beings as agents who perpetuate the divine act of creation by their own actions. In turn, each human action partakes in some measure of the supernatural powers of the creator.

On a personal level, we witness and are enriched by the grandeur of creativity when we see it embodied in art or engineering or statecraft. We sense that creativity lies at the heart of what makes us human, and that without it our lives would be spiritually and materially impoverished.

The world’s great religious traditions reinforce this intuition. Both Judaism and Buddhism, for example, stress the relationship between creativity and spiritual practice. In Genesis, God creates out of nothing, out of silence and the void. Zen Buddhism calls on its followers to achieve a form of “mindfulness” that can only be cultivated by silence and stillness. Musicians often speak of the way that sound emerges out of a meditative silence, and visual artists speak of the block of marble that contains the figure within. Listening to the silence or waiting for the form to be revealed within the stone are forms of attentiveness, even prayerfulness. As Lama Surya Das has written about the Zen tradition:


It takes time and practice to learn to “get out of the way” and enter into the state from which such true art emerges. The total attention, precision, and discipline required for true creativity to blossom though one’s own craft requires fully inhabiting the present moment, free of self and other, past and future, in a nonconceptual state of wakefulness – just like meditation practice. The late Tibetan master Trungpa Rinpoche called it “First thought, best thought” – a slogan embodying the notion that raw, unedited “isness” is the stuff that real poetry is made of. Every moment is rich with infinite possibilities. Think of it as channeling: Get out of the way, and let the Muse speak.


The Christian poet T.S. Eliot put it this way in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” And the paradox is that in that displacement of personality, the true self is free to make itself known.

Eastern religious ideas about creativity may be said to correct a number of unhealthy tendencies in Western ideas. Too often, Western thinkers have seen creativity in terms of concepts like “productivity” or “originality,” veering dangerously close to a kind of hubris, arrogating to themselves the role of God, who is the only one who truly creates out of nothing. But in the East, creativity is intimately bound up with a struggle to discern inner truth and the growth of the self. The stress here is less on production and more on attunement and the connections we sense when we practice a contemplative openness before being.

.....

While creativity itself may not be a virtue, then, I would argue that the truest, most unsentimental thing we can say about creativity is that it is a constant invitation to virtue, that if we step back and look for the deeper meanings of the creative urge and the lessons of the creative process, we will discover myriad opportunities to develop our inner lives, whether we are makers ourselves or are simply responding to the creativity of others. In what follows, I will draw primarily from the realm I know most about: literature. But one could just as easily search for analogies in almost any area of human endeavor.

In 1950, at the age of twenty-six, Flannery O’Connor was on a roll. She had left her childhood home in Milledgeville, Georgia, and her unimaginative and sometimes overbearing mother, Regina, and was living in Connecticut with a young literary couple, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. O’Connor had already received a degree from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a literary prize that gave a New York publisher an option on her first novel. An invitation to the artists’ colony Yaddo had introduced her to such literary stars as the poet Robert Lowell and critic Alfred Kazin. She had been to dinner parties with Mary McCarthy and her circle of New York intellectuals.

As a Southerner and a Catholic, O’Connor had many reasons to feel an almost adversarial relationship to New York as the citadel of America’s cultural elite. But she was there to take it on, headfirst. She was feeling her oats.

Then, at Christmas, she developed the first symptoms of lupus, the disease that had taken the life of her father when she was just fifteen. Her father had lived for only three years after the onset of symptoms, so O’Connor assumed that she would have only a short time left. Aware that she would become debilitated and could not ask the Fitzgeralds, with their growing family, to care for her, O’Connor made the only decision she could: she packed her bags and returned home to the family farm, Andalusia, and her querulous mother.

The defeat could not have been more total. Living with her mother and a family of ducks on the farm, she was cut off from any intellectual or cultural stimulus, confined to letter writing for contact with the outside world. Her fiction, which employed violence and the grotesque, horrified her mother. “Why can’t you write something uplifting,” Regina would say, “like the folks at Reader’s Digest?” As O’Connor confided in a letter to a friend: “This always leaves me shaking and speechless, raises my blood pressure 140 degrees, etc. All I can say is, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

Despite the pain and enervation of lupus and the daily domestic frustrations, O’Connor did not collapse into self-pity and paralysis. A self-described “hillbilly Thomist,” she embraced the Aristotelian-Thomist view of art, especially as she found it described by one of her contemporaries, the French Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, in his Art and Scholasticism. She was grateful to Maritain for making the distinction between Art and Prudence because she believed that a Christian writer’s “moral sense” and “dramatic sense” ought to coincide. For O’Connor, as for several other important modern Christian writers, including T.S. Eliot and David Jones, Maritain provided a sort of liberation: he helped explain why religious writers ought to resist the temptation to turn their work into didactic or propagandistic art.

But she also noted Maritain’s argument that art did involve what the ancient philosophers called habitus, or the virtue of artistic craft and discipline. Every day she sat down at her typewriter for a minimum of two to three hours, however wretched she may have been feeling, physically or emotionally. She was tart and unsentimental about the creative process, belonging to the school of artists who believe that inspiration can only be found by sitting down at 9:00 a.m. each day and meeting it halfway. At public lectures she was often asked why she wrote. “Because I’m good at it,” she invariably replied. And if some in the audience were offended by this remark, others recognized that she was simply being true to the Thomistic understanding of art.

.....

For O’Connor, however, writing fiction involved more than the virtue, or habit, of disciplined effort. She believed that creating a convincing, enduring world in a story requires the author to achieve a difficult balance: between judgment and mercy, reason and mystery, nature and grace. She saw the model of perfect balance in the Incarnation of Christ, who was both human and divine, infinitely holy yet infinitely merciful. She would have agreed with J.R.R. Tolkien that the artist (or creative person in general) engages in an act of “subcreation” – not creating out of nothing, as God does, but creating a microcosm in a manner analogous to that of the Creator.

Good storytelling, she held, was grounded in metaphysical concerns. The creative writer tells us about lives where something ultimate is at stake. “Where there is no belief in the soul” and its need for salvation, she once wrote, “there is very little drama.”

O’Connor’s theology of the imagination was close in spirit to that of another twentieth-century Christian writer, Dorothy Sayers. Like O’Connor, Sayers was a tough cookie, choosing Dante and Aquinas as her heroes rather than the Romantics. Though she is known primarily for her mystery novels, Sayers was an enormously gifted thinker; she was a playwright, a translator of Dante, and something of a theologian. In The Mind of the Maker, one of her most profound works, Sayers contends that the creative process in art works in ways that correspond to the dynamic relation among the three Persons of the Trinity in Christian theology – and that the activity of one illuminates the activity of the other. She first made the point at the end of her play, The Zeal of Thy House, in which one character says:


For every work [or act] of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.

First, [not in time, but merely in order of enumeration] there is the Creative Idea, passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning: and this is the image of the Father.

Second, there is the Creative Energy [or Activity] begotten of that idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter: and this is the image of the Word.

Third, there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the lively soul: and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit.

And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without the other; and this is the image of the Trinity.


Or, to put it more succinctly, there is the mind of the author, the act of writing, and the experience of reading and comprehending the story.

All this might seem a bit schematic, but Sayers draws out the implications in a variety of arresting ways. The artist makes things out of love, she says, but this does not imply some sort of jealous possession or domination over the work. Rather, the “artist never desires to subdue her work to herself but always to subdue herself to her work. The more genuinely creative she is, the more she will want her work to develop in accordance with its own nature, and to stand independent of herself.” For a writer this means giving the characters in the story free will, seeking their good rather than her own. It also means that as readers we can come to know, in some measure, the mind of the Maker.

The imagination works through empathy, which requires the artist to place herself in the experience of another – and thus lose herself. While the death of the self may appear to be a loss of control and individuality, the paradox of artistic creativity is that only through this openness to the good of the story and the characters who inhabit it can the maker discover meaning and order.

Flannery O’Connor understood this. Although she has sometimes been caricatured as a testy spinster and a hyper-controlling artist with a rather narrow emotional range, the O’Connor one finds in her letters, collected in The Habit of Being, is a very different character. She was funny, generous, intensely loyal to her friends, and able to see her own foibles and temptations. She frequently turned that unflinching gaze of hers upon herself.

.....

More often than not, the characters in O’Connor’s stories who are the most obtuse, the most prideful, are the isolated would-be intellectuals who believe their genius puts them beyond good and evil. Take the character of Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” Confined to the company of his tiresome mother, a woman obsessed by distinctions of race and class and burdened with an absurdly inflated aristocratic sensibility, Julian begins to believe that his cynical, disillusioned mind can see through everything – until he suddenly experiences loss.

Or what about Joy in “Good Country People”? Stuck in a rural home with a narrow-minded, pragmatic mother, Joy decides to withdraw into her own arcane studies (which sound a lot like deconstruction theory), taking the harsh name of “Hulga” to complete her self-reinvention. When a seemingly naïve and gawky young man comes to her door with bibles for sale, she thinks she can see through him. But she has another think coming – experiencing a reversal that strikes down her pride. Did the writer, who chose to go by her unusual middle name, rather than her given name of Mary, see something of herself in the lonely, angry Hulga?

O’Connor’s tales are parables of human pride confronted by the shock of divine grace – the violence in her stories is caused not by God but by the stubbornness of our human attempt to live as autonomous agents. By the same token, the grotesque in her fiction is not an unhealthy obsession with deformity but a metaphor for what we make of ourselves, the distortion that takes place when creatures attempt to think of themselves as gods, as creators of their own world. In the moment of violence that often concludes her stories, God’s judgment and His mercy are one and the same. That is why her stories are open-ended: we don’t know whether or not the protagonists will choose the virtuous path. Which throws the question back at us, her readers: What would we do?

Of course, O’Connor would be the first to admit that art has many seasons and purposes: while there is a time for art that deals with what is tragic and broken in human experience, there is also room for work that celebrates goodness in a less complicated form. Like most people of faith, she drew nourishment from the unsullied beauty of paintings of the Madonna and Child, the Nativity, and other depictions of innocence and love. Beauty itself is a category large enough to encompass both the searing darkness of, say, the Crucifixion, and the glorious light of the manger scene. In a strange way, beauty shines out of O’Connor’s writing, as when she writes in one of her most disturbing stories that the “trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.”

.....

In one sense, O’Connor’s writing gave her the opportunity to learn and relearn the virtues of self-knowledge and humility: by seeing her own sinfulness in some of her characters she recognized her own need for mercy. But O’Connor did not believe that art is merely self-expression – another problematic legacy of the Romantic era. Rather, she saw herself as a “Christian realist,” and believed that art had to do justice to the world beyond the self. In one her letters O’Connor writes: “Maritain says that to produce a work of art requires the ‘constant attention of the purified mind,’ and the business of purified mind in this case is to see that those elements of the personality that don’t bear on the subject at hand are excluded. Stories don’t lie when left to themselves. Everything has to be subordinated to a whole which is not you. Any story I reveal myself completely in will be a bad story.”

Since O’Connor’s untimely death in 1964 at the age of thirty-nine, one of the dominant strains in Western thought has held that traditional ideas about the creative individual are false. A host of postmodern thinkers have asserted that the very notion of creativity is an illusion. Meaning, they say, is “constructed,” not by an individual who has developed the habitus of art, but by other forces: the “selfish gene,” or the unconscious, or the economic means of production. Postmodern artists and critics have spoken of the exhaustion of art; awash in the fragments of past cultures, modern art is reduced to eclectic “quotation” of older works, and has lost the drive to synthesize the achievements of the past into something new.

It is no accident that this worldview has no time for the Judeo-Christian understanding of art as subcreation, something analogous to God’s creative fiat. The postmodernists reject Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s definition of the imagination as the “repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Like Hulga, these intellectuals think they can see through everything, but they do so at the expense of their own humanity.

The undermining of traditional Western ideas about creativity has brought about a deep cultural impoverishment. Creativity may be only an invitation to virtue – an invitation that is not always accepted – but it exists only in individual souls, souls that must struggle to observe the world, empathize with its inhabitants, and shape an artifact into a form that communicates meaning to others.