Daily Archives: February 29, 2016

What is Art?

We can define art in its broadest sense by its etymology: art means something artificial, that is, manmade. However, anyone can see that there are great differences between manmade things, manmade things fit into different levels. Thus, there is a great difference between a spade and an antique vase, or a 1960s block of flats and a palace, a Picasso and a Rembrandt, or heavy rock music and a Strauss waltz. All are manmade, but the former examples reflect a lack of inspiration as compared to the latter. What then is inspiration?

Inspiration is the reflection of the soul. Hence the attraction of art made by more refined souls, who have put thought and effort, technique and skill into art. The nobler and finer the soul, the nobler and finer the art. Here then we have the fundamental difference between two different levels of art – what can be called low art and high art. Indeed, so low are mass-produced manmade items, for instance, consumer goods, that some would say that they are not worthy even of the name ‘low art’. After all, they are not manmade, but machine made. On the other hand, there is art that clearly belong to the world of ‘high art’, art that can move the soul by its beauty. However, there is also a world of art higher than ‘high art’.

Here we are talking not just about art inspired by noble and fine souls, but about art inspired by the Divine Spirit. Here we are in the world of Orthodox Christian art. What is the difference between Orthodox Christian art and all other art, low or high? We have spoken already of low and high art, for example a piece of modern art and a Rembrandt painting. But higher than this there is the icon. What is an icon? It is a painting in front of which we want to pray. I have not yet heard of anyone wanting to pray in front of a painting by Picasso, or a painting by Rembrandt, even if its subject was religious. But people want to pray in front of icons. Why?

This is because an icon represents a Divino-human reality and it is painted not just through inspiration of the soul, but through Divine inspiration acting on the spirit. The same is true of Church music, Church architecture and Church artefacts. They all inspire prayer. However beautiful or interesting high art, a piece of classical music, a palace or an antique vase, it does not make us pray. We admire it or are even moved by it, but no more. We cannot forget the stories of SS officers who listened to Mozart before they went off to slaughter some more concentration camp prisoners. Here is the difference between high art and Orthodox Christian art, much greater than the difference even between low art and high art.
We can conclude that there are three levels of art: low art, high art and Orthodox Christian art.

Low art includes everyday manmade or artificial objects, like spades, mugs, cars, flatpack furniture, blocks of flats. This art is so low that only the broadest possible sense of the word art can include them. Low art contains very little inspiration, very little ‘soul’, rather it reflects the fallenness of humanity.

High art is inspired, it is handmade, it contains thought and soul, effort and skill, it reflects the values, nobility and finesse of the soul of its author and can even move by its beauty – but no more.

Finally, there is Orthodox Christian art. This is the art that can bring us to prayer and repentance. It reflects Divine inspiration, the Spirit of God that has inspired the soul and mind and hand of man. In this respect it approaches the beauty of the Unfallen Creation, of Paradise, which can sometimes be picked up by the soul as it looks at what remains of God’s Creation in even this fallen world, the Divine Inspiration behind the forests and the oceans, the mountains and the stars, for these too can bring us to prayer and repentance.

On Local Episcopal Assemblies, A Fixed Common Easter, Churchgoing in the Russian Church and Orthodox Magazines

Q: Do you think that the local Episcopal committees under the chairmanship of the local Constantinople bishop that began around the world a few years ago will lead to the birth of new Local Churches?

J.T., Chicago

A: There is a big difference between an episcopal committee or assembly and a Local Church. As the old saying goes: God so loved the world that He did not send a committee. In other words, the danger has always been of the committees developing into mere talking shops. Some of these committees meet regularly, especially in the USA, others infrequently. That in the British Isles and Ireland seems to have been suspended for the moment because ‘there is nothing more to talk about’.

While the Russian Church was captive in the Soviet Union (and other Eastern European Local Churches captive to atheist regimes as well), the hierarchy in Constantinople had a wonderful opportunity to begin to set up Local Churches in the Diaspora and carry out missionary activity. Sadly, enslaved to phyletism (the word for Greek racism), it utterly failed to do this and instead engaged in aggressive and appalling hellenization and unprincipled modernism and ecumenism at the behest of those who were paying it in dollars. This politicized lack of faithfulness to the Tradition put most Orthodox off Constantinople for good. Since the Russian Church and others have been free, it has become ever clearer that Constantinople missed the boat, throwing away the opportunity given it.

In reality, virtually all missionary activity in the Diaspora has not been carried out by the Patriarchate of Constantinople, or the Romanian, Serbian, Bulgarian and Georgian Churches (which are the only Local Churches with diasporas), but either by one part or another of the Russian Church or else by the Antiochian Church. The former has not always been up to the task by any means, but on the other hand, it has generally, though with some hugely lamentable exceptions, adhered more to the Tradition and the canonical and liturgical Tradition and disciplines of the Church. On the other hand, the latter has displayed an admirable openness and missionary ‘outreach’ (to use a Protestant term), but on the other hand it has been prone to modernism and a disastrous lack of canonical discipline. As one of our parishioners said to me, ‘they have the right spirit and are completely sincere, but unfortunately they know nothing, so tend to make it up as they go along’.

Of course these are generalizations, and I am sure that you can think of exceptions. There are in the Patriarchate of Constantinople as in the Patriarchate of Antioch, as in both parts of the Russian Church, some excellent pastors and missionaries as well as lamentable and scandalous failures. As they say, there are good and bad everywhere.

When will there be new Local Churches? When it is God’s will. And that means when we are worthy of them and when there are enough Orthodox in the Diaspora who think of themselves as indigenous and not attached to a Church based elsewhere, and so want new Local Churches. Very simply, as long as the overwhelming majority of Orthodox in the Diaspora do not want new Local Churches, we will not have them.

Q: What do you think of the Archbishops of Canterbury’s idea of a fixed common Easter?

C.W. London

A: Perhaps I am getting old, but this really is ‘an old chestnut’. I can remember exactly the same proposal in 1975 (or 76) and it was dismissed then by Patriarch Dimitrios as the wishful thinking of travel agents. This time too it is merely the private fantasy of the latest secular-minded Archbishop of Canterbury.

In the Orthodox Church we cannot go against the decisions of the Universal Councils: Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring equinox, and if that should fall at the same time as or within the days of the Jewish Passover period, then Easter will follow on the next Sunday. And by the way, the Spring equinox is a date fixed not by astronomers (we are not pagans who worship the sun and the moon – the sun and the moon worship the Creator), but by the Church, and that currently falls 13 days after the astronomical Spring equinox.

If secular-minded Protestants (and the Roman Catholics with them) want to alter the date of their Easter yet again, then let them, we Orthodox shall carry on in obedience to God and His Church.

Similarly, if secular states want to abolish Easter and create some sort of ‘Spring Feast’ for the chocolate, greetings card, stuffed toy and travel industries, then that is their affair too. In France in the 1970s the masonic government of Giscard D’Estaing abolished Easter holidays in schools and established fixed ‘Spring holidays’. The same can be done by secularists here. It makes little difference to Orthodox.

Q: In the secular West very few people go to Church, less than 5% in most countries. But it is the same in Russia. So why should the Russian Church be listened to?

M. S., London

A: What you say is factually true and the revival in the Russian Church has very, very far to go. However, all this needs to be put into context.

In the West churches are closing down very rapidly, being turned into shops, clubs, stores, halls – just like they did with churches in the Soviet Union in the 20s and 30s. And this in churches where services are short, where you sit down for them and practices like confession, preparation before communion and fasting are virtually unknown. Most churchgoers in the West are aged 70 and over. Very serious voices are suggesting that the Church of England, for example, will have disappeared by 2050. Finally, Western culture is no longer being influenced by the Church and Christian values. In fact, quite the opposite and very rapidly.

In the jurisdiction of the Russian Church 30,000 churches have been built or restored in the last 25 years and the number of clergy ahs increased eightfold. Moreover, this process is continuing. Over the last 25 years well over 120 million people have been baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church. In Russia most churchgoers are under 50 – it is the old people who do not go to church. Very serious people are suggesting that the number of churches could easily double again in the next 25 years. Finally, Russian and East Slav culture is more and more being influenced by the Church and Christian values as Christianity is incarnated into life.

In other words, what you have to look at is not the numbers who go to church in the West and in the Russian Lands today, but the direction that the West and the Russian Lands are travelling in: they are diametrically opposed. We are express trains travelling in opposite directions. And that is why you should listen to the Russian Church.

Q: What advice would you give someone who wanted to launch an Orthodox magazine?

L.O., Manchester

A: Firstly, some practical advice:

The best bit of advice I was given exactly 20 years ago was to have ready enough material for the first ten issues. If you do not, you will simply run out of impetus and you will close down after two or three years. It has happened.

Next: in the last ten to fifteen years the Internet has killed off small-circulation postal subscription magazines. Do not dwell in the past, what was true thirty or forty years ago is no longer true. You should think about going electronic. On line you can have colour pictures for nothing and any format, font and size of font that you want. It is what we did nine years ago.

Next: do not include news in your magazine because inevitably it will be out of date. You can go online and read news immediately, nobody wants old news.

Next: think about how often you would produce such a magazine. As a result of the internet, postal charges (especially going abroad) have quadrupled in about ten years. Three or four times a year could be ideal. But again, you should think about going electronic from the start: no postal charges.

Secondly, some advice on content:

Aim at producing something to be kept and to be referred to, not to be thrown away twenty minutes after it has been opened. Aim therefore at producing quality, something unique, something which teaches and is edifying. Nobody wants to read something that they already know or brings no spiritual benefit. That, sadly, already exists.

Next: avoid a sectarian new/old calendarist spirit. It is not edifying and at once you will lose most of your readership. And if you are not on-line, your readership numbers are important because you will start losing money. That has happened too.

Next: avoid stories of only local interest. You are not producing a parish bulletin. Details of local, insular news are not of interest to others. We belong to something greater, not to something insular. Look at the big picture, the wider church in space and time and beyond space and time. Give people something to think about.

Next: avoid an unhealthy and superficial fascination with ‘Byzantinism’, ‘personalities’ and recipes, beloved of the narrow interests of Anglican converts. Remember that most Orthodox are not Anglican converts and have a completely different perspective!
Finally, as far as possible, avoid factual inaccuracies, something that all journalists must struggle against.