Berdyaev: Art and Transformation

In literature and the arts more broadly, the idea of creative genius has kinda come in and out of fashion. We talked previously about the idea of inspiration (Eastshade: On Inspiration), and I offered a few different phases that might characterize our approach to these ideas. There’s inspiration as something from the divine, as something stemming from an internal wellspring, and as a simple matter of cause and effect. I think in scholarship particularly, there’s a tendency to discuss creative works in terms of the latter framing. Academics like to historicize, to place things in their context, drawing out the influences and heritage in a way that positions artists as part of a continuous tradition. The emphasis is on the unbroken chain of development from one artist to the next – it’s not often articulated in terms of radical breaks or newness.

And theologians often have a pretty specific opinion about this whole creativity thing too. There’s one strain of thought that argues that only God creates. God is Creator, and we are creatures, the created – it’s the same etymological root. In that context, the argument goes, true creativity – Creativity, if you like – is exclusive to the divine. The term is walled off, separated from the things we do when we make art or music or whatever – a lesser, diluted form of lower-case creativity – sub-creation, as Tolkien has it. This theory can technically be combined with any of the other three – God might cause us to sub-create by magically dumping inspiration into us, or it might be something He baked into our being, or it might be something He put into the environment, such that what we think of as simple cause and effect is actually divine intervention set into place before time. This last one would be a variation of Schleiermacher’s theory around miracles (Schleirmacher: What’s a Miracle?).

In this context, we return to Berdyaev’s ideas around newness and creativity. We introduced Berdyaev a couple weeks back – he’s an exiled Russian orthodox theologian who lived mostly in France during the first half of the twentieth century. We’re currently looking at his book The Beginning and the End, where he’s talking about choice and free will and so on. He argues that our ability to introduce new things into the world – to make new decisions, to actualize things that previously were only potential – is evidence of our free will (Berdyaev: On Choice and the New). It’s a break in the chain of cause and effect, something stemming from outside of the systems that we live our lives in. For Berdyaev, it was an affirmation of our irrepressible humanity in the face of the Nazi war machine.

Today we’re going to extend that conversation into the domain of art or creativity, looking at chapter VII of The Beginning and the End. Where some theologians might baulk at the idea of assigning creativity to humans, Berdyaev says that we’re obviously creative. Our choices draw new things into being – they are acts of creation. “In the creative act of man, a new element is introduced, something which was not there before, which is not contained in the given world, and is not part of its make-up, but which breaks through from another scheme of the world… out of an illuminated freedom.” God creates from nothing and so do we – we bring things into the world that previously had no existence. It’s something we do with our choices, and it’s also, Berdyaev argues, something we do with our art.

Berdyaev claims that creativity, aesthetic or otherwise, “consists in triumph over given, determined, concrete life; it is a victory over the world.” That is, when we create, we introduce something new into the world, something that cannot be explained by reference to the things that came before. When ice melts into water, it’s a redistribution of something that already existed. It’s the same substance in a different form. And we understand the general principles at play in this transition – we understand that solids turn into liquids when you reach their melting point. The universe has rules, and things tend to behave reliably according to those rules. For Berdyaev, then, the truly new is an intervention from outside of all of those existing systems. Newness cannot be explained in terms of cause and effect – it breaks through from another place. Therefore, if creativity is the introduction of something new into the world, then it is a victory over the world – it overrides the systems and rules of reality. “Objectification knows a humdrum day-to-day concreteness of its own, but creative power finds its way out from this imposed concreteness, into concreteness of another kind.”

So creativity transforms the world, taking the material of existence and changing it into something else, something that can’t be explained from within the real. It “anticipates the transfiguration of the world” – according to Berdyaev, “this is the meaning of art, of any art.” I mentioned in the previous article that The Beginning and the End was a book about eschatology, about the end times – this is really where that aspect kicks into gear. To Berdyaev, art is a small transformation of the world, anticipating its final transformation. “It is an end of this world and a beginning of the new world… created not by God only, but also by man.” In that sense, art is prophetic – not necessarily in its content, but in its form as the coming of the new: “Creative activity … speaks prophetically of a different world, of another, a transformed state of the world … in it the impossibility of resting content with this given world is proclaimed, in it this world comes to an end, and another world begins.” It proclaims “that this world is superable, that congealed being can be overcome. It tells of the possibility of setting it free from its chains, it speaks of liberation and transformation.”

Often when you hear theological accounts of art, they devolve into moral policing – good art is confused with art which promotes good behaviour. Matters of technique are almost entirely irrelevant, as long as the message is approved by the relevant religious hierarchy. What’s exciting about Berdyaev’s account is that he’s interested in the process of art. He gives you a thesis – that art is transformation, that it’s prophetic – and offers conceptual space for aesthetic practice. The best-made art is the most transformative. It’s where something new enters into the world – a promise, a defiance, a hint of a world yet to come.

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