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23 4WO Spiritual Functions of Art Any significant artwork gives a strong impression of integrated completeness. It presents us with a wholeness of content and form that is deeply satisfying. Whatever its subject matter—however specific or delimited or mundane this may be—its elements and structure together provoke in us a sense of selfcontainment and totality. In this way it reminds us, emotionally and immediately , of the unity of reality—the unity of all things. This is why Voegelin describes the experience of significant art as being “closer to cosmological thinking than anything else” and compares an excellent artwork to a satisfying mythos: it brings us back to the primary experience of the cosmos, that experience in which all dimensions of being are felt as present and interpenetrating . “All art,” Voegelin said in a discussion in 1965, if it is any good, is some sort of a myth in the sense that it becomes what I call a cosmion, a reflection of the unity of the cosmos as a whole. The odd thing about a work of art is that it is an intelligible unit even if it is only, in the most naturalistic sense, a segment of a reality that extends around it in all directions. . . . How to produce such units and make them convincing models of the unity of the world—that is the problem in art.1 The artist’s task is to create a cosmion. So the question suggests itself: How is this problem solved? What allows a work of art to successfully reflect—and 24 A More Beautiful Question thereby evoke a remembrance of—the cosmos within which we have come to exist? Let us start to answer this question by considering, first, the content of artworks , and second, the formal structure of a good artwork. First, then, as to content, the language of art is that of symbols. Symbols, although they may have a conceptual aspect—the symbols of poetry are intrinsically conceptual, the symbols of music are not—are fundamentally images. And symbolic images, unlike the concepts employed in science, mathematics , and logic, are intentionally allusive and ambiguous, layered with multiple meanings. Ideally, a concept used in science or logic is univocal in meaning. But a symbol is an image that is intentionally “overdetermined” with meaning ; one symbol can even contain contradictory meanings. Further, symbolic images carry emotional power—they are affect-laden images, arising from and meant to evoke feelings, and so the meaning of art is above all emotional meaning, with complex or compound symbols evoking compound, and even contradictory,feelings.2 The point of artistic meaning as conveyed in symbols, then, is not to come to rest in one single or settled interpretation, but to be an evocation of multiplicities of feeling, an ongoing provocation to imagination, and a recurrent inspiration to both feeling and thought. (This is why Kant described aesthetic appreciation as involving a“free play”between the powers of imagination and understanding.) 3 And so it is that artistic symbols, in their allusive density of signification and connotation, can evoke the full range of human emotional and intellectual experiences in the drama of human living , including the most unsettling and uncanny ambiguities of meaning and purpose and the most evocative intimations of the mystery of transcendence. Finally, the best art manifests a refinement of such symbolic images into expressions of meaning that are so condensed, and yet so open-ended and farreaching in their suggestiveness, that they are, as Paul Valéry says,“perpetually stimulating”—thus making us want to return to them over and over.4 Second,as to form,the symbolic images in a good work of art are united into a pattern of internal relations whose rhythms, balance, proportions, tensions, and similitudes or recurrences reflect and evoke the ordering of the cosmos— the structured nature of reality. Thus the patterns of internal relations among the image-symbols in an artwork, carefully chosen and arranged by the artist, create a sense of harmony and rightness that—at their best—produce in us a feeling of what has been called “the inevitability of form,” of the artwork’s needing to exist, as if it belonged to nature itself.5 The balanced patterning of symbolic elements in an excellent artwork is also what enables it specifically to suggest the timeless divine meaning in the cosmos. In T. S. Eliot’s poem-cycle Four Quartets—to be discussed in detail in chapter five—the poet describes (poetically...


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