Art: A thing of beauty

The role of arts and the First World War

Sermon preached at the Calne Music and Arts Festival Evensong
14th October 2018, Genesis 4.3-11 & John 20.11-18

It is remarkable that in an era where society calls itself more and more secular, music, arts and literature festivals are increasingly popular. I would like to suggest this evening that a reason may be we are facing a level of disillusionment, and that arts, music and literature are a beacon of hope and truth. I would also like to suggest that this disillusionment is in many ways not dissimilar from where we were a century ago, at the end, and during the aftermath of the Great War.

David Jones
Copyright The Estate of David Jones

Of course, there are many ways in which our society is completely different now from the 1920s – as historians will be very able to point out. However, when I came across the following quote from the artist and author David Jones written in 1926, I sense that there are some parallels to be drawn too. In his first published essay since the Great War, Jones wrote that art must express contemporary culture and that, since today – 1926 – we are generally unable to create ‘a thing of beauty’, the only hope for authentic art is a counter culture determined ‘to avoid … the general decline.’[1]

Art: a thing of beauty, determined to avoid the general decline.

Looking around us in a world riddled with fake news, endless forms of social media, commercials and other things competing for our attention, we may agree that we too are often unable to create a thing of beauty, and the resurgence in festivals like this may well be an attempt to avoid the general decline. Authentic art, music, poetry allow us to express things that normal language cannot touch. They can facilitate an encounter with ourselves or each other, or indeed with God, which we had not imagined to be possible. And it is about that encounter I would like to say a bit more this evening.

Many of us will know or will have known parents or grandparents who fought in one of the two wars, and of course some will know those who have fought in more recent conflicts. Many of them are not able to talk about what they experienced when they were out there, and given what we now know about the horrors in the trenches, we can understand why. It is not hard to see that people are changed irreversibly by the suffering they saw and underwent.

For many, death, pain and loss became daily business for a prolonged period of time, and this left wounds and scars that could never be healed. And even for those did survive and were able to articulate what they had experienced, the time they spent at the Front Line would have a profound effect. The effect war has on a nation, and particularly the Great War on this nation, was by no means restricted to those who fought at the front. Those who remained at home were also affected by their losses, their waiting, and indeed the realisation that people are able to inflict suffering on such an enormous scale.

Moreover, war not only affects those who live through it, but also the generations that follow: something fundamental has changed. That becomes very clear when we visit war cemeteries, or the battle fields themselves: we still sense that something has happened there that we cannot really articulate. The soil has soaked up some of the pain and suffering that happened.

That was one of the reasons why I chose the reading of Cain and Abel tonight. In the last verse of tonight’s passage, we hear God saying to Cain: “Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”. Innocent blood leaving a sense of guilt in the ground is indeed what we feel when we visit the Somme, Passchendaele, or any other battle field for that matter. It is something that partly erodes in time: not many of us will still have the same sense at ancient Roman battle sites, but I wonder if it ever will go away completely?

The encounter between Cain and Abel left a mark on Cain, which later comes with a promise of God’s protection. A faith in God, a faith in a promise of protection was something many lost over the course of the four years between 1914 and 1918. It is hard if not impossible to believe that God has a plan in the face of so much pointless suffering. And how can you believe in fighting the enemy, fighting evil when the people you are killing seem to be as innocent, as vulnerable, as human as you are? How can you believe that God is on your side when you stand face to face with another human being?

Whereas in 1914, many preachers saw it as their duty to call men to service, by the end of the War, disillusionment had hit many: the ideal of Christian heroism got lost on the battle fields. Where was God in the trenches? How to believe in an almighty God when he is completely absent?

That brings us to the second Biblical encounter we heard read this evening, as well as the relationship between war and the arts. Whereas the encounter between Cain and Abel is destructive and resonates throughout the ages, the encounter between Jesus and Mary is redemptive and touches on the eternal.

Stanley Spencer
Copyright The Estate of Stanley Spencer

After the Crucifixion, Mary stands weeping outside Jesus’ tomb. For her at this point all is lost, maybe not unlike people who came back from the trenches felt: no hope, no light, no words. When he asks her ‘Why are you weeping?’ through her tears, Mary does not recognise Jesus standing right in front of her. Again, maybe not unlike those who have suffered beyond comprehension, who cannot accept the love and compassion that are offered, because they are not able to recognise it.

It is not until Jesus says her name ‘Mary’, not until, so to speak, he touches her very being, that Mary is able to see who he is, and to begin to understand what has happened. At this moment, when Jesus calls her name, importantly, Mary knows that she is known, understands that she is understood. That is the turning point in this encounter, and in this case, the turning point in history.

It is precisely what good, authentic art, enables us to do: to know that we are known, to understand that we are understood. Many of us will have had the experience that we suddenly well up when we see a painting, hear a piece of music or read a poem. We are suddenly moved by something that touches our very inmost being. We know that we are known, and we understand that we are understood. That is what makes the art of people like David Jones and Stanley Spencer, the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon so powerful. It is because they knew, and so help us to know too.

Authentic art is beautiful, not because it is perfect, but because through it we discover something of ourselves, and thereby something of what it means to be human. The ability to express ourselves through art is both what makes us unique and what brings us together as human beings. For me, it is also where the truth of the Christian message resides: we recognise beauty, we recognise authenticity, because in it we see something of God.

The premise of beautiful, authentic art is truth, not conformity. In the same way, the premise of an authentic faith is truth, not a type of heroism that makes fake promises. Much was lost in the First World War, maybe not least our innocence. But with that loss of innocence, possibly has come a greater truth. The truth of the suffering we are able to inflict on each other, but also the truth that there is still hope, and that is precisely what authentic art makes us realise.

To sum up what art enables us to do, I would like to suggest the following words, again by David Jones:

It is both a blessing
And a curse
To feel everything
So very deeply.

[1] David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet by Thomas Dilworth, Jonathan Cape London (2017), pp. 93-94

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