A wavy cross at Ely Cathedral

I saw a very odd artwork at Ely Cathedral yesterday. It was a huge, metal cross, about thirty feet high, which hung on the wall near the West Door. The upright beam of the cross wasn’t straight, but wavy. A little board beneath explained that the curved line represented the emotional struggles of the way of faith. The viewer was, I think, supposed to imagine a pilgrim slowly shaping the wavy line as he progressed through various emotional states. In other words, this was expressive art: the wavy shape was supposed to be the sort of thing one might make as part of having an emotion, rather than reflecting on it. It was expressive in the sense in which a scream is expressive of fear.

       On problem occurred to me. Consciously produced art can never be a pure expression of emotion, because reflection upon one’s emotions compromises those very emotions: just as tears that a child deliberately uses to convey emotion are less sincere than spontaneous ones. Realising this, I tried to give the Ely artwork its due: I tried to image its maker reflecting upon the emotions of pilgrimage, and to imagine the emotions that he might have thought a pilgrim might have expressed at the time of having them by fashioning a wavy line. But I didn’t feel that I had gained anything from the exercise: no real understanding of the artist’s feelings, or pilgrims’; no better understanding of my own; no sense that he had clearly captured some moment of human experience that the world could then reflect on at leisure.

       In contrast, I feel all of these things when I look at a pre-modernist masterpiece: at art that aims to represent—to make something present again—rather than to express. Take Giotto’s Lamenti. We can tell that the women are grieving not because Giotto waved his paintbrush around in a sad way—that would not have worked—but because he had the skill to paint faces that look sad. He had, in other words, a certain emotional detachment or control, of a kind that a purely expressive (or pseudo-expressive) artist consciously rejects. For sure, his was not a full detachment; but it was enough for him to package up, in a disciplined form, the emotions he wanted to represent. His act of painting was analogous to the act of expressing one’s emotions in language. For however much one might be enthralled with emotion as one is describing it with words, the mere act of putting one’s feelings into the disciplined structure of language gives one a certain rational mastery over them. After all, to characterize a feeling, one’s brain has to be doing something more than merely feeling it. Such characterization moves one’s emotions out of the sphere of the dark, irrational and inscrutable, and into the sphere of the scrutible, the intelligible. It is a fundamentally human act; and so is non-expressive painting.

       What is not so human is the mere bawling out of shrieks and cries; of tears and rage and melodramatic gestures. But it is such pure expression that modern art both indulges and encourages; it promotes infantilism in the most literal sense—and the superstitious servility that goes with it.

       I think that the artist of Ely was sincere; I think he was simply trying to be part of current artistic discourse. But I would enjoin him to try something more human, in the Christian sense of the word. 

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