Raids and the Art Spirit: Welcome to the Blog

Art when really understood is the province of every human being. It is not an outside, extra thing. When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. . .Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, the artist opens it, shows there are still more pages possible.

~ Robert Henri, The Art Spirit (1923)

Of the many spirits who haunted my writing in Hope Sings, So Beautiful, there are two in particular whose memory I wish to invoke in this inaugural blog: Robert Henri (d. 1929) and Thomas Merton (d. 1968).

I knew nothing of Robert Henri until a few years ago, when I was envisioning a new course called “Music, Art and Theology” at Xavier University–a Jesuit Catholic university in Cincinnati where I teach. A beloved friend and mentor, Fr. Bill McNichols, suggested I read Henri’s classic work, The Art Spirit (1923). Eagerly I did, and as Fr. Bill predicted, I was blown away by the book.

The book’s subtitle describes it as a compendium of “notes, articles, and fragments of letters and talks to students bearing on the concept and technique of picture-making, the study of art generally, and on appreciation.” In truth, the book is about seeing, or the art and discipline of perception. In Henri I seem to have stumbled upon a kindred spirit, someone who intuitively describes what I struggle to do each day in the theology classroom: namely, to “open the book” of perception, imagination, contemplation, and critical thought.

But what intrigues me today, as we embark on this blog, is the image of “fragments” in Henri’s subtitle. It suggests to me an image of the teacher not as a dispenser of fixed or predetermined truths, but rather as a guide toward insight, as one who listens and responds, offering hints and gestures based on “found materials” or “fragments” of experience and latent wisdom in the students themselves. These can only be surfaced gradually, patiently, through an encounter from person to person, at once structured, spontaneous, and free.

The art spirit, Henri suggests, is that latent impulse and desire in all persons — we might call it empathy, or love — that willingly surrenders itself to this unpredictable and ever-widening circle of encounter, nourishing the spirit of what he calls “the Brotherhood.”

“Those who are of the Brotherhood know each other, and time and space cannot separate them. . . If the artist is alive in you, you may meet Greco nearer than many people, also Plato, Shakespeare, the Greeks. In certain books–someway in the first few paragraphs, you know you have met a brother.”

W. E. B. Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), voices a strikingly similar observation about the spirit of gracious encounter that he discovers in books.

“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not….I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”

Of course through Du Bois’ eyes the observation is tinged with painful irony, in his experience of a Brotherhood and Sisterhood fragmented, cut short for him and countless millions of peoples of color by the stupidity and violence of the race veil.

What strikes me is this: Robert Henri shares Du Bois’ protest against any manner of seeing that would obscure or deny the elemental kinship and dignity that binds persons together in one lavishly mosaic human race.

“My people may be old or young, rich or poor, I may speak their language or I may communicate with them only by gestures. But wherever I find them, the Indian at work in the white man’s way, the Spanish gypsy moving back to the freedom of the hills, the little boy, quiet and reticent before the stranger, my interest is awakened and my impulse is to immediately tell about them through my own language–drawing and painting in color.

Henri’s “language” is paint on canvas, yes, but every brush stroke rises from the primordial impulse of kinship and empathy; his protest, in beauty, rises from love.

Which brings me to Thomas Merton. Our blog’s title image of “Raids” is borrowed from one of Merton’s most prescient collection of essays, Raids on the Unspeakable (1966), the protest of a self-described “guilty bystander” against institutionalized violence and systems of despair, including racism. Much like Henri’s “fragments,” a “raid” for Merton is a poetic provocation, a fragmentary image, a sideways gesture, a daring invitation, intended to challenge our habitual perception and complacent or despairing acceptance of “the way things are.” Launched from empathy and love for humanity, and not from hatred or contempt, Merton’s raids aim to ignite in readers a hope-filled and courageous response to the deadening ills of contemporary society. His “language” is word on paper; his tone is alternately playful, angry, tender, self-implicating, ironic; but every stroke on paper rises from a heart that listens deeply, sees, and responds to the world in love.

In spite of our still-sundered, painfully fragmented brotherhood and sisterhood–or perhaps because of it–I dare to hope that these “raids across the color line,” where others may be inclined to “close the book” on racial understanding and reconciliation, will open it, and show that “there are still more pages possible.”

Perhaps the conversations generated on this blog may even help us, as Merton writes, “to be human in this most inhuman of ages, to guard the image of man for it is the image of God.”

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