How Art Speaks

Imagine a world where language is dying.

In this world, everyone you know is afflicted with a strange malady. Every day, each person forgets a random handful of words. One by one, once-familiar nouns, verbs and adjectives simply slip away.

At first the effect is barely noticeable. Though the English language has around 200,000 words, only a few thousand are needed for everyday communication. Plenty can be lost before the impact starts to be felt. Initially there is only the occasional blank stare as you ask for a familiar item in a shop. The odd word is replaced by a grunt. From time to time, someone points at an object instead of naming it.

But over time the situation becomes more serious. People grunt more. They point more. Like a receding reservoir, the supply of words around you – in your family, your workplace, your friendships – is drying up. The dwindling vocabulary remaining in each mind is less and less useful –  a motley collection of random remembrances. Mostly, it is easiest to simply point and grunt.

But in this imaginary scenario, you are different. You alone are immune to the semantic malady. Your inner world is still rich with verbal meaning. Your fluency in articulating thoughts, emotions and intentions is undimmed. Yet, given the verbal crisis around you, your supply of words has been rendered worthless, a product without demand. Your vocabulary, with all its communicative potential, is a treasure in a currency which no longer exists.

Perhaps the worst part is the indifference. Nobody seems to realise anything has gone wrong. People are entirely naive to the depth of their limitations. Your attempts to communicate in coherent sentences are mostly met with quizzical gazes. The odd word is greeted with a flash of recognition, but for the most part, your speech is a mysterious rune.

Over time the situation deteriorates. Those around you become actively hostile to your use of speech. As the verbal consensus around you dwindles to nothing, your verbalisations are increasingly met with angry grunts and finger jabbing. Your family, friends and colleagues urge you to point and grunt instead, frustrated with what to them appears as the mindless jabbering of a maniac.

Eventually the verbal amnesia around you becomes total. There is no remembrance of a time when concepts, emotions and purposes could be freely conveyed in speech or writing. There is no desire to relearn the forgotten vocabulary and grammar which used to underwrite communication. Most lines of work become untenable. News outlets cease to publish in words, turning instead to crude emojis. As reading fades from culture, education becomes purely imitative. Students blankly watch teachers perform manual tasks: planting crops, building huts, cooking simple meals. Unable to understand plans or technical documents, society retreats from advanced technology. Since it is impossible to communicate and weigh evidence, the judicial system disintegrates. Disagreements are now settled by furious bouts of pointing and grunting. With virtually no way to find common ground, mutual suspicion reigns. As the circle of comprehension and familiarity shrinks to small circles of blood relatives, communities are fragmented. Civilisation as we know it has ceased to exist.  

The Foundation of Culture

Life without a shared vocabulary or grammar is a bleak prospect. Our long history of cultural, technological and spiritual advancement has been enabled only through the existence of a shared reservoir of signs. Civilisation is built on a shared understanding of how such signs map to concepts in the world, and a shared grammar for linking those concepts together to convey meaning.

These abilities are fundamental to our ability to share meaning with each other, and to order our own thoughts. Life without language is unthinkable.

But verbal languages are not the totality of our communication. There are other orders of language open to us; including those of mathematics, music, poetry, drama, and the so-called ‘plastic’ arts: painting, sculpture, film and photography. As we will see, the possibility of communication in such languages is underwritten by systems of vocabulary and grammar analogous to those used in speech.

So what of the potential loss of fluency in these languages? If the loss of the vocabularies and grammars underpinning speech would spell civilisational catastrophe, what of the loss of those underpinning mathematics or Art? What communicative possibilities might be shut off? Might there be things – true things – of which we simply could not speak, or which, even if spoken, nobody could comprehend?

The Underpinnings of Communication 

The ability to freely order symbols and signs to express meaningful concepts is second nature to human beings. But the organic way we acquire verbal language masks the mysterious contradictions and tensions inherent to the act of speaking. In language we are simultaneously both free and not free. For it is only by respecting certain grammatical formalities and conventions of vocabulary that we find freedom to frame meaning. Randomly arranged words cannot convey meaning from mind to mind. Using the wrong word for the wrong concept leads to absurdity. For meaning to make the leap from consciousness to consciousness, we must work within a shared consensus, respecting mutually held conventions about how words can be combined to associate concepts with each other.

If two humans share a degree of consensus on vocabulary and grammar, there can be communication. Within complex language systems there can be vast freedom of expression, a freedom which lies at the root of culture, and of civilisation itself. A language such as English may have grammatical ‘rules’, but paradoxically our expressive freedom is unleashed by working with rather than against the grain of these conventions. By contrast, the random breaking of grammatical rules leads to misunderstanding. Wilful denial of them leads to incoherence, the entire breakdown of communication.

As with our movements in physical space, true freedom in speaking comes from respecting certain externally-imposed limitations. Those who act as though gravity does not apply will soon be dead. Those who work in harmony with its restraints maximise their freedom in the world as it truly is. So it is with language. The possibility of being understood lies in a tension between creative freedom and respect for externally imposed forms.

The Mysteries of Language

The mysterious capacity of human beings to develop and use shared grammars and vocabularies has underwritten the history of human progress. It has enabled our ascent to mastery of technology, and it daily underpins our vastly complex networks of political, financial and social relations. But culture rests also on other pillars, prominent among which are the languages of mathematics and Art.

Like verbal languages, mathematics uses a conceptual vocabulary and a grammar which defines the possible classes of relationship between symbols representing these concepts.i The resulting language enables physicists to converse fluently about the mechanisms of the physical world, often across vast gulfs of mother tongue and culture. 

However, mathematics is more than simply a mode of communication. By some deep mystery, when the vocabulary of mathematics is used within the restraints of its grammar, the resulting language possesses extraordinary potential to trace out the fabric of physical reality. Mathematics is not simply a product of human minds, but something with external significance. We cannot easily explain why this should be so; why on the one hand the grammar of mathematics should be so intuitive to human consciousness, and yet also so deeply intertwined with the physical workings of the cosmos. As George Steiner puts it:

The ultimate grounds of this contract remain enigmatic. Why it should be that the external world, in the naïve, obvious sense, should concur with… the mathematical and rule-bound expectations of investigative rationalism, no one knows.ii

Though mathematics is in one sense an abstract language, it is somehow also in harmony with the fabric of reality: with the strange quantum phenomenon of the subatomic world, with the majestic geometry of space-time, and with the alien grandeur of black holes. It is a language which can encompass and speak of realities which cannot be expressed in any other register. Mathematics cannot be adequately translated into other comprehensible tongues, yet through it, finite humans can converse about the infinities of the cosmos.

The Unique Language of Art

The language of Art holds similar mysteries. Whether the medium is words, paint, bricks, sounds, or anything else, communication of artistic meaning from consciousness to consciousness relies on a non-random way of ordering chosen symbols. In other words, like any language, it operates through vocabulary and grammar. The artist selects from a vocabulary of symbols – perhaps words, sounds, brushstrokes or colours – and orders their inter-relations in accordance with non-random principles. Each of the brushstrokes on the page, the notes of the symphony, the words of the poem, has its own identity, but it also stands in a relation to other brushstrokes, notes or words, such that they inform each others meaning. There is something of a grammatical form, a non-random principle by which each particular symbol is related to and draws its being from the others.

However, Art differs from everyday speech, and from mathematics, in that the character of the grammars it employs is usually elusive. We cannot rationally explain why the particular ways great artists arrange their symbols ‘work’. Why is it that certain arrangements of brushstrokes form such powerful visual harmony; why certain musical phrases seem to capture such profound emotion? It is not at all ‘obvious’ why this should be. 

A work of Art can have an apparently transcendent meaning or reality. As with mathematics, there is a sense of the symbols and their patterns touching something true which transcends their own form. Just as the equations of Einstein or Hawking equations might reach beyond the ink of the page to touch cosmic mysteries, so the harmony of symbols in a work of Art can reach into meaning beyond their physical reality. Yet unlike the mathematical constructs of physics, artistic expressions are not formal, they cannot be translated into logical propositions. As George Steiner points out, there is something ineffable about the grammars of Art:

“Music, for example, is brimful of meanings which will not translate into logical structures or verbal expression… Music brings to our daily lives an immediate encounter with a logic of sense other than that of reason.”iii

Part of this mystery is that Art is not bound by the kinds of grammar familiar to our mother tongues. Whereas the grammars of formal speech or mathematics can be rationally explained, it is probably impossible to similarly codify the grammars of Art.iv Artistic reasoning cannot be taught like algebra or calculus. In part, this is because the ordering principles guiding artistic creation are often mysterious even to the artist. We cannot fully verbalise the modus operandi of a picture or a sonata.v If we could, Art would be an irrelevance – the artist could simply ‘say what she means’ in plain speech. It is said of Mozart that, when asked once to explain the meaning of a piece he had just played, his response was simply to sit down at the piano and play it right through once again.

Artists speak of the human condition in artistic languages out of necessity, just as physicists necessarily use mathematics to speak of the cosmos. For just as mathematics cannot be adequately translated – it has no substitute to speak of the things of which it speaks – the same holds true of Art.

A Language in Flux

However, the grammars of Art are also ineffable because Art is near-defined by its constant reworking and transgressing of previous grammars. Though poetry usually pays some attention to the familiar grammar of spoken language, and music usually at least nods to the tonal and rhythmic conventions of music theory, we find the greatest poetry and music are virtually defined by their bending and rewriting of these rules in order to trace out new possibilities for expressing meaning.

Yet, crucially, such artistic license does not entail the ‘random’ breaking or denial of previous aesthetic consensus. Rather, in great Art the bending and reshaping of expected conventions appears to be done in accordance with some even more fundamental harmonising principle. The artist ‘breaks’ pre-existing aesthetic patterns and norms in such a way that the result is not dischord but harmony. The breaking is also a creating, and the resulting work has its own coherence. This process in itself represents a kind of higher-order organising principle, the development by an artist of a ‘meta-grammar’ which is defined by how it modifies the grammars implicit in previous works. Through such a process, a sensitive artist may find a new language to say something which is true but which was previously unsayable, something which indeed could not be said in any other way. As George Steiner puts it:

“The exceptional artist or thinker reads being anew.”vi

This realisation touches on the deepest mysteries of Art. All truly great, epoch defining artists seem to have somehow revealed registers of grammar within their disciplines – possibilities for the act of saying – which were hitherto unknown. However just as mysterious is that once such an artist’s works are encountered, these grammars can bring about in the beholder a deja vu. We seem to recognise the artist’s work, discerning some familiar principle in its harmony, as though it has been expressed in a half-forgotten mother tongue. As Emerson says;

“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts. They come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

Though we may not have not been prepared by any formal training to receive a given work, it may nonetheless speak deeply to us, evoking a meaning which seems to reach beyond the artist’s mind to touch something transcendent and universal. But whereas mathematics reaches to cohere with the physical ordering of the universe, Art touches the otherwise ineffable contours of personal being in the world. This is perhaps nowhere more true than in our encounters with music. As Steiner says:

“Our capacities to compose and to respond to musical form and sense directly implicate the mystery of the human condition. To ask ‘what is music?’ may well be one way of asking ‘what is man?”vii

A Universal Grammar

But what underlies this strange potential of Art? What makes possible the kind of epiphany – common to engagement with great literature, poetry, painting and music – of being emotionally, intellectually and existentially blindsided by something whose methods – whose grammars – we cannot formally explain?

Something underwrites – insures – the possibility of communication in Art, something which is not a function of any individual mind, but which is a universal, shared among us. For despite the ineffability of the grammars of Art, we can intuitively sense a substantial difference between artistic works which respect such grammars and those which do not.

There is a first kind of Art which resonates with meaning, which is ‘fluent’, which seems to say something true about the world and the human condition. As Heidegger stressed, “something else inheresviii in great works of Art, something which goes beyond the physical actuality of their medium. A great artwork is more than the sum of its parts. Like mathematics, such Art seems to harmonise with what reality truly is, and in so doing, frames truths and meanings which cannot be described in any other language.

But there is another kind of so-called ‘Art’ which seems to willfully negate truth, which defaces beauty, and which seems somehow to lie about the contours of reality. Much of 20th Century Art has consisted of glib efforts to say something transgressive, to wilfully speak a form of gibberish. It creates a kind of visual ‘noise’ by ordering symbols either mechanically, or randomly, or in a way which actively defaces and inverts the harmonising grammars of previous Art.

We intuitively feel the difference between these different creative modes when we compare, for instance, the music of Bach to that of John Cage, or the visual Art of Rembrandt to that of Damien Hirst. In such comparisons, we encounter a vast gulf, the distance between Art shaped by attentive listening to reality as it really is, and ‘Art’ made by imposing a bleak, nihilistic vision upon the squirming fabric of the world.

The grammars exploited in creating great works of Art seem to have a shared, universal source. For though they cannot be formalised, translated or deconstructed, they can be sensed and worked with by the greatest artists among us. Crucially,, these grammars can also be intuited by the beholder, thereby underwriting the possibility of artistic reception. As Steiner says, using again the example of music:

“The mystery of music… speaks to us that there is something else that paradoxically belongs to us profoundly but somehow touches on a universal meaning and possibility; that we are not only an electrochemical and neurophysiological assemblage; that there is more in consciousness than electronic wiring. Music seems to be… the hope of a transcendent possibility.”ix

Just as a shared grammar transcending any one individual underwrites verbal intelligibility in everyday speech, so a form of shared grammar also underwrites the bond of intelligibility between artist and audience. Just as humans learn the grammar of a mother tongue through childhood exposure to its forms and patterns, it seems we can learn the grammars required for intelligibility in other, non-verbal languages.

The Nature of Artistic Grammar

In Art as in speech, fluency comes from listening. Decisively, the grammars necessary for the creation and reception of Art are not devised by individuals in isolation, but draw on universals accessed through experience of both human consciousness and the stuff of wider reality. Just as the grammars of spoken language are not ‘invented’ anew within the individual, but are discerned organically by attentive listening to other human beings, so the grammars underpinning great Art are discerned by attentively listening to realities beyond the bounded spaces of our own minds. Fluency in speech, mathematics or Art requires listening, a humble reception of that which is given to us from outside. It does not come from within the fever dreams of our own minds.

It is the universality of the grammars of Art which underwrite its potential to communicate meaning. For if such grammars were not in some sense universally accessible, there could be no reliable communication through Art. Yet only the most radical skeptic would deny such a possibility. Mysterious though the artistic modes may be compared to those of everyday verbal communication or mathematics, we see their undeniable fruit in the transcendent heights of great poetry, painting, music, architecture, myth and drama, and in the universal appeal of the greatest such works across generations.

The very possibility of ‘doing Art’ speaks to a unique potential in the ways human consciousness interacts with the stuff of lived experience and externally sensed reality. Both Art and mathematics speak of an innate human capacity for intuiting organising principles in reality as it is given to us, grammars which can be used to order symbols to communicate meaning to other human beings. Moreover, the meanings communicable via such grammars have a transcendent dimension. In Art, as in mathematics, human consciousness can trace out meanings which resonate far beyond both the individual person and the physical reality of the artwork itself. Art touches parts of reality no other form can reach. As George Steiner says:

“There is something in music that is much more powerful than even our greatest performers. The music in a sense plays us; we are played by it.”x

So what of the implications for our culture and our self-understanding if the grammars and vocabularies underwriting artistic communication were eroded or denied? What if the collective amnesia of the opening thought experiments were to come to pass, not in the grammar and vocabulary of everyday speech, but those of Art?

Losing our Vocabulary

The vocabularies of Art are more complex than those of speech. For Art draws not only on the familiar vocabularies of words, tones, shapes and other symbols, but also on the canon of previous artistic expression. Great poetry is flecked with allusions to other poems, to plays, myths, paintings, and music. Great music draws richly on the tonal wealth of what has gone before, and in conversation with it, expresses something new whilst channeling the spirit of previous works.

By such references, Art draws on a living reservoir of meaning laid down by previous artists. A new work may evoke past works, drawing on their vocabularies of symbols, their grammars, and their meanings. In the accumulated Art of a culture we find a vast tapestry of inter-woven connections between works, a subtle conversation rolling down the centuries to the present day. It is central to the way Art operates that in creating their works, artists respond to and critique what has come before. Great artists take inspiration from prior vocabularies of artistic expression, and in conversation with them, convey their own readings of being and the nature of reality itself. Just as science grows on the foundation of prior discoveries and methods, Art cannot develop its unique grammars and allusive power in a vacuum.

But this capacity of Art to draw on a rich vocabulary of other works depends – as does any vocabulary – on consensus between artist and recipient. If the recipient of a new artistic work has no prior exposure to the previous works it evokes, and to the meanings communicated by those works, then the artistic potential of the new work will be neutered. It is just as in speech. If we frequently use words our hearer does not know, our sentences will fail to fire off the necessary images and connotations in our listener’s mind. Static enters the line of communication. Transmission of meaning is degraded. 

To lose fluency in the Art of our culture is to lose a potent vocabulary, and to become deaf to those forms of communication which depend on it. A person who has no exposure to their artistic canon is shut off from swathes of possibility for receiving meaning. It is no surprise that many in such a condition consider great paintings, music, and poetry to be tedious and irrelevant to ‘real’ life. Such a view is inevitable, since to them a work of art is like a message jabbered in a foreign tongue.

In this severing of modern people from the riches of their cultural inheritance, Roger Scruton finds one of the great tragedies of our time.

“I think one of the saddest things about the modern world… is that people live in a tiny time-slice of the present moment, which they carry forward with them. But nothing remains, and there is nothing in their experience which reverberates down the centuries, because the centuries to them are completely dark, just un-illumined corridors from which they stagger into the single little sliver of light.”xi

The scenario is tragic precisely because Art represents a mode of communication uniquely capable of touching transcendent places, for exploring the coordinates of personal being in the world. Art has no parallel or substitute. Literal, everyday speech cannot be substituted for it, nor can the analytical modes of the sciences, nor the mysterious abstractions of mathematics. The meanings represented in poetry, music, paintings, myths and plays are untranslatable. Critical reviews or study notes about a work are no substitute for real thing. The programme notes for a great choral mass or an exhibition of Renaissance masterpieces cannot prepare us for the transcendent impact of our exposure to the actual work itself. Secondary, critical commentary possesses none of the power of the primary work to strike the reader with the transcendent. As Steiner puts it:

“Serious painting, music, literature or sculpture make palpable to us, as do no other means of communication, the unassuaged, unhoused instability and estrangement of our condition.”xii

To lose the ability (or the will) to listen to Art is to shut ourselves off, unwittingly or willingly, from whole orders of meaning in the human condition.

Losing Our Humanity

An analogy for the loss of fluency in Art is found in considering mathematics. Consider how much of our access to the mechanisms of the physical world would be lost without this universal language; what vast stretches of the cosmos would be blacked out to us; how diminished we would be in our capacity to understand the deep ordering principles of physical reality. Because certain aspects of inter-relation within the cosmos are only tractable through mathematics, the collective denial of its power or the loss of its methods would drastically stunt our vision of the universe in which we live. We would be shut off from entire registers of truth.

Art, like mathematics, is an untranslatable language. It enables expression of latent meanings in reality, and supports fluent conversations about existential realities which cannot be conducted in any other tongue. The Art of a culture is a living dialogue about whole registers of truth in the human condition for which there is no substitute. We can no more speak of beauty or love without Art than we can speak of black holes, the Big Bang or the quanta without mathematics. Without the shared language of Art, our ability to craft expressions of meaning appropriate to the existential complexity and nuance of human being in the cosmos would be stunted. 

To reach for the analogy which opened this piece, a society in a state of amnesia over the vocabulary of Art might become like the grunting, pointing citizens of a speech-drained world, not realising how entire orders of understanding and communication had become closed off to them. It would be a culture in which we might be able to order a coffee, read the news, and develop technology, but in which a spiritual deadness would reign, a total lack of fluency in speaking of with subtlety and nuance about the realities of being in the world.

The Vulnerability of Artistic Grammar

But loss of vocabulary is not the only point of weakness in the exercise of artistic communication. As we have seen, communication of meaning in the artistic registers depends also on grammar – on a degree of innate recognition in an audience of the principles by which the artist orders symbols in their medium. Yet in Art – unlike in formal speech – there is no authoritative code available to explain these ordering principles. The grammars of Art lie outside the reach of reason. There is no verbalisable ‘theory’ of Art which properly traces out its subject. Art does not submit to the forensic glare of science. As Steiner asks of attempts to ‘describe’ great poetry and literature;

“How are words to systematize…, the effect of words? What grammatology, what treatise on poetics and rhetoric can hope to convey… the grammar of the overwhelming?”xiii

Yet, despite the inability of Art to either prove or explain its premises, such ineffability does not drain it of power. Art is like a boxer, dancing nimbly around every attempt to lay a hand on its methods, before striking us in the face with transcendence. To Steiner, music represents the ‘mysterium tremendum‘ of this paradox – that a form whose methods are so inexpressible should have such expressive power:

“It is in and through music that we are most immediately in the presence of the logically, of the verbally inexpressible but wholly palpable energy in being that communicates to our senses and to our reflection what little we can grasp of the naked wonder of life.”xiv

Yet the ineffability of Art’s grammars makes artistic communication a precarious act. The vulnerability lies in the necessary act of trust implicit in every act of artistic creation or reception. For to produce a work of Art in the hope of its meaning being received by another person is to trust in the existence of a shared grammar available to yourself and your audience. To receive a work of art is to exercise a similar trust that a shared grammar exists between yourself and the artist. Thus, every act of artistic creation and reception is an expression of mutual trust in the possibility of a shared grammar which underwrites the ability of the artist to channel meaning to the audience through his or her work.

Trust is required precisely because both the shape and the origins of the necessary grammars are largely mysterious to us. We cannot explain why Art works, we can only intuit the genuineness of its operationxv. The power of art is proven empirically rather than theoretically. To enter artistic communication, as creator or recipient, is firstly to wager that ordering principles in Art exist, even if they cannot be formalised. It is secondly to wager that if such grammars do exist, they are of a universal order, able to be shared, however imperfectly, between artist and audience. To put it another way, these are wagers that meaning can be transmitted and received through forms whose methods are a mystery to us.

We might say therefore that the exercise of great Art rests on a foundational act of faith. We can only discover if a work resonates with truth and meaning if we first take the wager of a transcendental order of coherence, available to both ourselves and the artist. To enter the Art gallery or the concert hall is a quasi-religious act, in that we expectantly wait to receive something whose operation and power cannot be explained in rational terms. It is a wager on nothing less than a mysterious union between language and the fabric of the world.xvi

Skepticism and the Erosion of Artistic Trust

When we consider the dominance within our culture of radical skepticism about the possibility of transcendence, it is not difficult to see why the entire practice of artistic communication might be vulnerable. Over the past century, the West has seen a vast spiritual contraction, a shrinking back from our ancestors’ open-ness to the possibility of orders of meaning beyond the physical plane. Yet this is precisely the kind of open-ness which necessarily underwrites and insures the possibility of Art. Great artists have always felt a naked open-ness to transcendence, as they have channelled what appear to be deposits of meaning beyond their own minds: suggestions drawn from otherwise unutterable presences within reality.xvii The great artist does not impose his own closed system on the world, but wagers on transcendence, on the chance he may meet some true presence – a radical ‘otherness’ – to be discerned and expressed.xviii As D. H. Lawrence put it of his creative process, “I always feel as if I stood naked for the fire of Almighty God to go through me… one has to be so terribly religious to be an artistxix.” Conversely, so-called ‘Art’ which shrinks back from this vulnerability is condemned only to play bleak games of randomness and chaos; of deconstruction or of wilful destruction; or of almost literally ‘painting by numbers’, producing works by the mechanistic application of rules.

It is therefore no coincidence that the most sublime Art of our culture has come from those who were open to the wager of transcendence, who listened for the strain of universal grammars in the fabric of reality. As Alfred North Whitehead says of the heights of Medieval Art:

[It] has a haunting charm beyond compare: its own intrinsic quality is enhanced by the fact that its message, which stretched beyond art’s own self-justification of aesthetic achievement, was the symbolism of things lying behind nature itself. In this symbolic phase, medieval art … pointed to another world.”xx

Conversely, it should be no surprise that some of the most ugly, nihilistic, wilfully destructive ‘Art’ of the Western canon has been produced in the 20th Century, an era characterised by the deification of the physical, the rejection of the transcendent perspective, and the rise of hyper-individualism. Our age emphasises with religious fervour the need to seek our own ‘unique’ and ‘authentic’ patterns of meaning internally, without reference to external realities. Yet, if we reject the idea that both truth and our being are deeply contingent on realities beyond our own minds, if we deny that we are bound together to other people and to the cosmos by universals transcending our individual identities, then there can be no exercise of the form of open listening essential to creating and receiving great Art. We will tell the world what it should be, rather than channeling any meaning existing beyond ourselves. We will practice eisegesis rather than exegesis. Yet all great Art necessarily requires exegesis of the external world as it truly is, a ‘reading out’ of its meaning.

It is curious that whereas modern science is founded on the expectation of finding rationality and meaningfulness in the universe, modern Art celebrates the polar opposite: the imposition of socially or individually constructed meaning upon the world. There is what Charles Taylor has called a “radical inwardness” to the stance of much modern ‘Art’, the idea that true artistic expression comes through intense introspection, being channeled from within the individual’s being. Such an approach – favouring ‘expression’ over mimesis – has a diminished if not completely absent concern for correspondence with any unity in the ‘world out there’. As Robert Pippin has observed of such work:

“[It reveals] a modern metaphysical issue, an implicit assertion of the wholly transient, fragmented and perspectival nature of the real, a reality accessible only in contingent, individual “moments” of representation.”xxi

It is no coincidence that Surrealism burst onto the scene just as the West was rejecting the coordinates of monotheism, with its insistence on the intelligibility of a cosmos underwritten by a personal, rational, speaking deity, and was instead turning within to seek truth and freedom within the bounded spaces of the individual mind. In this sense the radical denial of realism in the Art of the early 20th Century mirrors the radical denial of intelligibility and the possibility of objective truth which was concurrently shaking the foundations of Western culture. As Hans Rookmaaker says of the Surrealists:

“[They] long for freedom, but seek it in man himself, by opening their inner self, their subconsciousness – and so have lost it. Because they have rejected the transcendence of God, they are bound to the immanent – and they know it.”xxii

Paradoxically, as in verbal language, freedom comes from respecting certain externally imposed realities. Freedom of expression in language does not come from summoning up  internally the equivalent of ‘free vocalisation’, with no reference to external patterns and forms. Such ‘free’ speech is gibberish. Rather, freedom in speech comes when the speaker uses vocabularies and grammars with external reference and intelligibility. So it is with Art. Art which channels solely what is within is doomed to be a form of visual gibberish.

Much of the so-called ‘Art’ of the 20th Century canon has been just such a form of gibberish, at worst hell-bent on destroying and denying the previous grammars of artistic communication, subverting them and stamping out the sparks of transcendence.  Yet, an understanding of nature which rejects transcendence, which rejects any grounding in external reference points, and which holds all meanings to be individually constructed, will by necessity create perplexing, distressing art with no discernible meaning, no concern for truth, and no accurate communication of the world as it truly is.

As a result, to enter many modern art galleries is to see only nihilism and destruction. Even if the beholder wagers on the possibility of receiving meaning, extending the vulnerable hand of welcome to the works she sees, she is likely to be mocked by them, condemned to stare blankly with no recognition, and to receive nothing, except perhaps to be degraded. After all there is nothing to be received because the artist, rejecting the wager of a shared order of meaning, has wilfully produced something unintelligible, as if by random: something which draws on neither the vocabulary of previous works, nor on any universal grammar which might underwrite intelligibility. Any meaning such work does possess is locked in an undecipherable code, known only to the artist.

Tragically we have been taught as a society, both by the forms of nihilistic ‘anti-art’ that so dominate late Modernity, and by the deeply skeptical spirit of our age, to reject transcendent orders of meaning, the possibility of universals, and the possibility of shared grammars, which necessarily underwrite genuine artistic expression and reception. So damaged is our trust that even our encounters with truly great Art are increasingly likely to be sterile. For even when the artist has wagered on the transcendent, if we encounter his work with no trust in any shared grammar, no conviction that there might be a transcendental order of meaning available to him and us, then we cannot be anything but blind as we stand before it. Just as we are free to suspiciously reject a hand offered friendship, and thus turn our back on receiving the possible blessings it might entail, we are entirely free to reject the possibility of receiving meaning from a work of Art.

In Steiner’s view, to lose this fluency, to lose the grammars and vocabulary which underwrite Art, is in a sense to lose our means of understanding our human condition: of discerning what a human being truly is:

“I sense that we shall not come home to the fact of our unhousedness, of our eviction from a central humanity in the face of the tidal provocations of political barbarism and technocratic servitude, if we do not redefine, if we do not re-experience, the life of meaning in the text, in music, in art.xxiii

The threat posed, therefore, by unwillingness or inability to take transcendental wager central to all Art, is that we cannot fully know or express the nature of human being in the world.

As Colin Gunton has stressed (and as Heidegger stressed from a different philosophical tradition) we human beings cannot fully understand our being in isolation, but only by understanding how we are related to other beings around us, both personal and impersonal. It is Art which, par excellence, speaks to those places of encounter with the presence of beings outside ourselves, encounters which are a universal of human experience, but which are not adequately describable in other languages.

The world of the pre-modern period was one in which artist and beholder alike were open to such encounter, in which we had not swallowed the lie central to much of recent philosophy that we simply impose our own will and meaning onto a sterile world which is, in itself, devoid of concrete meaning. As Hans Rookmaaker points out, the 17th Century was:

“…a world in which it was possible to speak of the reality of such concepts as beauty or love. They were realities outside man, and man in his life and work had to realize them by working according to them. Love and beauty were not just man’s feelings and man’s subjective taste; they were really there: if he did not follow them, hate and ugliness would be the result.”xxiv

The great power of Art is that it relates us to things that are not simply within our own mindsxxv. The great opportunity (and threat) of Art is the corollary of this power; that we may encounter something “other” of which we are not in control. As Steiner puts it:

…the movement towards reception and apprehension [of Art] does embody an initial, fundamental act of trust. It entails the risk of disappointment or worse. As we shall note, the guest may turn despotic or venomous. But without the gamble on welcome, no door can be opened when freedom knocks.xxvi

It is this risk which provides many people with all the motivation they need to turn away from true engagement with Art. For it is an engagement in which we must first make ourselves vulnerable, an engagement in which we must take an initial wager, and engagement in which we must pay what Steiner calls cortesia (“courtesy“) to the presence embodied in the work, listening to its form in expectation of comprehending a meaning transcending the artist, the beholder, and the work itself. Standing at a safe distance, or exposing ourselves to Art only through the insulating mediation of criticism, deadens any possibility of us encountering the full range of meaning expressible through this unique form of communication.

It is no surprise that Steiner considers Art to be explicitly theological. In both Christianity and Art, the matter of faith is central. Art asks first that we trust in the possibility of meaning being received in and through a work, and only subsequently proves to us that this trust has not been misplaced. If we do not meet an artistic work with a certain humility – extending the courtesy that it might speak to us – we cannot rightly receive its meaning. The same dynamic operates in the Christian faith, as expressed in Augustine’s famous aphorism “credo ut intelligam” (believe so that you may understand). Essential to our ability to understand the character of God is that we first assent to the possibility of a divine presence, a personal reality which might be met in the fabric of reality. There is a crucial reciprocity between trust and understanding.

However, in matters of both Art and of faith in God, if we deny a priori that we might encounter transcendence, then we predispose ourselves not to seek and not to understand. The mind dead-set not to receive certain forms of meaning will never do so.

To quote Steiner again, in Art as in Christian faith,”without the gamble on welcome, no door can be opened when freedom knocks.xxvii It is language evoking another knock which we are free to either answer or deny:

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.xxviii

As with a world which has lost the capacity for using verbal vocabulary and grammar, might it be that skepticism of the wager on transcendence, and the forms of communication which depend on it, has not left us wiser and freer, but isolated in our own minds, and increasingly unable to speak of or hear of what is most fundamentally important to our being in the world?


i Gowers, Timothy, J. Barrow-Green, and I. Leader. “The language and grammar of mathematics.” The Princeton Companion to Mathematics (2008): 8-15.

ii Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, p81

iii Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, p251

ivThe truths, the necessities of ordered feeling in the musical experience are not irrational; but they are irreducible to reason or pragmatic reckoning.” – Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, p251

v Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, p17

vi Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, p224

vii Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, p5

viii Martin Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art, in Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings p 148

ix “George Steiner on Myths and Music” – – accessed 06/08/2019

x “George Steiner on Myths and Music” – – accessed 06/08/2019

xi “Of Beauty and Consolation, Roger Scruton” – – accessed 07/08/2019

xii Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, p158

xiii Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, p190

xiv Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, p249

xv Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, p228

xvi ‘There would be no history as we know it, no religion, metaphysics, politics or aesthetics as we have lived them, without an initial act of trust, of confiding, more fundamental, more axiomatic by far than any ‘social contract’ or covenant with the postulate of the divine. This instauration of trust, this entrance of man into the city of man, is that between word and world.’ – Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, p102

xvii “D. H. Lawrence’s is a summarizing statement: “I always feel as if I stood naked for the fire of Almighty God to go through me – and it’s rather an awful feeling. One has to be so terribly religious to be an artist.” And there is Yeats: “No man can create as did Shakespeare, Homer, Sophocles, who does not believe with all his blood and nerve, that man’s soul is immortal.” – Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, p262

xviii Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, p246

xix Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, p262

xx Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, Lowell Lectures (New York: New American Library, 1959), pp. 10-14 and 19-22.

xxi Robert B. Pippin, Modernism as a Philosophical Problem, 1991, p36

xxii Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, Hans Rookmaaker, Apollos, p151

xxiii Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, p56

xxiv Hans Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, p27

xxv Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, p156

xxvi Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, p156

xxvii Real Presences, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, p156

xxviii Revelation 3:20