Leland Ryken, from his essay “The Creative Arts“:
Works of art make implied assertions, just as history and science and philosophy do. For convenience, we can say that the arts make implied claims about the three great issues of life:
- Reality: what really exists, and what is its nature?
- Morality: what constitutes right and wrong behavior?
- Values: what really matters, and what matters most and least?
For purposes of illustration, I turn first to a pair of nineteenth-century English painters, Constable and Turner. They both chose nature as their paintings convinces us not simply that physical nature is an important part of reality but also that it is something of great worth in human experience.
But along with these similarities we notice obvious differences in how Constable and Turner interpreted nature. What do we see as we look at Constable’s famous paintings of Salisbury Cathedral?
We see the beauty and harmony of nature. We see nature in a religious light and as the friend of people. The human and natural worlds are unified. Constable himself said that he painted nature as benevolent because he sensed God’s presence in nature.
Turner offers quite a different interpretation of nature. His colors are more intense, his brush strokes much broader and more passionate. There is an element of terror in many of his nature scenes. One of his paintings shows a gigantic avalanche ready to overwhelm a matchbox cabin under it furious weight.
In such a painting nature is not nurturing, as in Constable and the Dutch realists, but hostile. The one is not necessarily more Christian than the other, though we should not minimize how artists select details that suggest their overall view of human possibilities in the universe.
For a literary illustration, consider the following sonnet, entitled “God’s Grandeur,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights of the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bring wings.
The subject of the poem is the permanent freshness of nature.
The perspective from which we view that reality is the grandeur of God.
What really exists? According to this poem, the physical world of sun and tress and the spiritual world that includes the triune God are equally real.
What constitutes moral and immoral behavior? To live morally is to live in reverence before God’s creation. To desecrate nature in pursuit of selfish acquisitiveness is immoral.
What values are most worthy of human pursuit? God’s nature.