The Idolatry of Genius, part 2

If what we tend to call genius is idolatry, can there be any authentic creation? If, as I suggested in my previous post, our geniuses are better thought of as workers, again and again making an effort at an incomplete expression while enmeshed in a world of influences and indebtedness, is there only ever context? Geniuses are those who break with convention, define a new era, and pull free from the world’s determining strings. They are where we can find what is new; they are the innovators, visionaries, and pioneers. At their most profound geniuses are those whose creations create, sustain, and define a world, rather than the world defining them. If we say that this image of genius is an idol, a perfect image held in front of us that thwarts good work, can we still claim a genuine and generative power in art? In this post, I hope to begin to indicate a way forward with Jean-Luc Marion’s descriptions of the icon.

Marion’s icon “does not result from a vision but provokes one,” summoning the gaze to truthful sight. It does so by refusing to be seen as an isolated entity, something independent and self-funded. Instead, the icon always evokes and speaks to the invisible depth that is its context and source grabbing the gaze and pulling the gaze beyond itself. That is, the icon is always incomplete, pointing to the invisible in its ever deepening visibility. The visible receives continually the depth of the invisible, which radiates through it and is why, in the icon “visible and invisible grow together.” In the icon, this invisibility confronts and regards us. For Marion, the name that performs this invisibility, what regards us from depth, is love. He argues that because “love does not pretend to comprehend, since it does not mean at all to take” love can never be made into the first visible upon which the gaze might freeze. Love is more akin to a living face than to a picture in that it calls us further and further into its living depth and away from the caricatures that make up our idols.

Thus, the icon works on us and calls to us. It “demand[s], patiently, that one receive its abandon.” It envisages the gaze and thereby provokes a vision. While the idol may be apprehended, the icon exposes the gaze to infinite love that can never be completely comprehended and can only be received. The person drawn by the icon, therefore, sees the world as seen by God, “as bathed in another light.” Truthful sight does not begin with sight, but with the icon acting upon sight, with love that cannot be boxed in or grasped pulling at us. Marion effectively elaborates on this by arguing that the icon is not an essence, but a threshold where we pass from speech to praise. Speech belongs to the realm of self-constitution and idolatry – it begins with “my” experience – but praise comes from and dwells within the glimpse of love. Speech is how we attempt to understand, define, and even create a world, but praise is a response to the world’s depth – to the love of God that suffuses world. For when we find ourselves caught up in love, we find that “predication must yield to praise…. To return the gift, to play redundantly the unthinkable donation, this is not said, but done. Love is not spoken, in the end, it is made. Only then can discourse be reborn, but as an enjoyment, a jubilation, a praise.” Love forms to us and forms us, at which point we find that we are speaking (or creating) truthfully.

God Without Being is not primarily a work about art or the possibility of authentic creativity. Nevertheless, I do find these themes addressed in his treatise on the possibility of knowing God. Here are three lessons we can learn from the icon in regards to the possibility of authentic expression.

First, the icon re-orients the source of our being from something within to something outside of us. The gaze creates the idol by imposing itself on the world. Ironically, it thereby finds itself trapped by a picture of the world that appears to yield itself to this imposition. On the other hand, the icon creates the gaze that might look truthfully upon the world; in the icon the untamed world speaks to us in abundance. This means that we are not first observers, speaking of and to a world outside of us. Rather, we speak from the site of the world, from the phenomena saturated with love’s depth. We are (creative) persons, in the first place, not because we look and name, but because we are looked at and named.

Second, part of being called into ourselves is to be provoked into expression. When the call leads to slavish silence and a loss of self as its own end, then it is not the icon but the oppressive work of idols, whether it be the idols of others or our own. At its most promising, Marion’s icon is not a benevolent paternalism, a signifier that knows better than we do what is and is not good for us and expects for us to be obedient children. The icon calls us into ourselves, and an integral aspect of this is that we find ourselves as acting and expressing agents. Love finds itself on the cross as the greatest affirmation of life, not as a denial of life. Provoked to express we find ourselves; called to ourselves we find our voice.

Third, if these two points are correct, then we can suggest that being in the world and creativity are not mutually exclusive alternatives. Indeed, the one needs the other. When we lose creativity  we cease to be authentically in the world and are swallowed by the world’s idols. Instead of being in the world, we become a simple image of one of the world’s image. From the other end, being in the world is the condition and source of any ability to express.  The ability to make we learn and receive from the world as we move through it. One might even say that creativity is not of the world, but can only find its mooring if it is in the world. In any case, authenticity is not a perfect picture or a pure platform, but a working from a world and a self that is received and towards a world and a self that is offered.

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