Art That Speaks: Mary Carruthers' The Craft of Thought

July 03, 2016

The medieval aesthetic—and imagination, and memory—was intimately tied up with the process of communication between the aesthetic object, or the memory image, and the person viewing (or ‘remembering’) it. Works of art are works of memory and rhetoric, because they enter into the meditative experience of the viewer, and ‘speak’ with him.

Mary Carruthers frames this in terms of comparison with the contemporary experience of interacting with art:

There is a critical difference between modern and early medieval ekphrases, which goes to the heart (or rather the gist) of medieval aesthetic. One of the best-known examples in English of a modern ekphrasis is John Keat’s poem Ode on a Grecian Urn. Keat’s urn, you recall, has almost nothing to say for itself. It displays its mute pictures to the admiring poet, but he is entirely on his own to make sense of them; even his guesses about their narrative are uninformed by any assurance from the urn. What little the urn does say is Delphic in its brevity and enigma. Indeed its speech is so puzzling that there is not even agreement among scholars about which words it speaks. As an orator, the artifact shares nothing with its audience; no common social ground, no story is shared by urn and admirer. It is only an object; he is only a subject. In our century, indeed, the urn’s isolated objectivity has been extended to an ideal of poetry that is palpable and mute, having nothing to say to any reader.

--The Craft of Thought, 223

To the modern mind, works of art do not speak to the viewer, but instead are objects to which the viewer brings his own subjective experience. Our experience of the art is not an experience which the art gives us, but is instead an experience which we create in ourselves in response to the art. This, I believe, is the most meaningful sense in which we can say that our modern perception of art is ‘relative.’

There is much talk about whether the visual arts, or music, or literature is “subjective,” or “objective,” particularly in conservative schools of thought today. This question is typically framed in terms of whether the art itself is subjective, or objective its meaning. But the question can be framed more helpfully by asking where we think the meaning resides. Does the meaning of a work of art reside “in” in the work of art, or “in” the feelings produced by my experience of it, or (as we must also ask) is this even a useful way to ask the question?

It is not my purpose here to propose an answer to this question. But Carruthers’ comments on the medieval experience of art (and memory) are thought provoking. On the one hand, art was a kind of ekphrasis, a description that existed for the purpose of interpretation. Art was, in a word, rhetoric. It spoke to the reader, or viewer, or (for that matter), listener. Art was fundamentally a social event, with a speaker, and an audience (in contrast to the urn, above, which was “only an object,” and its viewer, “only a subject”). But the speaker was not necessarily the artist, as we might think.

Carruthers notes that “each work is a composition articulated within particular rhetorical situations of particular communities,” and applies this idea to the debates over icons between Suger of St. Denis and Bernard of Clairvaux. Both were builders of monastic churches, yet Suger was building a sumptuous church for the royal court, but Bernard for ascetics who had turned back from the world into the “desert.” Was the meaning of each church “in” the church? Or was it “in” the experience of the arbitrary onlooker? Perhaps we might better phrase it by saying that the meaning of the church, just as the meaning of any other piece of rhetoric, was in the relationship between the speaker (the church) and the intended audience (the monks).

For the modern, the meaning of a work of art is tied to my experience of it, the aesthetic object. But as we have seen, it would be a mistake to say that the medieval was more “objective,” and placed the meaning of the aesthetic object in the object itself. The distinction between the modern and the medieval lies in the medieval’s perception of art as a piece of rhetoric, whose meaning is derived from the dual responsibilities of rhetor and audience. For the modern, I speak in response to the art, and any rhetorical situation is created within my own experience. For the medieval, art speaks, I listen, and in this dual action, the meaning of the art is revealed.

This is how the art of memory (from ancient times a part of rhetoric) was tied to the process of invention. Creativity, the creation of new meaning and imagination, was not something which happens purely inside myself, but is spawned out of my interaction with the memory image, or piece of art. Because of course, as we can now see, we really mean the same thing by ‘art’ and ‘image.’ Works of art were memory images, and vice versa. Creation comes not from the lone artist, breathing new content out of his ‘imagination’ (in our modern sense), but from the rhetorical situation of the student (the audience) responding to the speaker (his memory images).

To conclude, we can apply Carruthers’ insight of memory (and art) as rhetoric to an example she brings in from Peter of Celle:

Peter of Celle takes on the iconoclasts’ objection in this treatise, after he has ‘painted’ his many pictures in the text. God prohibited the making of statues (Deuteronomy 5:8), as the iconoclasts have pointed out. But Peter interprets this stricture ethically as referring to the cognitive uses of painting. We can paint pictures and make statues for ourselves to use in contemplation so long as we are not sidetracked into error by that failure of imagination which is also, as we have seen, a weakness of memoria, namely curiositas and ‘fornications.’ We should use images painted in fantasy for contemplative thinking; but be careful, Peter says, not to paint upon the tablet of the inward imagination those worldly or morally objectionable or vain details which we might have observed in actual statues of stone or wood, out of a misplaced desire to remember on each occasion every detail of what we actually saw.

--_The Craft of Thought, _209

As we can see, for Peter, the ethical value of the image is not inherent either in the image itself, or even in our subjective experience of the image, but in what we create as a result. To miss the point of the image, to be a distracted audience, because we engage with vain curiosities—that is what Deuteronomy seeks to prohibit. To phrase the point in the terms of which Carruthers speaks of Keats’ poem above, the ethical value of the image is framed in “the story shared by urn and admirer.”

Like this post?

I'm experimenting with a newsletter. Sign up here if you're interested.
Michael Helvey

Just want to talk? Feel free to tweet @helvetici.