The Arts and Mystery

“The painter Jasper Johns once remarked: ‘I can imagine a society without any art at all, and it is not a bad society.’ I wonder what he meant.”

Thus Professor Denis Donoghue began his series of BBC Reith Lectures in 1982, “The Arts without Mystery”. They have remained in my memory for those 29 years as one of the most intriguing and wise examinations of the arts, their reception and their relationship with our society which I have ever heard. I revisited them again recently, courtesy of a BBC podcast. They are as relevant today as they were 29 years ago. Not only are they relevant in what they say explicitly,  but they seem to connect indirectly with many other issues confronting us three decades on.

 “I hope Johns meant,” he continued, “that he would prefer art not to exist at all than that it should exist as a commodity among commodities, its mystery removed. I want to talk about the arts in relation to the mystery that surrounds them, not as a problem to be cleared up but as the very condition in which they appear at all. In that sense, mystery is to be acknowledged, not resolved or dispelled.

“It has become a scandal to speak of mystery. Many people regard talk of it as sheer mystification, a pretentious claim upon profundity, as if the only situation worth talking about defeated every reasonable attempt to deal with it. But I want to reinstate mystery and to distinguish it from mere bewilderment or mystification. One of the strongest motives in modern life is to explain everything and preferably to explain it away. The typical mark of modern critics is that they are zealots of explanation; they want to deny to the arts their mystery, and to degrade mystery into a succession of problems. But the effort is perverse.”

It seems to me that the malaise Donoghue refers to here is one which is also at the root of the modern flight from religion. Something has developed in our culture which is averse to the existence of mystery in our lives and has generated the prevailing secularism – that vision which tells us that the world and its panorama of ultimately explainable objects constitute all that there is an all that there ever will be.

 “The philosopher Gabriel Marcel,” Donoghue recalled, “has distinguished a mystery from a problem in this way. ‘A problem,’ he says, ‘is something which bars my passage. It is before me in its entirety. A mystery is something in which I find myself caught up, and whose essence is therefore not to be before me in its entirety. It is a proper character of problems to be reduced to detail: mystery, on the other hand, is something which cannot be reduced to detail.’ When we refer, for instance, to the mystery of ‘Being’, we don’t mean that it is something that comes to our attention as an obscurity, so that we can regard the obscurity as the first stage of clarification—as if at a later stage the issue would become clear or at worst clearer. If ‘Being’ is a mystery, it is a mystery through and through, not a difficulty to be cleared up.

“If we want to take the mystery out of life, it’s because mystery is thought of as an insult to our intelligence; that the part we play in it is merely one of bewilderment.”

Donoghue distinguishes mystery from mystification He takes as an example of the latter, Peter Shaffer’s play(and later screenplay), Amadeus. The play is based on the notion that Mozart was murdered by Antonio Salieri, a rival composer. Salieri, driven mad with jealousy and raging against a God who gave the divine gift of musical inspiration to the oafish Mozart – as portrayed by Shaffer – at one point slits his own throat in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Donoghue doesn’t much like the play, which he sees as an example of a work of art seeming to proclaim itself as mysterious.

“Shaffer is trying to give his Salieri a force of radiance which nothing shown in the play warrants. Mystification is his recourse to false altitude, which in a dim light looks like the real thing: The sublimity is specious, as specious as the comforting implication, throughout Amadeus, that art is the modern substitute for religion.”

There is no mystery here. There is only a pretence of mystery which cosily deals with the unease we surely feel in the face of the mysteries which really do exist. This cosy treatment of mystery is for Donoghue a result of the

“modern vanity which supposes that everything can be known or that only what is knowable has a claim upon our interest. The artist and the priest know that there are mysteries beyond anything that can be done with words, sounds or forms. If we want to live without this sense of mystery, we can of course, but we should be very suspicious of the feeling that everything coheres and that the arts, like everything else, fit comfortably into our lives.”

Donoghue does not confuse art with religion, or artists with priests. But he does see a relationship between the two in their common revelation to us of the existence of mystery and the presences of which we can be aware in no other way.  

 “Even in a world mostly secular, the arts can make a space for our intuition of mystery, which isn’t at all the same thing as saying that the arts are a substitute for religion. There is nothing in art or in our sense of art which corresponds to my belief in God. In religion, our faith and love are directed beyond ourselves. In art, faith doesn’t arise. It’s enough that the arts have a special care for those feelings and intuitions which otherwise are crowded out in our works and days. With the arts, people can make a space for themselves, and fill it with intimations of freedom and presence.”

 Extrapolating from Donoghues’s ideas on the arts in this series there is possibly another parallel between the arts and religion which can be drawn. Donoghue talks at length of the nature of the relationship between art and society and the artist and the managers of our society, our politicians. Not only are the critics constantly attempting to explain away the mysterious in the art they are confronted with. So also are the managers of our society suspicious of any artistic expression which cannot be dealt with in this way – until such time as they can organise themselves to neuter it. It is as though the very existence of mystery implies a threat to their explanations to us of all that exists. Comunist Russia did this throughout most of its history. Just read any account of the cat and mouse conflict between Andrei Tarkovsky and the watchdogs of soviet cinema. Human history shows exactly the same response to religion on countless occasions when it has proclaimed its mysteries to mankind and the truths it teaches, directly or indirectly emanating from those mysteries. Donoghue reminds us:

 “The artistic vision is in some way ineffable, unspeakable; it deflects every attempt to pin it down by knowledge or to define it in speech. The stories” – he gives the examples of the Greek myths of Prometheus and Philoctetes  – “say that art is not to be assimilated to the comfortable ways of a society. The artist is an eagle, not a dove.  In the Preface to The Tragic Muse Henry James said that the relation between art and society is one of conflict, and that the conflict is ‘one of the half-dozen great primary motives’, presumably because it touches upon many other motives once you let it spread.

“But why should there be antagonism between politics and art? Isn’t there room for both? The trouble is that both politics and art are universalist in their ambition, each claims a total vision of life. More emphatically, artists have resented the claim that politics knows what reality is, and that this knowledge is fully represented in political institutions.”

The same can be said for religion. When Professor Donoghue goes on to look at the radical change which has taken place in the past 40 years or so in the public acceptance of the arts he does not see something entirely benign. Indeed he sees something very sad indeed – and what he sees can be translated into what we have also seen in the public acceptance of what is now called a-la-carte religion, a religion devoid of any real meaning beyond a simple life-style choice.

“Thirty or 40 years ago it was commonly assumed that there were higher values than those administered by our official institutions; government, law, the market, the banks. It was supposed that religion, education and the arts had a special concern for the higher values. The morality of the arts was to bring forward what the official institutions chose to forget; intimate subjective experience. The arts took up that experience and made it their main business. The poet John Crowe Ransom argued that the function of a genuine society is to instruct its members how to transform the values of instinct and appetite into aesthetic values; and he associated aesthetic values with those of religious conviction. He thought that societies might be persuaded to rise above their ordinary selves by observing the rituals of religion and art. In a different account R. P. Blackmur said that the purpose of literature, as of all intellect, creative or critical, is to remind the powers that be, simple and corrupt as they are, of the forces they have to control. Ransom reminded our institutions of what is beyond their offices, though still within the reach of a leap of spirit.

“Only when there is a real belligerence between official and unofficial values is a worthwhile art possible, and middle-class society has discovered how to achieve its victory by pretending that nobody has been defeated. Especially since the turmoil of 1968, societies have learnt that they can deal with dissent by incorporating it. Orthodoxy can be expanded to accommodate heresy, and when the fuss dies down, it can contract again to its norm.  The soft answer turneth away wrath, especially if it is accompanied by grants, fellowships and other felicities. The universities discovered that they could take Modernism off the streets by offering courses on its favourite texts….

“The management of the arts is a system by which it is pretended that desire is the same as need and may be appeased by money and fame. If it were successful, it would complete the secularisation of their spirituality, a process well established in the universities, where the most radical arts are taught, defined and assimilated….

“A gallery is not the best place to look at paintings, precisely because it is the best place to study the history of art; for the same reason that people become interested in ‘comparative religion’ when they have given up believing in any of the religions they compare.”

If the cosying up of the state – and forget whether it is a state of the right, left or centre, with whatever label it wants to give itself, “people’s republic,” “democratic republic” or any other kind of “res publica”, – is inimical to art and its mysteries, so too is it to religion if in its heart if fails to acknowledge the truth of mystery. Such a state is truly secular and secular in the most crippling way. This is the secularism which on its outer fringes is currently waging open war against religion in the western world. Good. The Church must exist side by side with all comers in the world, and it must endlessly seek to reveal to them the Truth of which it is custodian, a Truth whose crown is mystery. In so existing, however, it must be careful to sup with a long spoon when supping with the princes of this World.

 We have but given fragmentary samples of this very impressive series of lectures. For the full lecture series, in six thirty-minute sessions, go to the BBC Reith Lecture archive at

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