Approaching the Art of Our Neighbor

by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

The first day of History of Art at Mount Angel Seminary, we discuss a handout with passages from the first chapter of  A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (public library) by Alan Jacobs.  While he is discussing love of neighbor regarding a literary text, his principles for a loving reading apply to our approach to the visual arts as well.

My aim is to help all of us to avoid the temptation to give our best attention only to the works we find the most personally appealing.  In our studies, we want to regard all of the art we encounter as our neighbor.

Jacobs grounds his book in this well-known verse from the Gospel of Matthew:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. - Matthew 22:37-40
We will certainly encounter works that stand opposed to our beliefs, yet love asks us to offer them welcome and to understand them to the best of our ability:
But the hermeneutics of love requires that books and authors, however alien to to the beliefs and practices of the Christian life, be understood and treated as neighbors (13).
One seeks to avoid error because one cannot love properly when confused or deceived (17).

Composition No. 4 - Vassily Kandinsky

We also need to consider the nature of the gift an artist offers us:
The kind of pleasure we take in a well-crafted work of literary art is very like the pleasure we take in a well-cooked meal, in that it is something given to us by another person.  It is a gift we honor, and whose giver we honor, by receiving it with gratitude.  It is not always appropriate, it is not always charitable, to take that which is offered to us in a spirit of pleasure and recreation and use it according to a rigid criterion of studious application . . . Some works of art are presented to us as opportunities for refreshment, recreation, and pleasure.  Discernment is required to know what kind of gift one is being presented with, and in what spirit to accept it (24).
Our approach to art is part of our moral life:
Fundamentally, it is the reader's will that determines the moral form the reading takes: If the will is directed toward God and neighbor, it will in Augustinian terms exemplify caritas; if the will is directed toward the self, it will exemplify cupiditas (31).

Composition No. 6 - Vassily Kandinsky

Composition No. 7 - Vassily Kandinsky

Each of us certainly has our natural preferences, but restricting ourselves to those preferences is detrimental:
But if our love is only preferential - if we select some books as the proper and worthy recipients of our love, while excluding others from that charmed circle . . . it fails to achieve genuine Christian charity.  Charity demands that we extend the gift of love to all books, and receive the gift of love when it is offered to us (33).
Our reading, our approach to art, asks us to take risks and ponder our own character along with that of the writers and artists we encounter:
Rather, I am merely claiming that love, in any of its genuine forms, is a fearful thing.  To love one's neighbor is always a risk, for whether that neighbor returns or shuns our love we will in the striving for charity reveal (to our neighbor and ourselves) elements of our character that will not be pleasant to have revealed.  Similarly, to love God means, in part, to love God's righteousness; and therefore if we wish to love God in the act of interpreting, we must be prepared to subject what we read, those who write what we read, and ourselves to the authority of that righteousness (33).