Tonight, Mrs Acilius and I were watching TV. The program was a documentary called Paris: The Luminous Years. In a video clip from the 1960s, Marcel Duchamp said every visual artwork was a collection of shapes and colors. The essence of art lay in the artist’s choice of these shapes and colors. One set of shapes and colors was as eligible for this choice as another, and the actual production of the artwork was purely incidental. Once the artist had made his or her choice of shapes and colors, the “art” is complete.
Mrs Acilius (who posts on WordPress as “Believer1“) said something about this. “I think art is freedom. When I paint a plate, I know that I’m painting it with fingers that have cerebral palsy. So I have to start by accepting the fact that the picture I have in my mind is not going to be the same as the picture on the plate.” We talked about this. I asked her if she was saying that art wasn’t just something that happened in the artist’s mind, or just the finished product, but was to be found in the process, in the difference between what she was trying to do and what wound up happening. She confirmed that she was saying that.
I told Mrs Acilius that the difference between her and Duchamp reminded me of the difference between Calvinism and sacramentalism in Christian theology. Duchamp’s idea that art is art simply because the artist has decided so, and that the events that take place in the physical world subsequent to that choice have no bearing on its status sounds rather like the Calvinist idea that the Elect are the Elect simply because God has decided so, and that events that take place in the physical world subsequent to his free election have no bearing on their status. Her idea, by contrast, sounds like a form of Christianity that regards salvation as inseparable from particular forms of matter and particular events in time.
The Mrs is a Quaker; unlike the classical believer in the Orthodox, Catholic, or Anglican versions of Christianity, Quakers typically reject ritual. They do, however, embrace sacraments. Quakers do not practice baptism by water, not because they think it puts too much of God in the physical world, but because it puts too little of Him there. Believing that the soul can encounter the Holy Spirit under any circumstances, they see the whole world as the scene of baptism. Likewise, in their meetings for worship they do not have a ritual sharing of wine and bread, not because they lack communion, but because in their shared silences they make their fellowship a communion, and their whole persons an altar on which it is consecrated. They do not make lists of sacraments, such as the traditional seven sacraments of Western Christianity, not because they deny that God interacts with humanity through matter, but because they believe that He interacts with us in more ways than we can count or foresee. So when the Mrs puts an emphasis on the unpredictability of the artistic process, she is using categories familiar from the theology of her religious tradition.