Let’s read Pascal (25): Pascal on admiring on the page what we would not admire in the flesh

Let's Read Pascal

In pensée 134, Pascal puts his finger on a peculiarity of art:

How useless is painting, which attracts admiration by the resemblance of things, the originals of which we do not admire!

Now I do not think, especially in the context of the pensées collected in the section called “thoughts on mind and style” in modern editions, that Pascal intends here to condemn every work of art that depicts unsavoury events, and if he does I think he is mistaken. We may admire the depiction of an act–say, for example, murder–in a work of art for the purity and intensity of its rendering. for the way in which the human cost or the mentality of the act is “captured” on the canvas, without admiring the act itself we see it committed before our eyes.

Furthermore, this purified and intensified artistic presentation is not the preserve of the visual arts alone. In fact, much literature and, I think, a great deal of political and social theory, presents us with such purified or idealised visions, schemata or theories that, while we admire their elegance and composition on the page, we would find less than congenial were they to be adopted in our own lives and by our own governments. Do we not sometimes admire or praise in our disciplinary circles behaviours, ideas or situations of which we would disapprove were we to encounter them on the street? They are ideologically laudable on the page, but not practically desirable in our own living room.

This is not to condemn all utopianism, all visionaries, all ideals. Far from it. But it is to raise the question of admiring the “beautiful murder” in relation to our own disciplinary theorising. In the post entitled Developing a Christian Approach to Your Academic Discipline: The Map and the Mirror one of the questions we suggested you ask of your discipline was “If the leaders of your discipline became the leaders of the world, what would the world look like?” In the present context, the question is slightly different: “If the theories expounded in your discipline were strictly and rigorously applied in your own context, would they retain their elegance or beguiling attractiveness?” In other words, in your discipline would we still admire as an “original” what we currently admire as a “resemblance”?

Contemplation vs. communication

“an important part of this study’s critical framework is the recognition of a distinction between contemplation and communication. From secular and Christian contexts, art is too often assumed to be merely verbal communication pursued by other (and inferior) means, that the artist is trying to send “messages” that we as viewers must receive and understand linguistically. This is distinctly not the case with art. Art requires contemplation that focuses attention on the viewer developing a relationship with the work of art, not merely passively receiving a message.” –Daniel A. Siedell, God in the Gallery, p. 15.