I learned something interesting recently when Picasso came to the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Picasso (and others) helped create collage. It was explained to me that the Cubist movement incorporated found objects into their imagery, mixing paint and sculpture. This combination inaugurated a sculptural sensibility into what had been up till that point a strict, two dimensional medium. Controversy (no surprise here) ensued. This impulse to cut and paste — to combine otherwise unrelated or even dissonant elements into a coherent, new whole — can be a beautiful thing.
A friend of mine, Liz, is locally famous for her mixed media art, including her collages. Sometimes, she takes pictures, cuts them up into little pieces, and uses them to create a new picture of some kind. Her work consists of a “picture of pieces” of other pictures. A picture of pieces is not a technical definition of “collage” or “Cubism” to be sure, but suggests of a whole range of artistic engagement that attempts, by some kind of reordering, to tell a different story of the world than The One That Is.
This capacity to reshape a story with elements from another (think of this as mental collage) draws deeply from our desire to think about the possibility of “what if.” What if instead of this ending, we had that ending? Or what if we had this soundtrack over this film instead of that one; would it change the meaning? That’s the beauty of the imagination, which is a word that itself means “imaging” or as George MacDonald expressed it, “the making of likenesses.” He writes, “The imagination is that faculty which gives form to thought...that faculty in man which is likest to the prime operation of the power of God, and has, therefore, been called the creative faculty, and its exercise creation. Poet means maker.” (George MacDonald, The Imagination and Other Essays, 1883)
Whether collage or creative writing, then, as a truism, art calls forth our godlike creativity and gives us a creator kind of control over our world. Its antecedents are in the divine mind. In his place, we govern our worlds, both real and imaginary; this is “till the earth and subdue it” for aesthetes. I’m referring to the creative mandate given by God in the first chapter of Genesis, the place in God’s story where the “image” of God is defined for us: "...God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'" (Genesis 1:27-28 ESV) When Moses writes “subdue,” he means the skill and art of copying God’s genius of bringing chaos into order, even those times when the “chaos” is something someone else already thinks is ordered just fine.
A modern master of this kind of creative reshaping and subduing is a man named Christian Marclay who specializes in digital collage. His most recent masterpiece involved making a film twenty-four hours long of different film clips of clocks showing every possible time of day and night. It is a kind of film that defies explanation, and laughs at you while you spend however much time you spend in this movie actually watching time. A film about time consisting of parts of other films that mention time. (Say that five times fast!)
If we think of this retelling or reshaping as the artist’s calling, we must also see it as the artist’s challenge. Because not all imagination is good. Pascal makes this observation when he says that our imaginations cause us to “make an eternity out of nothing and nothing out of eternity.” Our ability to “see” often results in our seeing wrongly. Not all cutting and pasting is good. Not every piece can fit in every picture. The thought struck me when talking with my children about the Ten Commandments. These “words” warn against a sinful use of the imagination by which God’s story is reordered by snips and sticks in order to tell something different than what was Originally Told: “I am the LORD thy God which hath brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the House of Bondage. Therefore, thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” God’s redemption is a painting that can’t be altered or added to.
In fact, in the story itself, we come to discover that cutting and pasting another head on That Redeemer is idolatry, even if its golden: "So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!' When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, 'Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.'" (Exodus 32:3-5 ESV) Likewise the Decalogue ends with a prohibition of what might be referred to as people’s proclivity toward unholy imaging: “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife...” This kind of mental collage aims to destroy: creating another story by cutting and pasting my life into yours. Picture a man staring from his bedroom window into his neighbor’s back yard and psychologically photoshopping himself into THAT LIFE, with THAT WIFE. That qualifies as bad art.
But when we turn our imaginations to the good, that’s faith: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1, KJV) That means we have to use our imaginations, but we must be careful when doing so. Our capacity for imagination and collage can cause us to cut God out and thus destroy ourselves or join with him in repairing the world. Which do you choose?
Phil Henry is married and has six children. He currently lives in South Jersey where he is starting a new church community, Mercy Hill Presbyterian Church. Phil served on the Ruminate staff as an associate reader from 2009-2011.
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