A painting is not its interpretation. At the moment it encounters me in the art museum, a painting exists for me. But it does not need me. It exists for me in a particular way, a way that challenges my control, rendering me receptive (i.e., passive). T.S. Eliot once said that the meaning of a poem exists somewhere between the poem and the reader. And so it is this “space between” that the painting creates, transforming me, if only briefly, from a subject to an object. It is this moment that Rilke describes in his poem, “The Archaic Torso of Apollo” (1908): the statue confronts and makes a claim on the narrator:
for there is no angle from which/It does not see you. You must change your life.
But I do not want to change my life. Following the insights of Martin Luther, I want to justify it—before God and my neighbor. I want to be active—to define, to explain, to interpret, to read. I do not want merely to receive. Yet, according to Luther, and against the ancients like Aristotle and the Stoics as well as the moderns like Sartre and Marx, we are ontologically passive—a human being is justified (i.e., “defined”) by faith, not by works (Rom 3: 28; The Disputation Concerning Man, #32). And this passive, receptive posture of faith frees the human being to receive the world as a gift, and to be active in this world through the love of neighbor. “He lives,” Luther says, “not in himself, but in Christ and neighbor”—in Christ, passively, through faith and in his neighbor, actively, through love.
My encounter with a painting exposes my ontological passivity, what Luther called, the vita passiva. Yet I fight against it by asserting my control, by behaving as if the painting is a static, inert object, with “subject matter” that needs my interpretive activity to give it life. And so my experience of a painting also reveals my resistance to the receptive life of faith and my addiction to the active life of works, refusing to respect the painting before which I stand as singular event of creative agency that makes a claim on me, reminding me that I am not the subject of my own life story.
Luther calls the human person a “rational being with a fabricating heart.” The painting before which I stand generates these fabrications—ideas, concepts, frameworks that I create in order to tame it, disenchant it, transform it from something radically other, into something prosaically familiar. Theologian Oswald Bayer calls this “justifying thinking,” which is characterized by “the attempt to mediate and reconcile all things,” trying “to fit everything into the concept of the One, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful” (Theology the Lutheran Way, 26).
The space that a painting opens up is the space where art criticism dwells. One of the art critic’s primary goals, it seems to me, is to find creative ways to keep that space open in the reader’s imagination, to reveal the passivity of the encounter with it while actively responding in such a way that always has the painting, not my interpretive framework, as the subject of the aesthetic sentence. The art critic recognizes that this space is easily foreclosed on, by fellow critics, curators, philosophers, and the artists themselves, who recognize the truth in Mark Rothko’s claim that it is a risky business to send a painting out into the world.
But most importantly, the art critic is aware of his own heart, his own tendency eliminate that space between him and the painting, to make a painting serve his own stories, narratives, projects. And so the art critic must contradict himself—fight against the urge to suffocate the painting in order to declare what it “means.” For the art critic to clear out this space is to make the painting a moving target again, to restore its provocative radicality, as a singular event of a human being’s creative agency which simultaneously achieves its own agency. Or, put another way, the goal of art criticism is to declare the failure of all interpretive schemes to anchor the meaning of a painting.
This is an impossible task for me who stands before a painting.
And that is why the space that a painting opens up between the painting and me is a space maintained only by faith working through love (Gal 5: 6).