According to Jean-Louis Chretien (Hand to Hand), the notion of God as divine artist and of the world as art comes into its own in Augustine’s Trinitarian notion of ars divina, developed in medieval theology and Baroque art theory. This tradition was not free of ambiguities.
Earlier Christian writers had described the world as a work of art, but the theme appears in Augustine not as “a fleeting or circumstantial analogy” but in the form of “a veritable doctrine of ars divina, the divine art.” For Augustine, God’s artistic creativity is immediately relevant to human artistry. It is not merely a matter of analogy. Rather, the same wisdom by which God creates animates the artist: “That supreme art of the omnipotent God through which all things have been made from nothing, which is also called his Wisdom, also works through artists to produce things of beauty and proportion, although they do not produce from nothing, but from a given material” (Augustine).
The artist is doubly dependent, most creaturely. He needs stuff to work with, stuff that he cannot produce. And, the very “norms and models of his art” come from God, the “divine wisdom, or the divine art.” The proportions and harmonies of the work come to the mind from God before the artist “impresses [them] bodily onto a body.”
The truest art is thus not found in the well-made artifact, as it is for the Greeks and, after Augustine, for Thomas. Rather, though clarity in the work is still valued, “this clarity refers back just short of itself, toward the source that emitted it. The work is no longer that upon which the gaze must stop, or that beside which it must stay: it must rouse and move the viewer toward its author.” God the artist is “infinitely superior” to His work; of course. But now the artist too is superior to his work, even as he is himself subordinate to the art that guides him. Chretien says that Augustine develops “a conception according to which the highest function of the work is to manifest and to express its author.” Already we begin to hear stirrings of the Romantic notion of art as self-expression.
In part, this is a product of Augustine’s subordination of art to semiotics, specifically the shared semiotics of Plato and Aristotle, according to which the sign/artwork is a sign of the thought of the speaker/artist. Augustine puts it this way, “The artist, too, through the beauty of his work, intimates in a way to the viewer that he should not fasten his attention there completely but should so scan the beauty of the artistic work that he will turn his thoughts back fondly upon he who made it. Those who love the things you make instead of yourself are like men who listen to the eloquence of a wise man. In their overeagerness to hear his beautiful voice and the skilful cadence of his words, they neglect the primary importance of his thoughts for which the spoken words were to serve as signs.” Chretien glosses: “if the signifier is the creatures’ form and the signified the divine thought, then these works of divine art have their meaning outside and above themselves.” Augustine “reduces the forms to signs, to signs of God.”
This represents a radical inversion of earlier conceptions of the relation of artist, conception, and work: “the power to make a work is more than the work, the clarity of the work is not inaugural, but only reflected and lunar; it comes from elsewhere and leads us elsewhere, toward the mind of the artist. The spirit of art is thus not to be grasped first of all in the thing in which it is incarnated; it dwells beyond the life and presence of the artist himself, it signals to us across things that are only so many stages on the way to it.” In Chretien’s view, Augustine has made an illegitimate leap here. To say that the created world manifests God is not the same as saying that every work of art expresses its author. Augustine, however, takes it as self-evident.
All this is grounded in the very being of God, who is Himself internally and eternally productive, the “one perfect Word” being “like the art of the almighty and wise God” (Augustine’s words: ars quaedam omnipotentis atque sapientis Dei). In this ars patri are found the models and originals of all things, every created thing pre-spoken in the Father’s eternal articulation of the Word.
Within the Trinity, there is a “total and perfect identity between the art and the artist.” In God, “art is nothing other than the intimate life of the eternal artist.” This takes Augustine’s aesthetic revolution a step further, and grounds it dogmatically: “if art and the artist are one, the work’s reference back to the artist is alike to its reference back to the art itself that precedes it. The beauty of the work is a sign, certainly, but a sign of the complete form that founds it, and which not only has more beauty, but is beauty itself, perfect beauty.”
This pattern applies first of all to created things, each of which exists in the ars that is the Son before it exists in external reality. And this is a hierarchical relationship: The art-creature in the Son is superior to the bodily creature, before the former is eternal and perfect.
Chretien poses the right question, a question both for Augustine’s theology of creation and for his theology of art: “isn’t every work then a decline and a sort of failure in relation to the very art that produces it?” Isn’t creation itself a sort of failure, a declension, rather than a manifestation of glory? Further, “As the praise of divine art sharpens, does it not become the affirmation of the superfluity and the imperfection of its work?”
He suggests there are resources in Christian theology to addresses these Augustinian dilemmas. In the incarnation, “The union of God and man in a single person is the union of divine art and one of its works in a single being. Nothing can be more perfect, and the principle of indetermination introduced by the superiority of the artist over the work here finds its limit and ceases to play a role. God can make a masterpiece by uniting himself to his work.” Bonaventure discusses the incarnation as a union of two books, the inner book and the outer, the liber intus scriptus and the liber foris scriptus: “This inner book is the divine art itself, divine wisdom, the Word insofar as it contains the archetypes of all that can be created. When God incarnates himself and the Word assumes the humanity of Jesus, the inner book of divine art and the outer book of the creature unite. Jesus Christ is both at the same time, the art and the work together.” This doesn’t destroy the difference between the eternal divine ars and the bodily work, but the “distance between the two arts is reduced.”
Baroque aesthetics takes this Trinitarian logic in a direction that more easily makes room for the work. The eternal Son is the ars of the Father, but, while eternally consubstantial, the Son is truly other. The Father expresses Himself in His eternal Word, and comes to know Himself in the other that is the Word. It is in production of the Word that the Father knows the Word and Himself. It is not that the Father has an non-hypostatic mental word which he speaks as the living Word; the living Word spoken, who is truly other than the Father, is the original Word. This doesn’t mean the Father comes to self-knowledge; the Word is eternal, co-eternal with the Father, and so the Father is never without the Word by which He knows Himself. Yet He knows Himself only in the other that He speaks forth.
Applied to artistic production, this means that art doesn’t preexist in the artist’s mind. Given his finitude and the limits of his power over his materials, the human artist is incapable of a full conception of the work until the work is produced (and he or she is not fully capable even then). Mental “art” (if we still wish to speak this way) comes to clarity as the art-work is produced.
In any case, Chretien’s historical point is well established: “the movement by which the human artist will come to take himself for a creator does not issue from a profane tradition wherein rebellious man takes the place of the God he rejects. Quite to the contrary, it is born in Christian theology itself, and more precisely in the Augustinian lineage, where Christianity and Platonic philosophy meet.”