G. K. Chesterton wrote extensively on the subjects of creativity, imagination, and art, and did so as an accomplished artist in his own right. During his distinguished career, he produced an impressive body of poetry, sketches, novels, short stories, essays, and even a few works of drama, many of which clearly reflect his philosophy of art. Any formulation of a philosophy of art from the perspective of Christian humanism is incomplete if it fails to incorporate some of Chesterton’s keen insights; he recognized that man, unlike the brute, beholds the world he inhabits with wonder and celebrates that wonder through artistic creation. Chesterton’s integrative approach is illuminating and metaphysically satisfying; it is a robust, common-sense philosophy of art that highlights the deficiencies of the materialist alternatives.

Meaning, Imagination, and Play

Chesterton had strong convictions about what it means for man to employ his God-given creative capacity for genuine artistic expression. In “On the True Artist,” he argues that “the artist is a person who communicates something…it is a question of communication and not merely of what some people call expression. Or rather, strictly speaking, unless it is communication it is not expression.”[1] Further on he says: “The artist does ultimately exhibit himself as being intelligent by being intelligible.”[2] This doesn’t necessarily mean being easy to understand, but definitely being understood. When Chesterton explains that “it is when the work has passed from mind to mind that it becomes a work of art,” one is reminded of Leo Tolstoy’s words: “The effect of the true work of art is to abolish in the consciousness of the perceiver the distinction between himself and the artist.”[3]

That the artist’s work needs to be comprehensible and communicate content to the receiver seems right; just as the Creator communicates truths through his creation, so the imagination of the artist calls forth the deep meaning of the world in his acts of re-creation. There is something deeply personal in nature that subtly calls out, and the “ache of the artist” is the desperation to wrest this higher meaning out of obscurity through the imaginative pursuit of objective beauty. Chesterton cautions us that “imaginative does not mean imaginary”; the true artist senses that he “is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil.”[4] Imagination is the power by which these truths are brought into better focus for the sake of understanding. “Imagination is a thing of clear images,” he explains, “and the more a thing becomes vague the less imaginative it is.”[5] The divine purpose of human art is to reveal and magnify truth about God, man, and the world.

Chesterton believed that wonder, joy, and mirth are characteristic of the divine image in mankind and inseparable from the imagination. He observed that these things are manifested most clearly in children, who retain a sense of adventure and excitement even toward the mundane; for them, “A tree is something top-heavy and fantastic, a donkey is as exciting as a dragon.”[6] The world of childhood is filled with wide-eyed delight about things that most adults, laments Chesterton, regard as prosaic. In his essay, “On Running After One’s Hat,” he illustrates this with his own characteristically imaginative flair:

Did you ever hear a small boy complain of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train? No; for to him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetical pleasures. Because to him the red light and the green light on the signal are like a new sun and a new moon. Because to him when the wooden arm of the signal falls down suddenly, it is as if a great king had thrown down his staff as a signal and started a shrieking tournament of trains. I myself am of little boys’ habit in this matter.[7]

The theme of child-like wonder at the actual world pervades Chesterton’s writings on imagination and esthetics. In his autobiography, he recalls the quality of bright lucidity that permeated his childhood: “Mine is a memory of a sort of white light on everything, cutting things out very clearly, and rather emphasizing their solidity…the white light had a sort of wonder in it, as if the world were as new as myself.”[8] This white light of wonder best characterizes Chesterton’s idea of the genuine aesthetic experience; his use of light as the image for transcendent goodness and truth and his use of darkness and shadow as images for obscurity can be found in many of his writings, regardless of genre. From Chesterton’s theistic perspective, the white light of wonder is a glimpse of the eternal and the divine.

It is interesting to note that some materialist philosophers of art recognize this transcendental experience and yet cannot sufficiently explain it. John Dewey, in Art as Experience, quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s description of such a moment: “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thought any occurrence of a special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”[9] In response to the passage, Dewey admits that he cannot “see any way of accounting for the multiplicity of experiences of this kind (something of the same quality being found in every spontaneous and uncoerced esthetic response).”[10] He describes it as a “mystic aspect of acute esthetic surrender, that renders it so akin as an experience to what religionists term ecstatic communion,” yet he explains it away as “dispositions acquired in primitive relationships of the living being to its surroundings.”[11] He maintains that sensuous experience has an infinite capacity “to absorb into itself meanings and values that in and of themselves…would be designated ‘ideal’ and ‘spiritual.’”[12] However, on Dewey’s materialist view, nothing can have inherent meaning in this objective sense; there is only quasi-meaning that humans ascribe to the sensuous world. By contrast, in Chesterton’s theistic perspective, real meaning saturates the cosmos and shines through the material creation as well as the imaginative creations of man.

Chesterton urges us to see that the imaginative state of mind is one in which the ordinary, even the inconvenient, is an opportunity for wonder and delight.  He opens and concludes “On Running After One’s Hat” by wistfully envisioning the flooding of his hometown that has occurred while he is away on holiday, an event the other residents likely find irritatingly inconvenient. “Now that it has the additional splendour of great sheets of water,” he muses, “there must be something quite incomparable in the landscape (or waterscape) of my own romantic town. Battersea must be a vision of Venice.”[13] He imagines the green-grocer and butcher gliding swiftly and gracefully through the shimmering, watery streets-turned-canals, using gondolas to deliver their goods. “I do not think that it is altogether fanciful or incredible to suppose that even the floods in London may be accepted and enjoyed poetically,” he muses.[14] Perhaps the flood waters are an inconvenience, but an inconvenience “is only one aspect, and that the most unimaginative and accidental aspect of a really romantic situation” and “an adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.”[15]

Chesterton emphasized the wonder-inducing qualities of whimsy and nonsense for communicating truths about reality, including (and perhaps especially) theological truths. Thomas Peters explains that, for Chesterton, “it is in the God-given realms of joy and play and frivolity and nonsense that the imagination tends to find its most fruitful harvest.”[16] In his essay, “A Defence of Nonsense,” Chesterton writes that the foundational idea behind nonsense is the idea of escape, “of escape into a world where things are not fixed horribly in an eternal appropriateness.”[17] The wonder of creation needs to be recovered, but

a thing cannot be completely wonderful so long as it remains sensible. So long as we regard a tree as an obvious thing, naturally and reasonably created for a giraffe to eat, we cannot properly wonder at it. It is when we consider it as a prodigious wave of the living soil sprawling up to the skies for no reason in particular that we take off our hats …This is the side of things which tends most truly to spiritual wonder.[18]

Not only is God the creator of the sensible world and his image-bearing human beings, he is also the creator of laughter, play, and our imaginative capacity.[19] The artist, through his painting, sketches, poetry, drama, prose, or sculpture, should utilize nonsense in a manner that ignites a fresh sense of wonder about things, an escape from the sterile, scientistic half-truths of the world. Says Chesterton: “It might reasonably be maintained that the true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; Heaven is a playground…to be so good that one can treat everything as a joke—that may be, perhaps the real end and final holiday of human souls.”[20]

On Poetry

A fine example of Chesterton’s philosophy in practice is Greybeards at Play, a short collection of fanciful poetry embellished with drawings that may well be described as Seussian. He illustrates his poem entitled “The Oneness of the Philosopher with Nature” with a black-and-white sketch of an aged, bespectacled scholar reclining upon the sphere of the earth, gazing into the heavens, with a smiling star perched on the end of his nose (figure 1). The poem begins, “I love to see the little stars / All dancing to one tune; / I think quite highly of the Sun, / And kindly of the Moon.”[21] The disproportionately large philosopher and the allusion to the aesthetic appeal and cyclical regularity of the starry skies reminds one how wondrous a thing it is that rational man, unlike all other creatures of the world, can gaze into the heavens and contemplate the orderly nature of the cosmos. Using simple rhyming verse and the nonsensical, cartoonish image, Chesterton conveys profound truth in a lighthearted, memorable way. Man may not be a physical giant relative to the size of the universe or even the earth, but he stands far above the rest of creation in spirit, intellect, and significance.

Art for fun’s sake was another hallmark of Chesterton’s philosophy, and one that is evident even in his early art. It was during his school years that he met Edmund Clerihew Bentley, who invented the four-line, pseudo-biographical poetry that came to be known as the “clerihew.”[22] Typically, the clerihew was used to poke good-natured fun at a public personality, though biographical content was not a hard-and-fast rule. During their school days, Bentley wrote many of these comical quatrains, and Chesterton illustrated them in addition to writing clerihews of his own.[23] A particularly amusing illustration (Figure 2) is the one Chesterton drew for the following Bentley clerihew:

The Art of Biography

Is different from Geography.

Geography is about Maps,

But Biography is about Chaps.[24]

The stylistic similarity between this early drawing and the much later one for “The Oneness of the Philosopher with Nature” (Figure 1) is striking; Chesterton’s frivolity is a shining thread that runs throughout all the decades of his work.

Chesterton’s own clerihews can be found in scholarly collections of his poetry. He co-authored many with Bentley, but some were exclusively his own, including this piece:

The Spanish think Cervantes

Equal to half a dozen Dantes;

An opinion resented most bitterly

By the people of Italy.[25]

The clerihew was, more than anything, a pleasurable pastime, an act of playful creativity meant to lighten the heart of both artist and reader. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that for Chesterton, play draws one closer to heaven.

While Chesterton highly valued the elements of nonsense and frivolity as means of expression, he had a sober side, particularly when it came to his formal poetry. He did not endorse the idea of completely unrestricted art; he believed that form had much to do with the purpose of an artwork. In his polemic essay, “The Slavery of Free Verse,” he condemns the trend away from structured rhythm and rhyme in modern poetry. Despite the use of the term “free” to describe the style, the perceived emancipation of poetry is actually an enslavement, he argues.[26] It does not liberate the soul as truly poetical language does; it does not incite wonder. Chesterton fancies that “if a man were really free, he would talk in rhythm and even in rhyme.”[27] Poetry, he says, is much more representative of reality than crude, disjointed language, because “at the back of everything, existence begins with a harmony and not a chaos; and, therefore, when we really spread our wings and find a wider freedom, we find it in something more continuous and recurrent…[28] He gives the rather humorous example of requesting food in poetical language, and suggests that asking for a potato using a poem would be both a more romantic and more realistic image of the potato:

For a potato is a poem; it is even an ascending scale of poems; beginning at the root, in subterranean grotesques in the gothic manner, with humps like the deformities of a goblin and eyes like a beast of Revelation, and rising up through the green shades of the earth to a crown that has the shape of stars and the hue of heaven.[29]

This is another example of Chesterton’s belief that the imagination, when applied to the seemingly prosaic or even the ugly, inspires fresh wonder.

The creation of man is a theme that frequently appears in Chesterton’s poetry, further attesting to the importance he placed upon one’s conception of human nature. In “The Germ,” the creation of Adam from the dust of the earth is told through a series of statements made to Adam by God, each prefaced with “God spake to the red Adam.”[30] The poem beautifully communicates the place of mankind in the created order and God’s sovereignty over the course of the world:

God spake to the red Adam:

“For all thy works hath a breath sufficed;

Live: defy me, Prometheus: serve me,

Christ”

 

God spake to the red Adam:

“Curse my universe, curse thy brood.

I made thee for an end and find thee

Good.”[31]

Note also the allusion to the incarnation as the key to God’s relationship to man. Chesterton’s Christian theology shines through his structured verse in a provocative and imaginative way. In “The Missing Link,” which Chesterton penned around 1898, the theme of man as a revolution, not a mere evolution, is apparent:

The Brute, four legged with a hanging head

Plodded the ground in an age long dead,

Earth was the only sky he knew;

Stars were blood-red and gold and blue

Till some hour, whose tale is given

Faint in the secret scrolls of heaven,

Some great portent filled the sky.

And leaping at light, the brute sprang high

Pawing at heaven: and fell not again,

And man stood crowned in brow and brain.[32]

The poetic language and form used here inspires contemplative wonder regarding the grand cosmic shift that occurred when a certain creature became fully human, having rationality and spiritual awareness bestowed as the image of God. The very title of the poem implies that science does not, indeed cannot, answer the metaphysical questions surrounding the unprecedented, unparalleled phenomenon that is mankind.

On Fairy Tales

Recall Chesterton’s conviction that, when seen in the “white light of wonder,” the mundane becomes extraordinary. “The function of the imagination,” he says, “is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange; not so much to make wonders facts as to make facts wonders.”[33] Perhaps a succinct statement about his philosophy of art would be that true art helps the observer recover a sense of astonishment at the world as it really is—infused with deep meaning. In the introduction he wrote for the biography George MacDonald and His Wife, Chesterton named MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin as the one story that had influenced him more than any other; he described it as “a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start…it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life.”[34] He says, “When I read it as a child, I felt that the whole thing was happening inside a real human house, not essentially unlike the house I was living in, which also had staircases and rooms and cellars. This is where the fairy-tale differed from many other fairy-tales; above all, this is where the philosophy differed from many other philosophies.”[35] MacDonald’s fairy tale achieved the feat of “making all the ordinary staircases and doors and windows into magical things.”[36]

The Princess and the Goblin is a story about a young princess living in a mountain castle that is plagued by demons who invade it through the cellars. The castle stairways are the princess’s escape from the evil; she climbs up to higher rooms, but mysteriously, the stairs sometimes take her to a new room she has never seen before, where a great-grandmother—a fairy-godmother figure—speaks comforting words of encouragement. “There is,” says Chesterton, “something not only imaginative but intimately true about the idea of the goblins being below the house and capable of besieging it from the cellars. When the evil things besieging us do appear, they do not appear outside but inside.”[37] Chesterton recognized MacDonald’s genius as the ability to place the fairy tale “inside of the ordinary story and not the outside”:

The commonplace allegory takes what it regards as the commonplaces or conventions necessary to ordinary men and women, and tries to make them pleasant or picturesque by dressing them up as princesses or goblins or good fairies. But George MacDonald did really believe that people were princesses and goblins and good fairies, and he dressed them up as ordinary men and women.[38]

It seems that MacDonald sensed that preternatural light of clarity bathing the ordinary, that he saw “the same sort of halo round every flower and bird.”[39] But, insists Chesterton, this is not the same thing as mere appreciation of the beauty of flowers and birds: “A heathen can feel that and remain heathen, or in other words remain sad. It is a certain special sense of significance, which the tradition that most values it calls sacramental.”[40] A psychological response to an aesthetically appealing object is one thing, but authentic wonder at the beauty in the world is an experience of the transcendent.

In one of his better-known fairy stories, The Coloured Lands, Chesterton beautifully communicates his philosophy and emulates what he so admired about The Princess and the Goblin. The tale involves a ten-year-old boy, Tommy, who is sitting, hot, bored, and dejected, in the grass by the country cottage his family has taken for the summer:

The cottage had a bare white-washed all; and at that moment it seemed to Tommy very bare. The summer sky was of a blank blue, which at that moment seemed to him very blank. The dull yellow thatch looked very dull and rather dusty; and the row of flower-pots in front of him, with red flowers in them, looked irritatingly straight, so that he wanted to knock some of them down like ninepins. Even the grass around him moved him only to pluck it up in a vicious way; almost as if he were wicked enough to wish it was his sister’s hair.[41]

Suddenly, Tommy is aware of a young man, having appeared from out of nowhere and walking towards him. The man wears a pale grey suit and has long, pale hair, both of which glow whitish in the summer sunlight, and his appearance is made even stranger by his blue-lensed spectacles, a floppy straw hat, and the peacock green Japanese parasol he carries. The reader is struck with the impression of something fantastical just barely cloaked in plausibility. This new character offers Tommy the opportunity to peer through the blue spectacles to see what a blue world would look like. Then, the man produces pairs of red, yellow, and green spectacles for Tommy to try on in succession, and the boy is startled by each new colored-land experience.

The man reveals that when he himself was a boy, he “also used to sit on the grass and wonder what to do with myself….I also thought that everything might look different if the colours were different; if I could wander about on blue roads between blue fields and go on wandering till all was blue.”[42] He recounts meeting a powerful wizard who granted his wish, and tells of his monochromatic excursions into actual lands of blue, green, yellow, and red. “What did you find out?” Tommy asks, and the man replies:

Well, do you know, it is a curious fact that in a rose-red city you cannot really see any roses. Everything is a great deal too red. Your eyes are tired until it might just as well all be brown. After I had been walking for ten minutes on scarlet grass under a scarlet sky and scarlet trees, I called out in a loud voice, “Oh, this is all a mistake.”[43]

The wizard had then transported him to a mystical place with mountainous, multi-colored, layered topography, “the great original place from which all the colours came, like the paint-box of creation.”[44] Impatient, the wizard instructed him to paint the world he really wanted upon a great transparent wall of watery light situated in a great chasm between the hills. The young man says that, after painting for a while, “I slowly discovered what I was doing; which is what very few people ever discover in this world. I found I had put back, bit by bit, the whole of that picture over there in front of us.”[45] The newly painted world turned out to be the summer cottage with the thatched roof, white walls, and red flowers in a straight row, all situated under a brilliant blue summer sky. “That is how they come to be there,” explains the young man, and Tommy sits staring at the cottage in wide-eyed wonder, as if truly seeing it for the very first time.[46]

The moral of the tale is that the reality of the world is the most astounding thing of all; one only needs their vision freshly baptized in order to wonder anew at the splendor and, more fundamentally, the very existence of the world. This is the idea upon which Chesterton’s philosophy is founded. The failure to understand it is, as Chesterton might have phrased it, what’s wrong with the world of modern art. The modern artists, he says, “are now trying to do bad work in order to have something to wonder at” and are devoted to “the experiment of making ugly things, that they might recover an astonishment no longer accorded to beautiful things.”[47] The pitiable modern artist torments himself, “pinching himself to see if he is awake, not having about him the real white daylight of wonder to keep him wide-awake.”[48] But this is the wrong road, a wild goose chase, Chesterton warns; people do not need more artists capable of producing shocking works, they need to be restored in their ability to wonder at common things.

A Chestertonian Aesthetic

Chesterton’s articulation of his philosophy of art employs none of the technical jargon typical in aesthetic theory but a great deal of common sense. The way human beings actually experience the world around them, including their aesthetic perception and artistic propensities, is a peculiarity of our species that is explained well by Christian theism. Man reflects the Creator, in whose image he is made, by creating works such as poetry and imaginative prose that celebrate the world. Works of art should evoke a sense of wonder at reality, a kind of wonder that is arguably more common among children, but that Chesterton believed can and should be recovered in adults. Wonder is the very essence of authentic aesthetic sensibility, and the proper goal of art. Given theism, wonder is more than merely a subjective mental experience; its ultimate object is the transcendent. True art propels the mind upward through its wonder-inciting illumination of sensible reality. Chesterton’s view that man is more than matter in motion elevates art to its proper place and gives it authentic significance. He believed that in imaginative expression—which often includes whimsy, nonsense, and drawing out the poetical in the seemingly mundane—man’s awareness of transcendental goodness and truth can grow and flourish. Contrary to materialism, the human aesthetic experience attests to inherent meaning, a higher reality, and the uniqueness of mankind among all other creatures. Man perceives real meaning in the world around him, and he expresses this meaning through his artistry, communicating truth to his fellow man by reawakening the innate sense of wonder at what is.

Figure 1

 

Figure 2
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Citation Information

Melissa Cain Travis. “The White LIght of Wonder: G.K. Chesterton’s Philosophy of Art.” An Unexpected Journal 2, no. 2. (Advent 2019): 49-74.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/the-white-light-of-wonder-g-k-chestertons-philosophy-of-art/


Endnotes

[1] G.K. Chesterton, “On the True Artist,” Illustrated London News (November 27, 1926).

[2] Ibid.

[3] G.K. Chesterton, “On the True Artist.”; Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 121.

[4] G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Seaside, Oregon: Watchmaker Publishing, 2013), 65.

[5] G.K. Chesterton, “The Suicide of Thought,” The Illustrated London News (March 24, 1906).

[6] G.K. Chesterton, “The Library of the Nursery,” Lunacy and Letters (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1958), 27.

[7] G.K. Chesterton, “On Running After One’s Hat” in All Things Considered, accessed October 7, 2015, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11505/11505-h/11505-h.htm.

[8] G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography in Everyman Chesterton, 37.

[9] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton, Osgood, and Co, 1880), 5:17.

 

[10] John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 2005), 29.

[11] Ibid., 29.

[12] Ibid.

[13]  Chesterton, “On Running After One’s Hat.”

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Thomas Peters, The Christian Imagination (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 126.

[17] G.K. Chesterton, “A Defence of Nonsense” in The Defendant,  accessed October 7, 2015, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/12245/12245-h/12245-h.htm#A_DEFENCE_OF_NONSENSE

[18] Ibid.

[19] Peters, 127.

[20] G.K. Chesterton, “Oxford From Without” in All Things Considered, accessed November 10, 2015, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11505/11505-h/11505-h.htm.

[21] G.K. Chesterton, Greybeards at Play in The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton Vol. X (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 355.

[22] Peters, 137.

[23] Peters, 137.

[24] E.C. Bentley, The Complete Clerihews (Cornwall: Stratus Books Ltd., 2008), 1.

[25] Chesterton, Collected Works Vol. X, 344.

[26] G.K. Chesterton, “The Slavery of Free Verse” in In Defense of Sanity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 155.

[27] Ibid.. 155-156.

[28] Ibid., 156.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Chesterton, Collected Works Vol. X, 65-66.

[31] Ibid., 66.

[32] Ibid., 258.

[33] G.K. Chesterton, “A Defence of China Shepherdesses” in The Defendant, accessed November 10, 2015, http://www.online-literature.com/chesterton/the-defendant/7/.

[34] G.K. Chesterton, Introduction to George MacDonald and His Wife (by Greville M. MacDonald. 1924), accessed October 23, 2015, http://www.pford.stjohnsem.edu/ford/cslewis/documents/macdonald/GKC%20on%20GM.pdf.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] G.K. Chesterton, The Coloured Lands (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009), 17.

[42] Ibid., 21.

[43] Ibid., 24.

[44] Ibid., 27.

[45] Ibid., 28.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Chesterton, “Are the Artists Going Mad?” 277.

[48] Ibid., 278.

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