Beyond Eye Candy
I commissioned an icon of St. Joseph for my wife this past Christmas. I had to go through a lengthy process of finding an iconographer, deciding on a subject, and determining the aesthetic. Icons, after all, have a particular style. But woven within that style is a deep meaning in every color and line. The process of iconography becomes as much about prayer as about painting.
Every great work of art has some masterful technique. But even that is wholly wrapped up in an even deeper meaning, for the enduring pieces have a depth which gives them a certain transcendence, for that meaning cannot be exhausted in the viewing but is somehow mysteriously brought about.
The Internet is great at connecting us to exciting new styles, but it is woefully poor at connecting us to meaning. The inspiration sites we all visit offer us a glimpse of what is fresh and popular, but they rarely allow us to peer at the timeless, for the very ephemeral nature of our work demands more output and less input.
It is in the shadow of incessantly looming deadlines where the apparent conflict between the beautiful and the practical is forged. But it is also here that they can be unwittingly woven into some ugly chimera wherein art can become little more than titillation. Function and purpose can be very easily mistaken for attention grabbing. And in a world saturated by the lusts of the eyes and the desires of the flesh, it is little wonder. When style itself becomes the meaning of a piece rather than walking hand-in-hand with its function and meaning, it turns into little more than a petulant child constantly screaming, with the sole intent of getting people to notice.
Good visual communication must go far beyond eye-candy, and not in spite of our graphically glutted world but precisely because of it. The drumbeat of advertising and marketing in most of our visual communication is fast-paced and style-driven – giving little time for reflection or meaning. This bombardment turns into so much visual noise that rarely subsides unless we intentionally detach ourselves from it, which is becoming harder and harder to do.
Yet even in this cacophony one can find pure melodic notes, those instances where the aesthetic of a piece works in perfect harmony with its meaning. Like an icon, there is nothing extraneous, no superficially tacked-on elements meant only to entice. Rather, one is drawn in merely by the rhythm of the piece as it moves and flows as one, like arpeggiated notes on a scale that form the structure of the score.
To communicate this sort of meaning in such a meaningful way, means that any endeavor is approached with purpose. To develop a great style and to be able to create visually exciting things is an amazing gift to have, but it eventually becomes empty noise when stacked against the sheer volume of creative output in our very-connected world.
Art that goes beyond eye candy – that is not only beautiful but also purposeful – is a skill that can only be honed with time. It arises partially out of the artist’s own interiority, an inner contemplation that experiences its own tensions between expression and utility, between beauty and function. There must be a deeming familiarity with one’s subject, so that these divergent streams come into the service of expressing that subject, no matter how mundane it might be.
I think back to the icon in my house, and how even though it is a beautiful piece, it exists not to be a work of art (although it certainly is this) but rather to be an aid to prayer and meditating on the Scriptures, the virtues, and ultimately God himself. Yet the work is not exhausted in this utility, nor is its beauty thereby lessened because it is meant to help one pray; on the contrary, it is the very purpose for which it was made that makes its beauty possible at all.
As every color of every stroke has this intention behind it, there burst forth infinite strands of meaning that are found as one uses the work for that for which it was made. A piece that was art for its own sake, while still worthwhile, would actually be poorer for this lack of intention.
Our artistic endeavors are usually not icons, but in some way we are striving to lead others to know God deeper, even in the seemingly mundane projects that inevitably come our way. But even the mundane can have a harmony of beauty and purpose, as is evidenced in the origins of the term itself (orderly arrangement).
Eye candy alone can be off-balanced, but when our works are created with purpose and intention they begin to regain some equilibrium. It is in this balance that eye-candy actually becomes substantive, taking on form and being fitted to some end. It may be as mundane as an event or as transcendent as prayer, but purpose widens beauty’s net, catching not only eyes but also hearts.
And that’s when eye candy is really sweet.