What Do You See?
“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” This sentiment from George Bernard Shaw was often related to me by my Dad. And for those of us who know what it is like to hear often-repeated sentiments from our Dads, we know that eventually those words percolate into the fabric of our minds.
I have been contemplating this specific sentiment as it applies to the visual arts since this past year I have been doing some after-hours abstract paintings. I have given a sneak peek at these paintings to a few people. I get a strong sense that folks are much more open to sharing insights, opinions, and feedback about my abstract work than my icons. Is this because they are scared to comment about icons? Do they feel unqualified? Do they revere icons too much to ask questions?
Whatever the reason, it is refreshing or at least new to get more feedback on my work. The feedback, however, reveals to me that the message of what I thought was contained in the paintings is not necessarily making it to the viewers.
I realized that it is quite possible or probable that the intended message of my icons might also not necessarily be making it to the viewers. Which in turn got me asking myself, “What exactly am I trying to say with the icons I paint?”! And, “What is the ultimate, pared down, stripped away goal of creating an icon?” “What might be lost to ‘the illusion that communication has taken place’?”
The answer I come up with is that I think I am trying to say God loves us. That He manifests this love through the incarnation of His Son. That through His Son we know the unique status of Mary the Theotokos. Furthermore, God’s Son, Jesus, lived, lives, taught, performed miracles, suffered, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven. God in His love for us also established the Holy Church by the descent of the Comforter, and through The Church we know about witness, truth, champions of faith, intercession, community, communion, and thanksgiving.
I think, from occasional feedback about my icons, what is being understood on the receiving end can run a broad spectrum. Things like, “That’s pretty,” “I like the blue,” or simply “I don’t like it” as well as “It brought tears to our eyes” and “What gives you the wisdom to do such a thing?” are my glimpses into others’ perceptions.
The goal of an Orthodox chanter is to be a conveyance of the words of the hymns, so I have heard. Is the goal of the Orthodox iconographer to convey the Gospel? If so, are my attempts at communicating the Gospel taking place?
In my humanity, as I contemplate difficult things, such as war, worries, politics, finances, suffering, injustice, pain, poverty, sickness, evil, and even death, I find that to look at an icon of God incarnate, Jesus, as a little vulnerable baby in the arms of a loving Mother who gives her attention to me is powerful, transformative, and communicative.
Is it in moments like this, quietly contemplating an icon, that one might find the illusion of communication dissolved and replaced by the actual communication of knowing that God loves us? Jesus’ own words on the matter of clear communication are “Who do you say that I am?”
Maybe with some moments spent in front of Jesus’ icon, we can begin to have our own internally and externally created, miscommunicated ideas about Him dissolve, and we can finally know who really He is.