G.K. Chesterton on Art and the Image of God

In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton argues that man, as a species, is different in kind, not just degree, from all other living creatures. Man’s origin, he says, is one of the three grand mysteries of the cosmos, along with the birth of the universe itself and the emergence of the first life. Endowed with rationality and free will, mankind exploded onto the scene and “a third bridge was built across a third abyss of the unthinkable…not merely an evolution, but rather a revolution.”[1]

Chesterton rejects the “gray gradations of twilight” suggested by materialist accounts of evolutionary gradualism in favor of a human nature that was mature at first appearance. (Note that this idea does not necessarily rule out man’s biological evolution, only the gradual emergence of a fully human creature, body and soul.) He describes the character of ancient cave art in order to support his assertion. Instead of the crude, simplistic scratchings of a less intelligent being, these are “drawings or paintings of animals; and they were drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist.”[2] “So far as any human character can be hinted at by such traces of the past,” says Chesterton, “that human character is quite human and even humane.”[3] Man alone seeks meaning in the world, and evidence suggests that this has been the case all along. Philosopher Roger Scruton has similarly observed: “From the earliest drawings in the Lascaux caves to the landscapes of Cezanne…art has searched for meaning in the natural world.”[4]

The anthropological evidence that has arisen since Chesterton’s time further supports his argument about human distinctiveness and the sudden appearance of human nature. Prominent evolutionary anthropologist Ian Tattersall is convinced that no human ancestor “produced anything, anywhere, that we can be sure was a symbolic object” and “even allowing for the poor record we have of our close extinct kin, Homo sapiens appears as distinctive and unprecedented…there is certainly no evidence that we gradually became who we inherently are over an extended period, in either the physical or the intellectual sense.”[i] The materialist explanation involves a sudden, dramatic genetic revolution that produced what some evolutionists have termed “the dawn of human culture,” an event which included the rapid emergence of language and symbolic activities such as art. Tattersall admits that how or why this “almost unimaginable transition” from hominid to human beings with symbolic capacities occurred is a matter of pure speculation. Darwin claimed that man gained such cognitive aptitudes through a process of sexual selection followed by social and cultural evolution; but Tattersall points out that this

explains neither why the highly social apes haven’t developed a more complex theory of mind over the time during which they have been evolving in parallel with us,  nor why the archaeological record seems to indicate a very late and essentially unheralded arrival of symbolic consciousness in just one lineage of large-brained hominid. [ii]

But getting back to Chesterton–his point goes beyond the fact that artistic activity can only be carried out by creatures with rationally-informed will; the inherent desire to create art for its own sake—the “impulse of art” as he calls it—further highlights the singularity of man. Unlike any other creature of the animal kingdom, man is a rational creator who creates not only for utilitarian purposes, but for the simple joy of celebrating the wider world through his artistry. Chesterton is convinced that, as part of the wide gulf of separation between man and brute, “art is the signature of man.”[5] With his trademark wit-laced wisdom he argues that:

The very fact that a bird can get as far as building a nest, and cannot get any farther, proves that he has not a mind as man has a mind…But when he builds as he does build and is satisfied and sings aloud with satisfaction, then we know there is really an invisible veil like a pane of glass between him and us, like the window on which a bird will beat in vain. But suppose our abstract onlooker saw one of the birds begin to build as men build. Suppose in an incredibly short space of time there were seven styles of architecture for one style of nest….Suppose the bird made little clay statues of birds celebrated in letters or politics and stuck them up in front of the nest…we can be quite certain that the onlooker would not regard such a bird as a mere evolutionary variety of the other birds…[6]

As with the sudden appearance of human nature, such a bird would be a true revolution, not just a slightly more advanced bird. Thus, the same should be said for man, whose unique characteristics appeared from seemingly out of nowhere and sharply distinguish him from all other living things.

Several years prior to the publication of Everlasting Man, Chesterton had suggested that artistic creativity is among the hallmark differences between man and beast. In Orthodoxy, he argues that similarities between man and some lower animals is not what should surprise us; rather, the astonishment should come from the fundamental differences: “That an ape has hands is far less interesting to the philosopher than the fact that having hands he does next to nothing with them; does not play knuckle-bones or the violin; does not carve marble or carve mutton…the chasm between man and other creatures may have a natural explanation, but it is a chasm.”[7] In this passage, as in Everlasting Man, Chesterton emphasizes the fact that, even if mankind’s history includes biological gradualism, it is the existence of the wide chasm, which includes artistic inclination, that needs philosophical explanation—the “why” rather than the “how.”

Chesterton highlights the fact that, unlike naturalism, the Christian worldview can adequately account for the remarkable revolution that is mankind by way of the doctrine of the imago Dei. Man alone, as the crown of creation, bears the image of the good Creator and thus has within himself the capacity and desire to create beautiful and meaningful things for their own sake. When it comes to art, says Chesterton, “a monkey cannot do it; and when a man does it, he is exercising a divine attribute.”[8]

Endnotes:

[1] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Seaside, Oregon: Watchmaker Publishing, 2013), 15.

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Ibid., 17-18.

[4] Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, (New York: Oxford University press, 2009), 65.

[i] Ian Tattersall, Masters of the Planet (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 142.

[ii] Ian Tattersall, Masters of the Planet (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 214.

[5] Ibid., 20.

[6] Ibid., 22.

[7] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, in The Everyman Chesterton (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 389-390.

[8] G.K. Chesterton, “Are the Artists Going Mad?” The Century Magazine, Vol. 105 No. 2 (December 1922), 277.

One thought on “G.K. Chesterton on Art and the Image of God

Comments are closed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: