Wednesday, June 20, 2007

merton on merton art: "inconsequent", "firmly alien to the program"

Thomas Merton showing his drawings to Martha Schuman. July 14, 1967, Gethsemani. Photographer unknown.

Roger Lipsey’s book, “Angelic Mistakes, The Art of Thomas Merton” is one of the most comprehensive “about Merton” books that I’ve come across. Lipsey, an artist himself, has unique insights into Merton’s personality and art. He includes refreshingly original commentary on the subjects and people who influenced Merton and his work.

A comment to the considerable dance post asks about others who might have written on Merton’s artistic works. Other than the books about Merton's photography, I am not aware of any other work that specifically discusses Merton's artistic endeavors. However I think that comments from Merton himself shed some light. Merton insisted that words and meaning not be applied to his art. And though he reluctantly supplied titles for the work that was exhibited at a Louisville college in 1964, he encouraged the viewer to look at them without judgement.

“Here is a collection of shapes, powers, flying beasts, cave animals, bloodstains, angelic mistakes, etc., that can perhaps have some visual effect on the local bisons. I suggest selling them for around ten bucks apiece …”
- Thomas Merton in a letter to Jim Forest, 1966

“These abstractions – one might almost call them graffiti rather than calligraphies – are simple signs and ciphers of energy, acts or movements intended to be propitious. Their “meaning” is not to be sought on the level of convention or of concept. These are not conventional signs as are words, numbers, hieroglyphs, or symbols. …”

“… they came to life when they did, in the form of reconciliations, as expressions of unique and unconscious harmonies appropriate to their own moment though not confined to it. But they do not register a past and personal experience, nor attempt to indicate playfully the passage of a special kind of artist, like footsteps in the snow.”

“In a world cluttered and programmed with an infinity of practical signs and consequential digits referring to business, law, government and war, one who makes such nondescript marks as these is conscious of a special vocation to be inconsequent, to be outside the sequence and to remain firmly alien to the program.”

“In effect these writings are decidedly hopeful in their own way in so far as they stand outside all processes of production, marketing, consumption and destruction, which does not however mean that they cannot be bought. Nevertheless it is clear that these are not legal marks. Nor are they illegal marks, since as far as law is concerned they are perfectly inconsequent. It is this and this alone which gives them a Christian character (Galatians 6), since they obviously do not fit into any familiar setting of religious symbolisms, liturgical or otherwise. But one must perhaps ask himself whether it has not now become timely for a Christian who makes a sign or mark of some sort to feel free about it, and not consider himself rigidly predetermined to a system of glyphs that have a long cultural standing and are fully consequential, even to the point of seeming entirely relevant in the world of business, law, government, and war.”

From Signatures: Notes on the Author’s Drawings, which accompanied a 1964 exhibition at Catherine Spalding College in Louisville.

"Do you know of some group, club, clique, cell or cultural enclave that would dare to associate its name with these drawings?"

-Thomas Merton in a letter to Ethel Kennedy, 1965


  1. "... one who makes such nondescript marks as these is conscious of a special vocation to be inconsequent, to be outside the sequence and to remain firmly alien to the program."

    I love his turn of phrase here. Almost prescient. Reminds me of a cartoon I cut out years ago when I was in a more political position -- that there are 3 types of people: those who are in the loop, those who are outside the loop, and those who don't know there is a loop. Merton perhaps knew there was a loop, but did not find that observation relevant.

    With Merton there is always that maddening desire to retreat into the life of a complete hermit and the apparent need to put the products of his soul-work in the public eye. In his lifetime, he never seemed to resolve that dichotomy and then complained about how uncomfortable it was to sit on the fence.

  2. I like your loop analogy, Barbara. Something zen-ish about it. Now that you mention it, I become intrigued with the way he used those words: inconsequent, outside of sequence. Loop-ish, indeed.

    Yes, there was that interesting twist in Merton the way he clamored for silence and solitude and yet found himself a very public (and popular) figure. Perhaps somehow related to the mystery that it is our weakness/wound (the thing that we want to get rid of and beyond) that becomes our "way".

  3. What "looped" me in, as it were, was the phrase "alien to the program." It sounds like it could have been written yesterday by a social commentator with reference to our computer-driven society, which has reformulated (reprogrammed) the way we think and interact. What would Merton have done in the age of the computer? That's almost a koan.

  4. He would have been in a fix! His drive for solitude and silence even more intense as he balanced it against his compulsive need to write and relate.

    And he thinks his stack of mail was too high back then! :-)

  5. Thank you for this post, Beth. It's wonderful to be able to read Merton's thoughts on his own art. What really struck me was the idea of freedom, and Merton's observation that Christian art was already irretrievably "in the system".

  6. Thanks for your comments, Gabrielle. According to Lipsey's analysis, Merton was confused about the role of Church art for quite some time, and his attempts to articulate about "sacred" art all fell flat. It wasn't until he, himself, became a visual artist in his own right, with the calligraphies, that he began to come to a better understanding of art and its role in liturgy etc.

    I like the way he expands the whole notion of Christian freedom too - beyond the "predetemined system of glyphs".


God speaks

God speaks, and God is to be heard, not only on Sinai, not only in my own heart, but in the voice of the stranger. — Thomas Merton, Emble...