Between the Visible and the Invisible

In one of his letters, the great German poet Rilke writes, ” we are the bees of the invisible. We frantically plunder the visible of its honey, to accommodate it in the great golden hive of the invisible.”[1] The phrase, “bees of the invisible,” describes one of the possibilities for the artist. The bee metaphor suggests tireless working for the good of the community, collecting pollen (“impressions”) to be transformed into honey (“beauty,” which is sweet to the taste, and food for everyone). The labor of collecting pollen makes honey for invisibility, which may or may not have visible effects. This idea of invisibility and its possible connection to art, to beauty, and to the needs of the community have within it the possibility of a renaissance in our attitudes to the arts.

Most of significant reality is invisible to us. Likewise, whatever is on too large a scale, separated either by distance (the galaxies or remote stars) or by volume, the entirety of our earth, for example, is invisible to us. The world of thoughts and feelings is also invisible. In fact, if we examine what is truly important to most of us, then we would have to conclude that almost all we value is invisible. Each of these invisible phenomena, like love or like inspiration, manifests before us through something tangible: a kiss, a look, a poem. Yet we do not say love is a kiss. We understand that a kiss may be an expression of love. This understanding is so fundamental most of us don’t bother to look more closely at how remarkable the relationship is between the visible and its invisible source. The noblest possibilities for art are directly related to this understanding.

To extend this argument more, let us look at how we commonly treat experiences like love or artistic creation. Normally, we say “we love someone,” or “we no longer love,” as if the experience of loving were a decision we could make. Can you visualize someone saying, “I’ve decided I don’t love you today. Today is Monday. I never love anyone on Mondays. Check with me tomorrow.” Yet, despite that absurdity, we still insist on ownership of our experiences of love, inspiration, creation. While it may be a semantic necessity to say “I love” rather than “love fills me” or “visits me,” the reality is closer to the experience of love as the filling of a vessel, or a visitation, or a wound. From the point of view of our feelings, many of our experiences that we attribute to love, to art, to insight, have the character of a sudden and overwhelming takeover from an external agency. The ancients resolved this sense of displacement by visualizing the gods as responsible for all strange, extraordinary, or beautiful events. Consider the difference when we see ourselves not as ego-driven creatures but as instruments of the divine who are able to receive truth and beauty. The hard work we put into perfecting our craft improves our chances of alignment with the transcendent and of not distorting any gift when it does come.

Often we are tempted to believe we have done it all. Ovid tells us that Arachne boasted she could weave more skillfully than even the goddess Athena, who had taught the arts to the ancient Greeks. Athena felt that Arachne’s pride was an insult to the gods and changed Arachne to a spider. This anecdote illustrates the classical view that modesty and an understanding of our human limitations are what we need when we face the unknown. Rilke’s notion that the invisible is filled with honey allows us to believe that our future may hold sweetness. His notion also alters the usual belief that the invisible is an emptiness, a void whose corresponding emotions in us are cynicism and despair. If even the common spider has an uncommon origin as the creator of a beauty and a complexity so rare that it invoked the presence of a god, then we have the possibility of seeing everything as mysterious.

The invisible wraps us in every moment and connects us to everything we see. For the invisible component of what we see, like the proverbial invisible bulk of the iceberg, is far greater than its visible aspect. That rose we admire has a history, a molecular structure, and a travelogue of scents that is as much a part of its being as its form. The artist has the unique role of seeing and unfolding the careful hiddenness of beauty, of bridging the visible and the invisible.

So long as we believe that art is solely for communication, decoration, or self-expression, then we will not understand how we can think otherwise than that art is for ego. Yet, if artists are bees working for the invisible, whatever that phrase may exactly mean, then at the very least we have to acknowledge our connection to a source we call invisible and the idea that artists’ work has value for a community.

We know that the religious art of the Pre-Renaissance and the Renaissance eras saw as one of its purposes the creation of art for the “glory of God.” We have heard a lot in recent years about the economic and political agendas of Medieval and Renaissance art and its patrons. None of that argument takes away from the religious aspects of ancient art-making. When we look at a painting of Botticelli, El Greco, or Giotto, we are struck by the sense of being part of a vast, invisible world of value. We call this invisible world transcendent, but the truth is that it informs every aspect of our lives, and in some paintings we see that luminous reality in every stroke. But does the phrase “for the glory of God” have any meaning for us today, given the fact that we now live in a secular society? If we are not promoting a return to pre-twentieth century religion or some fantasy of an idyllic communal life, then what could such spiritual intensity mean? The recovery of the sacred within art in a manner that is an evocation of the moment and not a mirror to the past is a task that calls everyone who cares about living with grace and meaning. For it is only if we are able to bring to life the sense of a connection to a greater, invisible world will we be able to serve others. Whatever is invisible comes to us as a surprise and as a gift and in embodying this experience we are able to communicate it to others through our art.