I wandered into Barbed Wire Books yesterday where I bought a book about the artist Paul Klee who taught at the Bauhaus School. The book contained this quote from Klee:
The further he [the artist] progresses with his vision of nature and with meditation, the freer he is to organize groups of abstract forms, which go beyond the schematic and the arbitrary and achieve a new natural order, the natural order of the work of art. Then he creates a work or he participates in the creation of works which are images of the handiwork of God.
This idea strikes me as similar in many ways to Tolkien’s idea of subcreation. Anyone can throw paint onto a canvas but using paint to achieve “a new natural order,” one that conveys meaning even without the use of familiar visual references, does not seem very far removed from using words to create a secondary world like Tolkien’s Middle-earth. For Tolkien, the hallmark of art was the accomplishment of “the inner consistency of reality” even when what is portrayed is not found, or not believed to be found, in the primary world. He believed that it was no great achievement to describe a green sun but, to create a secondary world in which a green sun could believably exist, that would make one an artist.
The particular form of art that Tolkien called fantasy is brought into being through the rearrangement of the qualities of the primary world, taking, as he put it, “green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood” and employing the power of green, blue and red in a way that is not to be seen elsewhere. An artist who is able to accomplish this would have the ability to truly see and understand green, blue and red. Only one who has carried out a disciplined and profound contemplation of nature would have the ability to reorder nature in a way that does not turn out to be unnatural.
Just as Tolkien created Middle-earth out of elements of the world he lived in every day, so-called abstract artists like Klee created painted realities out of something quite concrete, the same palette that colors the earth and the sky. These realities deserve to be called fantastic in the sense in which Tolkien used the word. If skillfully rendered, the world as depicted in a piece of abstract art is no more nonsensical than the world as depicted in a fairy-story. It is a deep elaboration of the primary world, something that is able to exist because human beings are able to do more than observe the facts of the world; we are able to dive into them, take them into ourselves as we take in the air then breathe them out again, changed but remaining essentially themselves.