Performing Icons

Article by Tom Sutcliffe

Icons have never been part of our culture in the west, the way they are in the Orthodox Christian east.  But now the word has come home to roost here too.  Thanks to Apple Mac and Microsoft Windows, the idea of icons as the gateway to convenience and (without our understanding exactly how) practical operation is well established in all our minds.  Icons do something for us.  The mouse arrow goes to the icon and click, we’re there.  Getting what we wanted.  Icons on our computer desktops open the door to a paradise of processing.  Icons in Orthodox churches, sometimes carried in processions, always revered, are not quite so instantaneous in the way they answer in response to prayer.  As artefacts they are by no means all of them great aesthetic achievements.  From those devoted to them, they invite a passive submission.

All art can be regarded as functional.  The icons of Orthodox Christianity work in a very different way on the imagination of those staring wonderingly at them from the masterpieces of painting which we in the west admire – sometimes to idolatrous distraction.  What icons supply is not readily what they show on the surface, except they are always full-face with burning, open in an important sense unrevealing, even inexpressive, eyes.  They both require and prompt the religious person’s contemplation as they evoke a sacred universe.  They are certainly not there to tell a story overtly.  But they have a story, they are a story – and for each Orthodox Christian who looks at them, drawing on their power, they can come to stand for a personal story.  Icons do look back at those regarding them, but not in the way that the person being portrayed or represented in a western painting may. Icons engage with the viewer in a far more searching way than humane Western painting does, for they are not trying to be an expressive gripping narrative.  Orthodox icons are certainly not performing a camera-like service to those minutely examining them.  They, the icons, are doing the asking, icons never show faces in profile, because if they did they couldn’t look us, the viewers, the audience, in the eye.  They in a sense command the stage: we, watching and looking, are the audience.

The word icon immediately brings to mind the issue of iconoclasm.  It may be remembered that the iconoclasts, who for more than a century ran Byzantium, rejected the veneration of icons because it risked idolatry.  Better, they considered, to destroy all the icons in the world than to be led astray from the right path to understanding religion and God by a misplaced revering of mere objects that could readily be considered to be precisely the graven images condemned in the Ten Commandments.  Luckily good sense prevailed.  The danger was more of a fantasy.  Icons are no more than images meant to lead to certain ideas.  What they can show is more real and true than what they artistically are, because they are just a gateway. Interesting that the theatre should have generated its own iconoclasts in England during the Commonwealth when the puritans were in charge, and for very similar reasons.  Like icons, the theatre could command – and certainly exercised –  power.

The fact that icons are not engaged in the descriptive or realistic narrative process that dominates most western art brings them tellingly close, I think to be the issue of theatrical realism.  Icons are not meant to be representative.  As Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Wales, says in his recent book Lost Icons, they are not empirical data to be read.  They do not show us how God or heaven look.  In fact, God or heaven don’t really look ‘like’ anything.  (One thing about which everybody agrees is the biblical line” No man hath seen God”).  But this is precisely what fills our galleries.  When we go to the opera, we are not being told about something else – some other history of which the opera is just one treatment.  If we think of opera or theatre or ballet or music like that, we will certainly be missing the point.  The performing arts are not means of communication; they are the message not the medium.  The truth they show is a truth that we discover within ourselves as a result of engaging our imaginations properly and organically with what we are witnessing on stage.

One inadvertent consequence of mechanical reproduction on CD, video DVD and film is that the performance (which is meant to have no more than the status of an icon) can very easily become itself the subject of worship.  Enormous promotion and public related campaigns are devoted to persuading us all that certain artists and certain performances have almost divine significance, are virtually definitive.  Yet a recording is, however you regard it, a shadow of the real thing – though it may be fabulously detailed, handy as hell, and often fascinating in the information it gives us.  One should not, however, get stuck admiring if not worshipping something one can play over and over again.  That sort of obsessive appreciation and in respect ought to generate a suitably iconoclastic response.

Why do we like going to the same operas over and over again?  The answer surely is that the operas we like have become sort of icons for us, performing icons.  We don’t go to see and hear them because we need to learn their basic stories again.  What we are doing is refreshing our idea of that opera. And that way of enjoying repeated performance of familiar operatic works is very similar to the repainting of icons in the Greek and Russian traditions.  Every great icon that is recognised as works of magnificent art are over –painted and repainted from time to time – and this process of refreshment of their colour and richness as objects enhances their spiritual value without destroying their aesthetic power – through the power they wield (unlike most, more or less, representation Western art) is not primarily aesthetic.

Of course, this isn’t the kind of iconic status conceded (by the media at least) to performances and performing artists.  I am not using the word icon as the papers do when they call Madonna or the late Princess Diana an icon.  Stars certainly can become icons, in a sense that invites iconoclasm – as part of the depressing media-round of hyperbole – followed-by-defacement.  Operas, plays, ballets and concert and church music are designed for repeated performances.  The works remain what they are – however often we may see them.  Performance is devoted to bringing out and honouring the essence of a work, that which repays attention and invites or commands our total engagement and often devotion.  That devotion is matched when an icon is repainted.  Repainting is done with the same spiritual commitment that the original creation of the icon involved.  The essence is felt to have been enhanced by the careful re-colouring.  This is very different from the cleaning and stripping down that does on in our great international museums – sometimes so controversially.  Repainting an icon is an act of love and veneration, not the pursuit of an “original” artistic inspiration which has been overlaid by time and possibly neglect.  Restoration as we in the west understand it often claims to be a return to the artists first thought, the initial birth of the art-work.  That first creation is seen as the heroically perfect eternal statement.  By contrast Orthodox icons are living artefacts.  They share experience of people’s lives – at least in the Orthodox imagination.  They are regarded as alive in the world in a real and very important sense.

But there’s another aspect of icons that relates to performance: the otherness and objectivity that keeps us in the audience apart from and outside what we are observing, though invited to look deep into its eyes and receive food for the soul.  This separate theatrical or musical life is a sustenance that would come to us no other way.  Its otherness is crucial.  Performing arts invite us into dialogue with them, with their physicality and reality.  But they are not part of our life.  We are absolutely separate from them as they happen.  That is vital.  We are the audience, and they are the performance – and though we may like to play with the conventions involved in this distinction, we need to respect it.

Archbishop Rowan Williams, one of the most charismatic theologians in the Church, was Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Christ Church, Oxford before he moved back to his native Wales as Bishop of Monmouth. His poetry helped prompt the writing of James MacMillan’s new opera Parthenogenesis (to be performed at this summer’s Edinburgh Festival).He could well be describing the proper way of approaching our role as an audience when talks about Orthodox icons towards the end of his book.  “The person looking at the icon,“ he writes, “is invited (instructed?) to let go of being an agent observing a motionless phenomenon: the idiom of the painting insists on its own activity, its ‘bearing down’ upon the beholder, shedding rather than receiving light, gathering and directing its energy rather than spreading from an invisible point of convergence.  And this finds its fullest expression in the iconographer’s depiction of the eyes of Christ or the saints… the eye of the iconic figure acts, searches, engages.  The skill of looking at icons, the discipline of ‘reading’ them, is indeed the strange skill of letting yourself be seen, be read.  “That seems to me a perfect description of how we are meant to lend ourselves to the performance, to be engaged by it, changed by it, forced to relate ourselves to it without in any way altering what it objectively is.  We are the ones who change because of the performance.  That is the sublime power of live performance.

Williams goes on “the religious icon is the evocation of the non-existent ‘Other’ simply by its subversion of what we might expect in a devotional artefact… the icon is always a wall that confronts (at the same time as being a rather peculiar kind of window), that can’t be seen from the back, and so does not occupy a space alongside me, does not share the dimension I inhabit.”  Here at Holland Park, as in any theatre or opera-house, and regardless of the intrusive cries of the peacocks in the grounds, we lend ourselves totally to the attention that performance requires, which works – in opera – on so many different levels.  This is one very good reason why opera is so much less engaging (in fact not really like opera at all) on television or DVD.  Opera really does have to be a live encounter with that wide variety of elements, not a channelled record of something that happened somewhere else once upon a time, selected and narrowed down by a microphone and an editor.  The separation between our everyday world and what we are witnessing is crucial.  We in the audience are subject to ‘virtual’ experience as representation of life, which speaks directly to us but is never a realist copy of something other than what it is.  When people say that the music and singing are the most important thing in opera they are simply confirming what we all know – that opera isn’t a way of reproducing everyday life.  Rather, it is an inspirational provocation to feel and think spiritually and subconsciously about many different aspects of the narrative which is forming it and to which it is providing a simultaneous intriguing gloss.

In the west there seems never to have been such an anxiety about representation as in the Orthodox east.  We have never been concerned overmuch about the threat of graven  images and incipient polytheism.  Making stories come alive – the engine of the theatre and of opera – was always more welcome in Italy, France, Germany and England.  From well before the full flowering of the renaissance (which led directly to the humanistic age of Shakespeare and opera) our overt desire in the west has long been to describe fully, to tell the whole story, to encourage a flood of sentiment as we see and relish yet another highly personal artistic depiction.  And we know and care a great deal about the creative heroes of our world, the painters, the poets, the musicians, who have been able to bring their genius to making whole worlds beyond worlds cone alive for us with the strokes of their brushes and refinement of their colouring, the flexibility of their language, or the beauty of their melodies.

Of course works being performed are not the only icons in the performing arts, interpreters – conductors, pianists, violinists, sopranos, tenors – may also themselves become icons in a sense possessing some kind of inner power to make us examine ourselves in the context of their challenging and enlightening artistry.  We often delude ourselves that we understand and can therefore love the stars we admire – but a lot of their expressiveness depends on their remaining aloof.  Stars are icons because they are in a different world, on a different level.  We build up our personal idea of an opera or song or play – and every time we see it done by somebody new that adds further layers to our own inner icon in our personal memory bank of what that work, that phenomenon is for us.  That’s why performance is such an individual taste. It also why sometimes what people see won’t fit with the icon in their memory, so they say ‘That’s not The Ring’, ‘That’s not Carmen’ because what they have in their memory, their personal icon of the work in question, cannot accept that kind of over-painting.  What they are seeing won’t fit with what’s stored in their brains.  Pianists, singers, and actors in classics face the problem, that their living representation of the work they are performing has inevitably to compete with the work in the audience’s memory – if the audience have such memories.  But performers themselves do become icons in their own rite, as we get to love their individual qualities, their voice, their face, their way of behaving.  We plaster our memories with all of this – because we understand that performance demands our full commitment, if it’s worthwhile.  We put that sense of value to the test each time we try a performance.  We have our memories filled with what often becomes for us in the audience much more real and distinctive than our everyday activities.

Our icons are always very personal, and our way of responding to performance cannot be anything else.  But that’s because the relationship between an audience and a live performance is organic and totally subjective.  Critics have to try and balance out the subjectivity with experience and sympathy.  But the sense that the performance is designed for each one of us and focussed on our attention is not just communal activity but the charismatic extravagance that we count on in the theatre.  We do not significantly affect the performance.  Our attitude is always that we are the recipient.  But the power of the relationship, as with icons, is that we feel challenged by what we experience.  It is we who will change, not they on stage.  Mozart and Wagner look deep into our souls as we listen yet again to the profound and provocative soul-searching in which they have engaged as composers.  Operatic music dramatizes that whole process and provides us in the audience with exactly the kind of enlightenment and elevation that the Orthodox Christian obtains from the timeless contemplation of an icon.

Tom Sutcliffe is opera critic of the London Evening Standard.  He edited The Faber Book of Opera (£20), and his book on the theatrical interpretation of opera, Believing in Opera (Faber £14.99), is available in paperback.