Sunny Days in Heaven
Spiritual/Political/Philosophical Blog on the Nature of Truth and Falsehood and Heaven

Sunday, July 18, 2004  

Essay on Beauty
There is always a perennial discussion on Beauty and Art.
Terry Teachout also had a recent blog on Beauty. 

" . . . can art change anyone’s politics? I don’t mean in the sense of persuading ninnies that the CIA killed John Kennedy, but in the deeper and more thoroughgoing sense of effecting a genuine transformation in one’s view of the world.

W.H. Auden thought not:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.

Clement Greenberg said much the same thing, less poetically but more transparently: "Art solves nothing, either for the artist himself or for those who receive his art." I incline that way as well, but my own view is more nuanced. The insurmountable problem of explicitly political art, it seems to me, is that it is, literally, exclusive. As a result, it fails in what I take to be one of the defining responsibilities of aesthetically serious art, which is to aspire to universality, speaking (at least potentially) to all men in all conditions.

The only way art can do this is by reposing, in Dr. Johnson’s immortal words, on the stability of truth. By embodying and dramatizing truth, it brings us closer to understanding the nature of the human condition. And might such an enterprise be political? In a way, I suppose, though one must never forget that political opinions are epiphenomenal: they arise from experience rather than preceding it. (If they don’t, those who hold them are by definition out of touch with reality.) As for me, I know that my experience of great art has shaped my philosophy of life, which in turn informs my political views. But has great art ever had a direct effect on those views? Not in my experience. Nor can I think offhand of even one truly great work of art that was created with the specific intention of changing anyone’s political views. If you want to do that with your art, you must accept going in that the results will be less than great—and if that doesn’t bother you, fine. Greenberg got that right, too: "There are, of course, more important things than art: life itself, what actually happens to you. This may sound silly, but I have to say it, given what I’ve heard art-silly people say all my life: I say that if you have to choose between life and happiness or art, remember always to choose life and happiness." This may mean choosing politics over art, especially if you’re not a good artist to begin with."
Barbara Nicolosi has a fine blog on her efforts at Act One, and her talk to Catholic priests on the importance of Beauty and Art in religious life. 

"Of course, the arts are also inadequate. People told me that the movie The Passion of the Christ was too much for them. Without getting into a discussion of the artistic merit of the film, it is still worth saying that, as bad as all the violence was in the film, it still doesn’t even come near to representing with any accuracy, the horror of one venial sin. (Which seems to subvert my point today very nicely…maybe I should leave?) But I guess the point is, if the arts are inadequate at pointing to reality through symbols, parables and metaphors, how much more is theological language?

The Pope notes in his Letter to Artists, "Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must translate into meaningful terms that which in itself is ineffable…[in so doing] it nourishes the intuition of those who look and listen."

He goes on to make the pretty radical statement - particularly in this moment of ecclesial and artistic "disengagement" - that art is not just an object that proceeds from theological brooding, but is actually a source of theology. "

Beauty is something I have given a lifetime of thought to, and have reached a few conclusions.
I have no doubt that Art fails to "solve" life. Nor do I think it changes people’s religion or politics in any overtly persuasive manner. Yet, I agree with Barbara Nicolosi that Keats surmised correctly, "Truth is Beauty -- Beauty Truth." And this is an important fact.
Religious or spiritual minded people often talk about transcendental realities, but the fact of Truth is, yes, transcendental, but what could be more central to life and ordinary living? The scientific method, the Socratic method, mathematics and 1+1 = 2, the logic of a true syllogism, and rationality of legal factuality all have a basis in Truth. Not to mention moral arguments and the laws we derive from them. These all have a basis in our apprehension of Truth.
But people today, and not just in America, ignore the dimension of Beauty apart from obvious physical aspects represented in men and women: handsome, pretty, buff, lithe -- attractive.
Inner beauty is for losers or saints, thus discounted by the many.
The experience of Beauty (which is actually a grace) is considered a rather ephemeral and relative matter in our world now. I call it the Parking Lot experience where people go to an event (a concert, movie, show, etc) and have a communal bath of delight, joy, and wonder, and then walk into the parking lot and begin to transit to the real world of possible muggers, trouble exiting the venue, bad news on the radio, and the dissipation of perfection, harmony, and love that they had felt moments before.
But I find more and more that Beauty which tends to exalt the spirit, make the emotions or feelings fly up in a kind of earthly ecstasy -- that that is a false face of Beauty. Real, but not the truer reality which lies behind it. Emotion and feeling being a veil of the Truth.
People think or associate the Beautiful with that which makes them feel more beautiful, delighted, sweetened, tenderized, and being moved "feelingly" whether it is Hamlet or The Little Prince.
People (on a bell shaped curve, the general middle) think that being caused to feel something deeply, having their sentiments manipulated skillfully, is the purpose and height of Art.
It’s not. Great art hardly affects the emotions. Great art mystifies. This can cause a person to dismiss it without much thought or effect, or tease out a certain nub, or fascination. Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting have this effect, along with Bach’s music. Oriental art effects this often, also.
Now, I use the word "mystifies" with regret. Great art only mystifies those unfamiliar with prayer, contemplation, and spiritual development. True art doesn’t baffle, confuse, mystify, nor challenge (and engage). It merely presents Truth without flaw or failure in a representational form (rather than a prosaic verbal or fashionable form).
True art is never clever or funny (although it may not be without wit), for, as Ovid wrote, "Art shows not its art", nor does it put on airs, show off, or make jokes. Art, great art, is pure and simple, but not simplistic, nor childish.
This describes art as austere. Nothing could be farther from the Truth, but unfortunately, such great art is 1) difficult to create for it takes a maturity or power of insight which is rare (thus we call it genius), and 2) it takes mastery of craft (which is also fairly rare); and 3) it has a seriousness which is also rare, but more often fails to find a responsive audience which is up to the mental, living power in the work itself.
The Parthenon in Athens is not exceeded in Beauty by any building on Earth. It is incredibly complex in its execution and design, but superlatively simple in its appearance. An encyclopedia of knowledge went into making the building, yet it looks like child’s play. A mere matter of piling blocks and shapes together.
Stripped of so much ornamentation, some might call it austere. It was once festooned with sculptures which were gaily painted, yet even then, it would have been "austere" since it is formal and mathematical (as William Blake complained about Greek art).
But it is not stripped or austere when you stand before as I have done. It is perfect. The heart does not soar with deep emotion (unless you can call intellectual or spiritual response emotional), nor fly with ecstasy, yet the experience of such perfection is richer than most of what anyone would "feel" in their entire lives. The Parthenon is Truth come down from Heaven to stand on a pedestal of pedestrian rock.
But does this matter? Does this art do people any real and palpable good?
Of course, it does. In the same way that natural beauty -- the Yosemites, Zion Canyons, Lake Tahoes, roses, lilies, tulips -- do people so much good.
People live all the time in desolation, urban ugliness, suburban sprawl, dusty, empty deserts, and horrible architecture -- and survive, but they don’t really like it. While at the same time, people can enter the Pantheon in Rome filled with carnal desires, spiteful feelings, or indifference, and leave no better or affected than when they came in.
But as the Pope was quoted above, "Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must translate into meaningful terms that which in itself is ineffable…[in so doing] it nourishes the intuition of those who look and listen."
This is as true as it gets, yet there is a problem. Artists don’t want to do this, and two, they don’t know how nor aspire to it. Barbara Nicolosi wants to train Christians to break into Hollywood by dint of their skill, dedication, and quality of work. But the level of quality she hopes they will achieve is not that of The Passion of the Christ, as rare an artistic work as there ever will be, but work to the level of Spiderman 2, Joan of Arcadia, or the art house Dogville.
That is a compromise. It is the bell shaped curve of humanity. Most are in the middle, and so most artists and their products must appeal to that middle.
By doing that, you eviscerate Beauty. Many people try to ameliorate the pop with the perfect by saying, I love Leonardo and Bach, but that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying comic book artists and the Beatles. I like childish stuff, but I also like "heavy" stuff.
This is simply not right. (I will not dispute that a good tune is a good tune.) The question is then -- do we actually need the silly in life? We have it, certainly, and it isn’t about to go away, but do we really need it as spiritual beings meant for eternity and heaven?
No, we don’t. Nor do we need cruel jokes or sarcasm. Yes, I am mindful of the admonition to Malvolio in Twelfth Night, "because thou art pure thou thinks’t there’ll be no more cakes and ale." But who said it? Didn’t it come from Sir Toby Belch? As reprobate, lewd, licentious, incorrigible, and dissipated as any character Shakespeare created.
Yes, reformers are tendentious, puritanical, and power hungry, but that’s not my point.
There’s a difference between accepting the world as it is while acknowledging the highest truths, and flinging up your hands and saying we’re all sinners so let’s forget about what’s best, noble, true, and perfect.
Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, for that’s like saying God is however you perceive him. No, God to be God must ultimately be the same to everyone and everything. Artists need to know that they aren’t gods, and that Beauty is reality, and not malleable as they would have it. The job of an artist (and critic or auditor) is to perceive what Beauty is and to leave out what it’s not. 


posted by Mark Butterworth | 12:48 AM |