Friday, March 10, 2006
A Revolution of Beauty (the chaotic prequel)
"Beauty . . . you came back. But I didn't notice. I was too busy defining myself." --Carter Ratcliff, 1998.
I'm having a hard time figuring out what to write for the Christianity Today article. By the end of my phone conversation with the managing editor--three months ago--it had been decided that I would write on The Aesthetic Well-Being of the Church.
And then the voice of the booming bass movie trailer guy entered my head: "The Aeeeesthetic Well Beeeeeing of the CHURRRRRRRRCH! Coooooming to a theater near YOU YOU YOU!"
Hm, well, it was a great idea. But it's been like trying to write an article on science and God. Where do you start? What do you not say? It's ridiculously too much.
And nothing's grabbed me yet.
So I had a phrase pop into my head last week, A Revolution of Beauty, and I feel like maybe that's what I need to write about. But again, what the heck? Beauty? There are a thousand things that could be said about it, but what? The question is, what needs to be said? What do evangelical people need to hear about beauty? What false conceptions need to be dealt with?
So here are my latest thoughts, mostly a jumble of pieces.
1. Start with quote from Dostoyevski's The Idiot, "Beauty will save the world." Use this to create a tension. What does a Russian Orthodox novelist have to do with American evangelicals? What does he mean? Is he serious? He really thinks beauty will save the world? What does that have to do with the church? What does that have to do with artists? But does he really mean what he says?
2. Offer personal anecdote. Dazzle them with an anecdote!
3. Clarify what I don't mean by beauty:
-- Beauty is not pretty or nice. Such a notion leads us into the gooey land of sentimentalism, emotionalism, and the domestication of truth.
-- Beauty is not glamour. That's pinup lust; adoration without sympathetic connection; an ornamental charm devoid of human love.
-- Beauty is not easy. It is everything commodified Christianity wishes it weren't: demanding, disturbing and complicated.
-- Beauty is not the property of only one style of art. That is, beauty does not equal Western classical art. It doesn't. That's ethnographic classicism, as well as naive and dangerous.
-- Beauty is not the idealized image. True beauty isn't to be confused with a man's notion of the "perfect woman" (the Smart, Capable Babe) or a woman's notion of the "perfect man" (the Gentle, Romantic and Funny At Just the Right Times Knight). This is what's called the perversity of the abstract composite ideal.
4. What I do mean by beauty.
For starters, beauty is an antidote to a) alienation, b) jadedness, c) boredom, d) cynicism and e) stereotypes and presumptive judgments.
For the main course, we have seven axioms about beauty, each interspersed with lively contemporary examples:
1. Visible beauty is an image of invisible beauty. (12th c. Hugh of St. Victor)
2. Anyone who possesses beauty wishes to expand it as much as possible. (Aquinas)
3. A true experience of beauty is always in some way “ecstatic” or other centered.
4. Beauty does not force itself upon us but rather beckons us onward.
5. Sin warps and deadens our sensibility to beauty.
6. Earthly beauties can lead to Divine Beauty; conversely no earthly beauty can slake the human thirst for fulfillment, only God can.
7. Beauty satisfies in the moment but it also awakens further desire.
For dessert we have an amazing string of supersonic quotes and a personal story that no one will forget till the day they die and a last canonball explosion of friendly effusive exhortation calling all Protestant evangelicals--and I mean ALL!--to care more about beauty (the good kind) as well as the worthy expenditure of money on artists who would then create works of aesthetic excellence so stupendously great that traditional rational apologetics would stand dumbfounded at the capacity of believer artists to penetrate the steely-faced, cast-iron scepticism and stubborn pride of postmodern man.
"Gosh, how did they do that!"
Or something like that.
So I need help. If you have time to answer these two questions, I would be very grateful:
1. What kind of article about art and beauty would you enjoy or want to read in a magazine such as CT?
2. What do you think mainstream evangelical Christians need to know about art and beauty?
Again, please understand that by beauty I mean a standard description of aesthetic excellence: art that exhibits the quality of coherence, complexity and richness. Thus U2's Joshua Tree Project, thus the horrific poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, thus the absurd theater of Samuel Beckett, thus the social rabble-rousing paintings of Diego Rivera, thus the disturbingly beautiful short stories by Flannery O'Conner, thus Capoeira. Yes, capoeira! Subject matter and style are besides the point; even form. What's at issue, no less, is art that pulls us out of our comfortable appeasement with sinful, formalistic, duty-driven, spirit-lulling lifestyles and out into into something greater than ourselves and in turn inspires us to live fuller, richer, self-abandoned lives, the kind of lives that your neighbors wished they could live.
Something like that. The plea for help stands.
I leave you with a final thought by that elusive pimpernel, Oscar Wilde, circa 1889: "Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void."
(PHOTO: That's my high school soccer team. We won state finals. It was beautiful. It was a beautiful moment. It was 1989.)