Thursday, February 15, 2007

On Beauty: Axioms #8, #9, #10

(This is another little portion of the talk I gave last month.)

10 AXIOMS (here numbers 8-10)
#8 Because America’s philosophical landscape is marked dominantly by pragmatism, beauty flourishes with difficulty on our soil.

Let’s face it: there’s a lot of ugliness out there. We have ugly strip-centers with their monochromatic, eye-numbing facades. We have ugly office cubicles with their window-less, soul-deadening sameness. We have ugly day-time talk shows with their bilious, intoxicating chatter.
A lot of the houses in my neighborhood are pretty ugly. They’re squatty, drab, crudely designed. There’s a reason for that. Most of them were built just after WWII when there wasn’t much discretionary income, so people made do. There’s grace of course.

But just because you don’t have lots of money doesn’t mean you have to settle for ugly stuff—quick and cheap, unimaginative, functionalist designs, bland color palette.

Yet we can cut ourselves just a wee bit of slack. Ahh.
It’s not really our fault.

We were born into a pragmatic culture. Heck, it’s the one philosophical system Americans practically invented! Our culture does not teach us how to want beauty. In truth, our minds are so fogged over by the involuntary need to sell and consume—lest we miss out on a better deal—that we don’t know any better than to buy lots and lots of relatively cheap clothes that we know we’ll throw away within a handful of years. My European friends have a few expensive articles of clothing, beautifully designed, made with durable material, and they keep it for twenty years.

We have outlet malls.

My point is simply this: we’re not behind the eight-ball when it comes to figuring this beauty thing out, we’re not even on the pool table. We’re outside the pool hall. Our God-given aesthetic sense has been dulled by the American spirit of practical, practical, practical, and it needs to be re-awakened so we can be re-attuned to God’s love for beauty.

Perhaps if we keep exposing ourselves to beautiful things, our beauty muscles will grow stronger.

#9. You are what you behold, so don’t be nonchalant about what hangs on your walls.

Oh be careful little eyes what you see.

Oh be careful little eyes what you see.

For the Father up above is looking down with love.

Oh be careful little eyes what you see.

I’ll be brief. You become that which you gaze upon the longest. Your eyes are good your body is good. So be carefully little eyes what you see. If you don’t want to turn into an ugly chunk of cheese, don’t put cheese on your walls.

I will also say that whatever you put on the walls of your church will reinforce your theology and your experience of God, so ask yourself, What do you want your sanctuary to remind people about God.

#10. Beauty is the object of love and all that is beautiful ought, ultimately, lead us to greater love.

On this point I will simply say that all our work as artists should arise from love and result in love, should be commenced in a reception of God’s love and should be made for the sake of loving our neighbor more deeply, whoever the recipient of our work may be.



5 comments:

Tim Stewart said...

Wonderful ideas, David! I'm really digging on these axioms of beauty. I found 4 and 8–10. Are you eventually going to post axioms 1–3 and 5–7? I would really like to read them too.

So you've raised a question in my mind. Do you take the necessity of man's creation of art to be only axiomatic? is it possible to construct a Scriptural proof that art is a necessary part of our faith life, even if we're not all called to be full-time serious artists (1 Cor 12:28-31)? I haven't yet come across an explicit injunction in the Bible to "Make art," but perhaps some artistic imperative naturally follows from what is stated in the Bible—sort of like how the doctrine of the Trinity emerges from the rest of what's there.

Wouldn't it be crazy if the inspired Bible had been given to mankind with illustrations? I mean, that would have been a huge proof for artists (at least illustrators) of the value God placed on the visual arts. So I'm wondering: in addition to those great verses dealing with Bezalel and the other craftsmen who decorated the Temple (Exodus 31:1-3, 36:2, etc.), what else does the Bible have to say about the role and value of art?

kelly said...

Tim,

Good questions. As far as proving the necessity of creating art, I would have to say that making beautiful and meaningful things has been as basic to all cultures as food, clothing, ritual, etc. It's simply part of the fabric (or 'thrown-ness' if you will) of human communal life. Therefore I guess it is axiomatic. But that's not to say that it hasn't been troubling for the church from the beginning because of it's close link to idolatry - but that's more about images than aesthetics in general.

It's really only in our post-Enlightenment world that we have to work so hard to defend and keep perspective on the arts. We seem to be given only two options: either reject the arts as useless and impractical (utilitarianism) or diefy the arts or artists as above all others (romanticism). The church tends to pick one or the other rather than rejecting both. So we're stuck with all this thinking, theorizing, and defending instead of just doing.

Jim said...

I think one could make an argument that the scriptures (at least the new testament) WAS given with illustrations. The new testament gradually came into being and was formalized in the 4th century see:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formation_of_the_New_Testament_Canon

Oddly enough this is the same time that images reflecting the events recorded in the New Testament started occuring; see:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_Christian_Art_and_Architecture

Except for the iconoclast controversy in the 8th century images were held on a par with the words of the New testament even going so far as to anathmize anyone who held that images should NOT be used. Here is an excerpt from the 2nd council of Nicea:

SECOND COUNCIL of NICÆA
We keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospel, a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, that so the incarnation of the Word of God is shown forth as real and not merely fantastic, for these have mutual indications and without doubt have also mutual significations.

We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Ghost indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honorable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honorable reverence, not indeed that true worship of faith which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented. For thus the teaching of our holy Fathers, that is the tradition of the Catholic Church, which from one end of the earth to the other has received the Gospel, is strengthened. Thus we follow Paul, who spoke in Christ, and the whole divine Apostolic company and the holy Fathers, holding fast the traditions which we have received. So we sing prophetically the triumphal hymns of the Church: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion; Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem. Rejoice and be glad with all your heart. The Lord has taken away from you the oppression of your adversaries; you are redeemed from the hand of your enemies. The Lord is a King in the midst of you; you shall not see evil any more, and peace be unto you forever.

Those, therefore who dare to think or teach otherwise, or as wicked heretics to spurn the traditions of the Church and to invent some novelty, or else to reject some of those things which the Church has received (the Book of the Gospels, or the image of the cross, or the pictorial icons, or the holy relics of a martyr), or evilly and sharply to devise anything subversive of the lawful traditions of the Catholic Church or to turn to common uses the sacred vessels or the venerable monasteries, if they be bishops or clerics, we command that they be deposed; if religious or laics, that they be excommunicated.

So we all believe, we all are so minded, we all give our consent and have signed. This is the faith of the Apostles, this is the faith of the Orthodox, this is the faith which has made firm the whole world. Believing in one God, to be celebrated in Trinity, we salute the honorable images! Those who do not so hold, let them be anathema. Those who do not thus think, let them be driven far away from the Church. For we follow the most ancient legislation of the Catholic Church. We keep the laws of the Fathers. We anathematize those who add anything to or take anything away from the Catholic Church. We anathematize the introduced novelty of the revilers of Christians. We salute the venerable images. We place under anathema those who do not. Anathema to those who presume to apply to the venerable images the things said in Holy Scripture about idols. Anathema to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images. Anathema to those who call the sacred images idols. Anathema to those who say that Christians resort to the sacred images as to gods. Anathema to those who say that any other delivered us from idols except Christ our God. Anathema to those who dare to say that at any time the Catholic Church received idols.

the whole text is here:

http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3819.htm

Of course all of this was disgarded by the protesters during the Reformation for the idea of sola scriptura. There is no Tradition to appeal to only the Bible.

regards,

Jim Janknegt

kelly said...

Jim brings up an interesting issue by contrasting the early church fathers' understanding of texts, images, and tradition with the text-centered notion of 'sola scriptura'. People have meant many different things historically and today when they appeal to scripture over tradition. To overgeneralize, the radical version of 'sola scriptura' would say that the words of the cannon are everything and tradition is nothing, while a more balanced version respects tradition but is willing to challenge it when it seems to contradict the older and somewhat more solid tradition of the cannon (to challenge the same types of 'introduced novelty' the Council was challenging).

I only dive into this thorny issue because it brought to mind a time when I studied Italian Baroque churches and the iconography they employed. I was surprised to see how common the forms and images were more concerned with representing the families of the Popes that patronized the architects and artists (with bees, mountains, or whatever random symbol was linked to their family) than with representing 'the Incarnation of the Word of God'. This practice was certainly a long-standing church tradition. It seems to me that the ability to hold traditions up to scrutiny, be it through the cannon or through older traditions, is needed to counter the glorification of men over God. But in this instance it's about images rather than text.

Of course the previous paragraph is based on complete agreement with the Council of Nicea that images matter a great deal.

Andrew Philip said...

Tim Stewart said: "Wouldn't it be crazy if the inspired Bible had been given to mankind with illustrations?"

But it was given with illustrations, wasn't it?

Oh, no, wait a minute -- that's just my old Good News Bible.