Thursday, April 07, 2011
9.5 Theses about beauty
The past few months Jeremy, Bo, Brian, Tanner, Jacki and I have been working our way through a series of texts. The texts, which come primarily out of the Catholic tradition though also include representatives in Radical Orthodoxy, have focused our attention to questions surrounding art, aesthetics, beauty and such. Our discussions have been consistently stimulating, and at times rollicking. Lots of laughter, I find, is good medicine for conversation around difficult ideas. Coffee is never far from hand. Pumpkin bread, apples, power bars, fresh orange juice, good tea and chocolate have kept us company throughout. I can't remember when I've had more satisfying discussions than these, and, yes, I feel very lucky.
The texts have not only provoked our minds, chiefly for good, they have also at times confounded our minds with the most elaborate non-sequiturs and distressing lines of logic. My provisional conclusion is this: the centuries-long discussion about art and beauty, specifically about art's relationship to beauty, is a dizzying mess.
Still, I thought I'd share a few things that I've learned along the way. What I've learned principally is to slow down--to read things three and four times if necessary, to look and to look again, to understand the author carefully before I make judgments (a basic requirement of charity), and to not be afraid, as hard as it is, to keep asking simple questions, however "obvious" or "silly" they may seem, and when I feel overwhelmed to not panic but to recognize that these authors deserve the respect of careful, slow, patient study.
A fun assignment
My assignment to you, dear reader, then, is a fun one: Next time you hear someone speak, teach or preach about beauty, ask yourself: 1) Have they bothered to define what they mean by beauty? 2) Have they told you the specific context(s) in which their treatment of beauty is meant to make sense? 3) Have they explained to you the goods that they believe beauty will yield as well as the ills that beauty might protect us against.
Here then are 9.5 theses, a tenth of Luther's number, in no particular order and by no means comprehensive. And a good cheer for not giving up on beauty altogether, because the world would be much poorer without it, theologically as well as actually.
9.5 Theses about beauty
1. Every discussion about beauty is necessarily a contextual discussion. There is no purely objective or abstract or general way to talk about it. The kinds of contexts, or traditions, that come into considerable play include:
a. The metaphysical tradition, whether in Orthodox or Catholic circles
b. The Continental philosophical tradition (Kant, Hegel, et al)
c. The Dutch Calvinist tradition
d. The contemporary ("high") art tradition
e. The popular art tradition
2. Because a human person is a complex being, he or she can be simultaneously beautiful in one faculty (say, the intellectual) but ugly in another (say, in his or her relational or speech habits). That’s how physically unremarkable saints can be described as uncommonly beautiful or how Hollywood actors can be gorgeous but morally debauched. Here I am using beauty in one of its “classical” senses, as harmoniously unified, richly complex and attractively splendid. This also, by the way, brings to light the kind of complicated issues that come up in an aesthetically excellent but morally repugnant work of art.
3. While beauty began as a conceptual sub-category (e.g. to mathematics: Pythagoreans; political theory: Plato; practical reason: Aristotle; rhetoric: Horace), it eventually became a supra-category (with comprehensive, all-encompassing powers of explanation), and then receded to become a sub-category or even sub-par-category (for 20th/21st century contemporary artists and critics).
4. If you ever stand up in public to speak about beauty, you should do three things:
a. Define what you mean by beauty.
b. Define the context you have in mind.
c. Define why exactly you think it's important.
5. Because beauty in the contemporary world is often regarded as equivalent with standards of taste or mere appearance, it is rightly rejected as shallow, as “mere form,” and rightly found to be “a bit of a bore” (Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale).
6. Your average Christian assumes that art and beauty self-evidentially go together, much like he or she assumes that God is self-evidentially beautiful. This is a problem, because the meaning of neither of these is self-evident.
7. Your average American believes that beauty putatively designates “feminine” qualities, which is why in common practice we feel more comfortable calling a woman beautiful than a man.
8. When beauty is separated from goodness and truth, it suffers. While it matters how we construe these “transcendentals,” the axiom stands regardless of our construals. The point is a dynamical one, that is, how they are interrelated, not a static one.
9. Five contexts are significant for discussions of beauty, to the extent that each in its own way normatively determines the meaning of the term, and when these contexts are not kept clearly distinguished, discussions of beauty quickly become muddled :
a. God/the divine
9.5 Discussions of beauty have been accompanied by a litany of bifurcations. Some of the more common ones include:
a. Art vs. craft
b. "Fine" art vs. the “people’s” art
c. Formal vs. expressive
d. Taste vs. vulgarity
e. Disinterested vs. interested
f. “art of glory” vs. “art of the cross”
g. Aestheticism vs. moralism
h. Invisible vs. visible or Infinite vs. finite
(Here below is something I found quite beautiful from Mothlight Creative. It's a video homage to Pittsburgh comprised solely of still photos. Artwork above represents some of Phaedra's new work. Three hours from now I'm headed here.)
April (For Pittsburgh) from Mothlight Creative on Vimeo.