On Beauty and the Art of Schooling: Part II

(Here is part 2 of my talk at Regents private school. In matters mundane I attended Gallery Lombardi's show this past Thursday night, where a number of Hope artists had work hanging. On Friday I met with Alex Villareal who is the newly appointed visual arts coordinator at Gateway Church, a minor megachurch here in town. Friday night I saw a modern dance showcase at ACC that included a piece by Annette Christopher.
Saturday night I went out with the boys to see Mel Gibson's Apocalypto [and if I hear one more film critic use the phrase "pornographic violence," I'm going to break their face, not because I disagree with their evaluation of Gibson's film but because it's so much hyperventilating melodramatic rhetoric and hypocritical. Tarantino anyone? Scorsese? Rodriguez' "Sin City"? Nope. They're just cool. They're "daring" and "fun" and "prophetic." Sigh.].
Sunday morning I preached at Church of the Holy Trinity, where my brother-in-law Cliff is the rector. I preached on how people go crazy if they get stuck in the desert too long and aren't careful with what they start imagining. So all in all a full weekend. It's week 2 of Advent, the Winter Lent, and thus far I've been able to avoid all retail stores with their demented Christmas muzak mixes.)

1. Beauty is both absolute and relative.
2. Beauty is both objective and subjective.
3. Everything God makes is beautiful and much of it will often terrify and surprise us.
4. The Christian can make what is ugly, beautiful.

Let me explain, each in turn.

Why? Because it is grounded in the nature of God and as such is tethered to something everlastingly true and infinitely powerful. As Barth puts it in his Church Dogmatics (II.I.655), “We cannot overlook the fact that God is glorious in such a way that He radiates joy, so that He is all He is with and not without beauty.” He is, as the Catholic theologian Richard Viladesau notes, “the 'horizon' of every experience of beauty," a horizon that is total and absolute in its scope, utterly transcendent, wholly Other. It is in light of this that we can regard beauty as a transcendental.

Inasmuch, then, as creation is a reflection of God, the nature and works of creation will manifest habits characteristic of Beauty.

This is of course an awfully rushed assertion, but brevity of time does not allow us to expound any further.

Let me move on to what may seem a slightly more controversial declaration for the Christian.

In what way exactly?


FOR EXAMPLE: a mountain and a flower.

The beauty of a mountain is relative to mountainness, and it’s unfair to expect the beauty of a flower to compete or be fairly compared to the beauty of a mountain. “That flannel flower at the base of the Andes isn’t as beautiful as that Andean mountain!” And it’s not that you’re exactly going to find an ugly mountain out there, it’s that you’ll find different kinds of mountains beautiful in different ways: the Rockys, the Himalayas, the Andes.

The principle here holds true for all flower species.

And for the cartoon in comparison to the novel.

Or the art of mime over against the feature documentary film.

Or punk-rock music and baroque music.

The principle is this: The judgment of a form’s beauty is relative to the laws of that form.
To say that baroque music is more beautiful than punk-rock is like saying that French is more beautiful than Mandarin. To my ears that may be true, but the form of French and the form of Mandarin, while both human languages, are radically different, and one is better off making comparisons internal to each language. There is French oratory that is beautiful and there is French oratory that is sloppy, crude and ugly. So too with Mandarin. So too with baroque music. So too with punk-rock music. While punk-rock may attract a smaller audience—an audience that is drawn to its aggressive, emotionally forceful, often angry but sometimes raucously playful tones—it is false and wrong of us to judge it all ugly simply because we find its sound ugly—simply because we find it tastes ugly to our ears.

To judge in this way puts us back in that same chaotic cul-de-sac where African drums are evil. Or that rocknroll is the devil’s preferred music.

But let me take a hard right turn now in the direction of the female body.

Can we say that this or that woman’s body and face deserves—in a kind of absolute sense—to be called beautiful, like Nicole Kidman or Grace Kelly or Beyonce Knowles?

My answer is relatively no and yes.

Let me start with no: No, we can’t because physical beauty is relative to the eye of the beholder.
I apologize here for the crudeness of the following question: Is a woman beautiful with big hips or small hips? (Stay with me, hey, and trust me when I say I know I’m walking a minefield here. I have sisters.) The answer to the question depends on whom you ask, and when you might have asked this question, but the answer is both: A woman is beautiful with big hips and small hips. In talking with a few of my African-American friends, they tell me that they could care less about skinny, white, magazine girls. They find women with bigger hips tre beautiful. In contrast, White Anglo Saxon men of the Western, late 20th century, American type generally speaking tend to find smaller hips beautiful.

What’s my point? My point is this. Whether we’re talking about Peter Paul Rubens’ corpulent figures or the pin-up model of the 1940s, whether it’s a svelte Japanese princess or a colossal Nordic queen, the question of a woman’s beauty is a relative matter—and especially because there are a myriad other reasons why you find your wife beautiful. The big or small hips is in effect culturally relative. The dominant culture which has shaped your view of the world will shape your view of women and their bodies, and pretty much everything else about them.

And now let me say yes: Yes, we can say in one sense that physical beauty is absolute.
The reason is this: What makes a woman beautiful in strictly physical terms is the proportion of her parts, say the parts of her face: forehead to eyebrows to nose to lips to cheekbones to chin to neck. This is a truth that all you art teachers know well. Composition is important. The arrangement of the parts to the whole is important.

Whether we like it or not, whether we’re conscious of it or not, with both women and men, we are drawn to symmetry. We’re attracted to things which are rightly related to each other. And it is in our nature, it is not simply nurture. That’s why we love watching the Olympics, because it’s here that we find a great collection of beautiful bodies performing beautiful feats of athleticism. When people describe an athletic moment as beautiful, they’re likely recognizing the unity, the complexity, and the brilliance of the feat, that sometimes makes you cry.

The temple which God commanded the Israelites to build is all about symmetry, it is about things which are rightly related to each other.

So is the nature of God.

And the disease of our society is to idolize physical beauty cut off from the whole person. So please don’t go obsess about your body. Remember that there are beauties more powerful than the tug of physical attraction and it is all these beauties together that hold a relationship together in strength and in joy.

So in sum then: Beauty can be regarded as relative to the form and relative to the culture. The form and the culture determine the parameters for the judgment of a thing’s beauty.


The main idea is this: Whether your subject matter is happy or dark, pleasant or unpleasant, all of it can be made beautiful. It is not whether your subject matter can be presented beautifully, it is how.

For example, a happy subject matter is sunsets. Now sunsets for the most part display a quiet okayness about them. "There's the sunset, isn't that pleasant." But some sunsets are gorgeous. And in those cases they are manifesting the qualities of beauty at their maximal force.

But a dark subject matter can also be beautiful.

For example, the cross. The cross is a summarily unpleasant thing. Yet Christ crucified is one of the most beautiful events of all history. It is beautiful because on it we see Love at its most powerful. It is beautiful because in Christ all things hold together, in Christ, fully God, fully Man, a whole range of theological and existential meaning is exhibited, in Christ the beauty of God is broken and it makes us weep.

In summary, whether your subject matter is lovely or terrible, romantic or drab, goofy or grotesque, we are, according to the terms above and the way in which we've defined beauty, able to represent the subject beautifully. Think Matthias Grunewald's "The Crucifixion." Think Shakespeare's Othello. Think U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday."


ceciliabrie said…
LAST KING OF SCOTLAND was another i categorize as pornographic violence. I felt violated when i left the theatre.

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