On Beauty: Axiom #4: Your Job is Not to Make Pretty

I've been on a little pilgrimage for the last two years. As a child of Evangelical Protestantism I was never taught about beauty. I was taught about truth and about goodness, but not about beauty. It did not belong in the axis of doctrine, education or mission. And it still seems strange that I've become as captivated as I have with beauty, at least philosophically. My American culture does nothing to cultivate an appreciation or appetite for it.
But that's axiom #8 and another day's blog entry.

I gave a talk this past weekend at a visual art symposium here in Austin. In my talk I argued that beauty plays a very distinct reconstructive role in our public life. Over the course of the outline I put on the table a working definition for beauty, identified ten axioms that describe a landscape of understanding about beauty, and then ended with three ways in which beauty performs its reconstructive work.

Afterwards five artists responded: Kim Garza (a graphic designer), Kelly Foster (an architect), Josh Welker (an MFA grad student), Tim High (an art prof at UT), and Sandra Bowden (the current president of CIVA). We held forth in a Q&A session, ate lunch together, and ended with a presentation by Larry Linenschmidt of the Hill Country Institute for Contemporary Christianity and Mrs. Bowden on behalf of CIVA. All in all it was very stimulating day.

I'm going to include a few excerpts here from the talk, and I'll start with the axiom that seemed to me most crucial for believer artists.

"Axiom 4: Our calling as artists is to make beautiful not to prove the beautiful."

Of one thing there is no doubt: we artists make things. We make experiences. We make things with the stuff of the world: tungsten metal, sandstone, wind, mechanical typewriters.

We also tend to make of the stuff of the world a response: an artistic response. Now the stuff of the world to which we make a response falls neatly into three basic kinds of stuff:
1) good stuff
2) mundane stuff
3) fallen stuff.
There’s a good night’s sleep, there’s the mattress you sleep on, there’s a sleep disturbed by nightmares.

And so we make art in order to make sense of it all.
We make Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Pied Beauty.” We make David Wilcox’s song about his dog that wanders up and down the block as if he owned it, his “Block Dog.” We make Picasso’s Guernica to respond to the horror of the Nazi German bombing of Gernika, Spain, in 1937.
In art we express our feelings, we say what we think. In art we join the philosopher and the priest in their attempts to express what it means to be human.

My point is this: our job as artists is not to choose whether we will talk about the good or the mundane or the fallen in this world, our job is to talk about all of it truthfully. In fact, we must talk about it. We cannot pretend that we would be better off if we only focused on the lovely aspects. We wouldn’t. We would be saying in effect that there is no Christian mind about all the evil and injustice and the gross and the grotesque in our world, and that would make heretics of us.
With great courage and humble faith we must look all the twisted, sinful parts square in the face and ask, What is the truth of it? How ought I make this work truthfully?

Whatever the subject matter may be, our calling is not to prove beauty— that’s the work of Christian apologists—our calling as artists is to make our work beautifully so that the light of Christ can shine properly through it and reveal the truth of the matter however the Spirit chooses in any given case.
(Photo Above: Temma on Earth, Tim Lowly, mixed media, 96"X144", 1999).


Erin said…
I found your blog through Jeremy McCasland. Thank you for this post. I feel they same way about being raised to know Truth and information but not ever being taught to find and appreciate beauty. It brings to mind that line from New Law by Derek Webb..."Don't teach me about truth and beauty, just label my music." We, the church, have got to stop being so afraid of the "secular" world. There is beauty found there, and there are things (arts) produced in the Christian world that are not beauty, they are only easy to accept....Anyways, thanks for your thoughts.

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