Balthasar, Barzun, and the British hams on art

The two quotes below come from my reading of Edward T. Oakes' essay, "The Apologetics of Beauty," in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts. The video clip comes courtesy of a group of British thespians who play the most wondermous jest on unsuspecting travelers at Stansted Airport, London.

Balthasar's comments, though arriving from a mid-20th century German Catholic, ought give us evangelicals great pause, and beyond that, Americans in general. Barzun nails one of the worst habits in the contemporary art world. The thespians make me jealous that a) I didn't think of it first, and b) they didn't invite me to join in!

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics (Ignatius, 1982, p. 152).

"For the moment the essential thing is to realize that, without aesthetic knowledge, neither theoretical nor practical reason can attain to their total completion. If the verum lacks the splendor which for Thomas is the distinctive mark of the beautiful, then the knowledge of truth remains both pragmatic and formalistic. The only concern of such knowledge will then merely be the verification of correct facts and laws, whether the latter are laws of being or laws of thought, categories and ideas.

"But if the bonum lacks the voluptas, which for Augustine is the mark of its beauty, then the relationship to the good remains both utilitarian and hedonistic: in this case the good will involve merely the satisfaction of a need by means of some value or object, whether it is founded objectively on the thing itself giving satisfaction or subjectively on the person seeking it."

The key words to pay attention to are: pragmatic and formalistic, utilitarian and hedonistic. That's what he claims our lived and taught gospel will become if it is devoid of Beauty, its apperception, appreciation and application.

In short: not a good thing. Nor true.

Jacques Barzun, The Use and Abuse of Art (Princeton Press, 1974, 17):

"Nowadays anything put up for seeing or hearing is only meant to be taken in casually. If it holds your eye and focuses your wits for even a minute, it justifies itself and there's an end of it. . . .

"The Interesting has replaced the Beautiful, the Profound, and the Moving. [But] if modern man's most sophisticated relation to art is to be casual and humorous, [if it] is to resemble the attitude of the vacationer at the fair grounds, then the conception of Art as an all-important institution, as a supreme activity of man, is quite destroyed. One cannot have it both ways--art as a sense-tickler and a joke is not the same art that geniuses and critics have asked us to cherish and support. Nor is it the same art that revolutionists call for in aid of the Revolution."

And now for the British hams at the Stansted airport. . .


Heather said…
I agree--too often neither artists nor audiences are willing to work to find the bit of Truth and beauty. Thanks for posting those quotes.
Were you the one who posted the youtube video on the improv group who basically did the same thing in a U.S. mall?
Heather, I've posted various things on the blog, but I don't think I am the one who posted that. Maybe I did. Either way I bet it was a good one.
Taylor Worley said…

I appreciate that you are exposing your readership to two very important figures in the recent discourse of aesthetics. Thank you.

I found Barzun's lectures on art to be very enlightening. The great strength of those lectures, I think, is highlighting the important cultural connections between artists and thinkers. For instance, he shows that new ideas in philosophy went through certain channels like art criticism to reach artists and the wider public. It was a really helpful read, but I must take issue with the generalizing tone of denunciation that concludes the lectures ("Art in the Vacuum of Belief") and is reflected in your choice of quotation.

Do you think that Barzun is merely reacting to the dominate trend of Pop Art during the time he gave those lectures and presumptuously labeling that period a cultural apocalypse? If so, his research sample is woefully inadequate. Though surely quite influential and receiving the lion's share of press and attention, Pop Art wasn't the only thing happening in contemporary art at that time, nor is it all that remains in contemporary art today.

While maybe the first, he is not alone in calling contemporary art the beginning of the end. But I wonder if we should be so pessimistic today? Does this pessimism benefit anyone?

Taylor Worley
Taylor, thank you for adding your comments. They're very helpful. I can't claim to have a handle of Barzun's larger perspective, so I'm afraid I'll have to take the 5th on what he is and isn't doing with his lectures. If others know, please jump in.

I quoted it because I felt like he accurately described a tendency within contemporary art. It doesn't describe the whole of it. But I have encountered this attitude in my visits to galleries and shows. It gets under my skin.

At the same time I want to be careful not to give in to impulsive reactions. It's one of the things I find in the writings of Rookmaaker and Schaeffer both that bothers me. They use a few too many "always" and "nevers": hyperbolic language. As God is my helper, I hope to stay clear of those, unless the subject warrants an extreme statement, and perhaps only to catch people's attention.

Should we feel pessimistic about the state of things in the contemporary art world? Well the better part of humility is to defer to my "elders" on this, those visual artists who are actually getting their hands dirty, like the kind of folks I've met in CIVA.

My two pennies are these: Some trends in contemporary art feed off of darkness, depression, self-obsession, fatalism, and they're dangerous to society, if not to the sub-culture of artists within which many swim. Sure. We're bound to find that amongst humans here and there. It's been around for a long time, and not just in the art world.

But there is always grace. There are always the people of God mixing it up. There are prophets of hope. There are those who are unafraid to peer long into the darkness and come away saying, "Dear friends, be not afraid."

I do think Barzun accurately describes one current, but not the whole river.
Taylor Worley said…

Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply. I really appreciate your sober spirit on this subject. I, too, am searching for a sober sensitivity in the way I relate to and consider contemporary art. I'm afraid of both extremes: uncritical praise and curmudgeonly nay-saying, which is quite difficult at times. Right now, however, can I offer a few pennies back?

I'm so glad you brought up Rookmaaker and Schaeffer. I wanted to make the 'elephant in the room' statement in my previous comment, but then decided against it. While I have had a long-time CiVA person actually deny it in person, I believe that those two play an enormous role in shaping the wider evangelical consciousness about modern art and culture, especially Schaeffer's pamphlet - 'Art and the Bible'. To borrow from my colleague Jim Patterson's 2006 JETS article on the subject, they advance a certain 'cultural apocalyptic' about art that had a lot of mileage in the 60's, 70's and 80's, but in my opinion, has little benefit for us today. Today, I think it is worth our time, however, to pause and consider how much of that spirit of cultural apocalyptic is still active in our own viewing of art and culture.

I have argued in my research that the methodology of worldview analysis is obsolete and ineffective when encountering most of modern art and contemporary art. There are too many layers within art production, reception and criticism for that simplistic approach. In other words, the situation in which we find ourselves today is that of facing a realm of experience labeled 'art' that involves a highly specialized and theorized language. The questions of what are should be or aspire to have been long since jettisoned for the more exciting discourse of what could art be or where can it go next? In this way, I find Nicolas Wolterstorff and his concept of 'role analysis' with regard to art of great assistance in making sense of it all.

On the subject of discerning the spirits in contemporary art, that task is, in a sense, doomed before its started. From my experience, it seems that contemporary art prizes something for which most evangelical Christians have a severe allergy: irony. Irony, especially when it comes to religious imagery, is a value that most Christian gallery and museum visitors along with many cultural conservatives can't stand in contemporary art. Along these lines, I would point you toward the work of Robert Gober, Andres Serrano or Kiki Smith if you don't already know those artists. For these artists, the experience of the work's 'meaning' or 'truth' lies well beyond the surface of the work and involves a journey of subjective dialectic in the viewer. That experience, I believe, mimics the complex search for the deeper truth as intimated by your Balthasar quotation or reflected in the function of one of Jesus' parables.

When it comes to contemporary art - this is the nagging thorn in my research - there remains just as many problems as there are possibilities. I can't deny this... in a way, I can't deny Barzun all of his criticisms. But, like you, I rely on grace... God's grace to see the possibilities over the problems and, as cultural stewards looking forward to the celestial city where the kings of the earth will bring their treasure in (Rev. 21), we make a space of discovery and exploration in the here and now for hope and mystery and truth of Christ to creep in.

Thanks for all your encouraging work here.

all the best, Taylor

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