Here’s the text of my presentation on the loss and recovery of beauty in the modern period for my Theology of Beauty Class:
The loss and recovery of beauty in the modern period is fundamentally about identity.
Who are we? Who am I? Who are you? Art and society in general broke away from the religious and cultural impositions of identity, striking out for independence and assertion of being. Instead being defined rigidly by outside forces, there was a new expectation of discovery, discovery of new land, new vocation, new wealth, new spirituality. Much of this came from the understanding that the old models of control were bankrupt, unable to offer fulfillment or meaning, even if they offered a settled reality. There was a yearning for progress, and this meant striking out on your own to become your own person instead of who you were told you had to be.
So, it is not surprising that Willis, in his article on discovering creative symbolism outside of formal art, specifically chooses to look at ‘young people’. Erik Erikson, in his stages of psychosocial development, has as his fifth stage “Identity vs. Role confusion”, a stage which typically begins in adolescence. Those in this stage are, as Erikson puts it, “primarily concerned with what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are”. One website adds that a person in this stage, “needs to develop a sense of self and personal identity. Success leads to an ability to stay true to yourself, while failure leads to role confusion and a weak sense of self.”
There are two parts to this. One is a rejection of the impositions others demanded. This rejection is not only about not feeling a fitting, but also in a heightened perception of the inadequacy, or worse, of what was insisted on. Beauty was a victim of this early identity assertion.
“Beauty is not always right.” (Danto 112)
“If there is to be art, it should not be beautiful, since the world as it is does not deserve beauty. Artistic truth must accordingly be as harsh and raw as life itself is, and art leached of beauty serves in its own way as a mirror of what human beings have done. Art, subtracted of the stigma of beauty, serves as what the world has coming to it.” (Danto 118)
Beauty was seen as a false assertion of a false reality, not in keeping with the often grotesque realities of society, and one’s own soul.
But, where to go from here? If we reject the cultural impositions of identity what are we left with? Incomplete selves. Where do we find a resolution for our identity that can encompass both aspects of reality—the beautiful and the grotesque.
It is here I think the works of the early monastics are helpful, especially as found in the writings contained in the Philokalia. Defined as ‘love of the beautiful’ these were, in essence extremely advanced texts on progressing in the Christian life, towards what the eastern would call, theosis. A love of the beautiful, according to the monastic texts, is a desire for our own progress and transformation, not just for ourselves, but for our communities, for those who come after us. This cannot be a mere form of limited beauty that treats our hope as an idyllic future. Our hope comes in this present, and we move beyond our depravity towards a restoration of the likeness of God, in which we participate with God, seeing this world and acting within it as his agents.
Cassian writes on the holistic understanding of beauty (Philokalia, v.1, 96ff.) that encompasses what is spiritual, and physical, and dark, and light.
With this came a very strong awareness of reality as it was. The sharpening of the sense of this was considered the most important trait called discretion or discernment. Those who had mastered this were able to see the essence of things, good and bad, with it all able to point towards a sharpening and progression. This is why sins became so parsed and discussed, as in the lists of deadly sins. The more one knew about the darkness the better one was able to move past it, using the evil to propel towards goodness, using temptations to become stronger and more whole.
Brown writes “Our effort is to discern what is required of Christian artistry and taste if it is to have hopes of progressing from minimally spiritual exploration to maturely Christian transformation.”
And according to the monastics this means being willing to see the difficult and ugly as part of our own realities, not to be dwelled upon for its own sake, but to be used as a tool for progression.
“One has to work at seeing a painting as good despite its not being beautiful, when one had been supposing that beauty was the way artistic goodness was understood.” Danto 89
“My thought has been that it is important to recognize that the works might still be perceived as ugly even when we have come to see ‘artistic excellence’. The recognition of excellence need not entail a transformation in aesthetic perception.” Danto 107
But what do we bring to the art? Not in terms of aesthetics, though that is a part. In terms of spiritual maturity. Does the person who knows God the best have the best aesthetics? Should we train people to know art theory or to know God? The monks sought God, but also perceived the world.
Evagrios writes, “Spiritual knowledge has great beauty: it is the helpmate of prayer, awakening the noteic power of the intellect to contemplation of divine knowledge.”
“We have no idea how much extra-aesthetic information comes with the first glimpse.” Danto 107. How do we sharpen and hone this extra-aesthetic information? What we bring to art is often dismissed. Often what is emphasized is what we take away, but that is entirely dependent on not only the art, but what we bring to the art. The work, the scene, the place, the words, the object is like sound, not communicating in a vacuum.
What do we take away from art? This is tied to what we bring and what the artist is seeking to propel us towards. Artists too are those seeking identity, or having found it, are asserting it so as to push others in the direction they found helpful.
“But the artists were not simply concerned that the viewers should know what they were doing. Those viewers were themselves part of the society the artists were concerned to change. The problems were their problems too. The implication is that you are not just to look at what we, the artists have done: you have to help us change the world.” (Danto, 106; see also 133)
“We must endeavor to grasp the thought of the work, based on the way the work is organized.” (Danto, 139) .
We participate with the artist, learning from the embodied meaning of a work that contains a source for our own progression.
“Christian artistry and taste, I proposed, would do well to find new ways of being popular without being cheap; and Christianity would benefit, as well, from cultivating further a capacity for intelligent and imaginative religious exploration that is demanding enough to be unpopular.” (Brown, 230)
With this, like the monastics understood, there is a need for humility. We cannot always perceive what is there without training and guidance.
“Far from being a sign of excessive pride, therefore, submitting to artistic training and discipline can show a degree of humility that is all too often missing from programs of self-expression and from those kinds of artistry that consistently settle for easy or splashy effects.” (Brown, 254)
But is this only true for artistic guidance? Do we bring only our artistic perceptions to art? We bring our whole selves, so we are called to progress as whole selves, with our progression in one way bringing new light to other aspects.
Nor can we teach with an arrogance towards those who would seek to learn. Is transforming art only for the discerning? If theosis is a path, should there not be a path of aesthetics which allows for growth, milk to meat, in perception and depth?
The problem also comes in that we are unevenly ‘divinized’. We do not progress at the same speed, in the same directions, in the same modes. The area our imagination tends to occupy is our own area of strength, and we may tend to dismiss other forms. Thus, we have to allow for other forms of imagination, accepting that we participate as a community—as teachers and learners in turn. Those who are most advanced allow for those who are not. Because they perceive the nature of things and the person. Those who are not, who are striving or trying to prove, become the elitists or snobs. The most advanced monks were immensely accepting.
We have what we bring, and we have what the artist brings, often neither fully formed in identity, each trying to assert identity in expression and reception, while also still searching for the real self.
Where are we to go? To change the world as the artist, or other creative symbols suggest? If we are lost in despair, in the darkness of our sins or the chaos of the grotesque we lose our impetus for progress. Without hope we stay static or retreat.
Hope is found in beauty.
“It is as though beauty works as a catalyst, transforming raw grief into a tranquil sadness, helping the tears to flow, and at the same time, one might say, putting the loss into a certain philosophical perspective. Recourse to beauty seems to emerge spontaneously on occasions where sorrow is felt.” Danto 111
In moments of emotional need we feel drawn to hope and healing, the perichoretic attracts, drawing us back towards wholeness, or at least our comfortable approximation of it that we are used to in prior assumptions of our identity.
“Beauty is a necessary condition for life as we would want to live it.” Danto 160
But, this kind of beauty itself can be restrictive, becoming a mere solace rather than a driving force for our continued advancement.
This beautiful solace in art is often considered ‘kitsch’.
“Much art that aims at sublimity borders on kitsch.” (Brown, 230)
Kitsch is a judgment based on a particular, supposedly advanced, aesthetic. Is it, however, a valid judgment? The art we value is an expression of what we bring to it and what it brings to us. Thus the art we have is the art we deserve. See the art someone loves and we can see where they are at emotionally and spiritually.
Art becomes a tool for discernment, not only in how we view the art, but also in how we view the art viewer. Kitsch, maybe more properly defined not according to our aesthetic place, but rather according to how it works in the life of a particular person. Kitsch is, we might say, that which stifles progress or allows for stagnation. A precious moments figurine, or chapel, might be profoundly spiritual for one, a spiritual wasteland for another. Under the perspective of theosis we judge according to the situation and individual, not according to the object
“If taste is matter of perception, appreciation, and appraisal, and if it is always influenced by context and community, the first step in assessing claims regarding religious aesthetic taste is a move that is no less important for being almost a cliché. It is to try to listen to and through the rhetoric and sometimes curious logic of particular claims regarding music and worship so as to discern the underlying musical and religious perceptions, values, and judgments.”
Adding to this with right perception, maturity in spirit and aesthetic, art, music, the sorts of personal expressions Postrel emphasizes becomes a very precise way of perceiving the observer or aesthetic chooser not only the underlying aspects of the artistic object itself. We can diagnosis souls, knowing where one is and where one needs to go, in both the artist and those who resonate with particular expressions, as long as this resonance is about the real identity and not about assertions of a false identity in order to adopt someone else’s identity, which might be comfortable but is ultimately problematic.
But, moving past the false hopes of solace, we come to real beauty that both inspires, enlightens, and transforms.
“One cannot aspire toward the most developed and discerning taste without recognizing that taste must be discriminating—that not everything is beautiful and not all beauties are equal. Yet there comes a moment or state in which taste at its very highest, and the art associated with it, allows one to relish all that one hears and sees and touches, perceiving it as blessed in the eyes of God, and so to take delight in the whole world as beautiful and entirely enjoyable ‘in God’.” Brown, 264
Postrel and Willis offer us illustrations of a broader expression of the inherent spiritual in art, not in the formal production of art as communication, but rather aesthetics as choice and aesthetics as participation, what we select and what we express, that becomes a vital symbol of who we are.
However, we are left with a question. What we produce is a static representation of our selves. Is there more? People can express a diminished being, so expression itself is not inherently theosis. We can learn about people through their expressions and choices, and sometimes what we learn is that creativity is solely expressing ‘keeping up with the Jones’. Not by being same, but by expressing an artificial independence, a different look within the same overall, broader life philosophy and shallowness. Though, there are cues within to suggest a real glimmer of being. Is that enough? Especially if the materialistic shunts further, and deeper, expression. Is the ability to choose really an embrace of a deeper aesthetic? Are we a more reflective society because we can choose our toilets and faucets?
“We are here to be transformed.” Danto, 131.
This transformation cannot be simply an external beautification, but insists on whole transformation if we are to really find our identity.
But again, what is the direction of our identity? The monastics sought their identity in God, with God, participating with him now and through eternity, leading to a transformation into the likeness of God, something they realized goes beyond assertion of rhetoric or outside trappings, indeed transformed in a way that often is blocked by pure intellectual, rational methods.
“Philosophy is simply hopeless in dealing with the large human issues.” Danto, 137
“Perhaps we should also acknowledge that thought and further experience can, in turn, give rise to the symbol—the aesthetic and artistic symbol that, even as words begin to fail, is lifted up by illumined imagination, however imperfect, or by what has traditionally been called inspiration.” (Brown, 227)
In contemporary considerations we can see the embrace of beauty and disgust in the framework of perichoretic participation in the works of Moltmann whose theology of hope is, in part, coming out of his core question of where was God in Auschwitz. Theology too sought to exalt humanity, running into the wall of humanity’s deprivation, which brought a loss of theology. Classical liberal theology was found bankrupt in the face of human depravity.
Beauty and theology often go together, it seems.
The texts we read for this class session were quite, quite interesting really and I heartily recommend them: The Abuse of Beauty: The Paul Carus Lectures 21 (The Paul Carus Lectures) by Arthur Danto and Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life by Frank Burch Brown. We also read an excerpt from The Substance of Style by Virgina Postrel and Common Culture by Paul Willis