It is cold. Everton (my team) have just been torn to pieces by Chelsea (my son’s team) and Spaceman by Babylon Zoo is resounding around the field.
However, despite all of these compelling reasons for despondency, I am pretty chipper. Exploding above me is one of the better fireworks displays I’ve seen and I am suitably mesmerised.
But while I gaze upwards this Bonfire Night and try to blot out the dreadful musical accompaniment, my mind turns to a question I’ve been thinking about for some time- ‘is art really all about beauty?’
It’s funny isn’t it? Fireworks would tick many of the boxes needed for something to classify as art- firstly they look pretty, secondly while they don’t sound particularly nice they certainly have a soundtrack of sorts (even without Katy Perry and her ilk), and thirdly their production takes a considerable amount of human skill and ingenuity. However, I’ve never heard anyone call fireworks art and I can’t help thinking that this is because, in answer to my question, everyone knows art is not really all about just looking or sounding nice. Which is what most people mean by beauty i think. (Or maybe it’s not. But if not, what do they mean? Hence, this blog post and ensuing blog series, but I digress…)
Let’s zoom out slightly.
There is obviously some relationship between art and beauty. That much is plain. However, I’ve always found a niggle of annoyance whenever people have equated the two too tightly and I find that this niggle arises mostly when hearing Christians (especially Christian leaders) talk about art. Why should we encourage the artists in our churches? Because they can portray something of God’s beauty to the ugly, fallen world around us through their beautiful songs, beautiful pictures, beautiful poems, dances, films, etc. This has always struck me as somewhat simplistic, and as an artist for whom portraying/displaying/revealing beauty is not a top priority, I have always found it a low level annoyance.
The other reason this was on my radar on 5th November was that, around the same time, a friend had posted a Wall Street Journal article on Facebook entitled: ‘Remember When Art Was Supposed To Be Beautiful?’ The article itself was a moan about the prominent place identity politics seems to play in art nowadays but whereas the titular question was never really addressed, it loitered smugly in the background throughout. The assumption that author was making, with very little if any justification, was that now art had been hijacked by issues of race, gender and sexuality, but in the past, it was simply about ‘beauty’. I’ll be honest, I found myself agreeing with a lot of what she wrote, but this unsubstantiated and patently incorrect assertion irked me.
Perhaps I’m being a bit unfair, as there was hardly room in this mode of communication for a thorough examination of the place of beauty in art, but I would have expected some sort of evidence to back up this claim. The problem with throwing around a word like beauty is that you can often use it as a vague signifier of something good just to get people to agree with you (a bit like modern uses of the word ‘love’). Beauty is good, everyone agrees with that, so if I say ‘remember when art used to be about beauty?’ or ‘let’s pray that artists would display more of God’s beauty into the world’ you’d have to be a right sourpuss to raise an objection. The disagreement comes (but is hardly ever articulated) when it comes to defining what we mean by that word. (The last time I heard someone say ‘It’s beautiful’, it was the baddie of the new Star Wars film, describing the carnage caused by the Empire’s shiny new Death Star).
Now, this may all sound fairly petty, but, returning to the Christian context, I think there is a genuine danger here. If churches define art purely in terms of revealing beauty, then they will only welcome artists who want to reveal beauty. On the other hand, they will unconsciously alienate artists who have a slightly different raison d’être. Furthermore, when artists then start to dredge the murkier aspects of human experience, they will be totally excluded, as that is not what faithful, sanctified art is about.
And of course, what will happen, will be that churches will only encourage, resource, fund and promote the artists who quite blatantly reveal beauty, and because beauty is so subjective, this will quickly descend into kitsch- simple, uplifting melodies, pictures of lambs, rivers and doves, and films with lots of soft focus shots of people smiling. In other words, fireworks. And these may have an instant, superficial appeal, and they may elicit the odd ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’, but they’re not really art, and they won’t do any of the things that art can do.
But, with all that said, I know I risk overstating my point as I know that art must have some connection with beauty. What a quandary!
So, to try to find some clarity in the matter, ever since that fireworks night, I have taken it upon myself to talk to some of the Christian artists who I know about this topic and see what they think. Some have shared some of their thoughts with me, which will be passed off as my own in the next few weeks. Three of them- Benjamin Harris, David Benjamin Blower and Ally Gordon have put pen to paper (or more likely, finger to keyboard) to share their ideas in a more direct form.
Therefore, we will start 2017 with a thorough examination of this question: Is art really all about beauty? I’d love to hear your thoughts too.
And hopefully there’ll be fireworks.
(For the next post in our ‘Beauty and Art’ series, simply click here)
Jonny Mellor is a rapper, a writer, and the director of Sputnik.