One occasionally hears complaints from Christians, that art these days is ugly where it ought to be beautiful. Unsettling installations, chaotic abstractions, unsavoury juxtapositions of images and symbols; all seemingly calculated to jar and upset. Why would Christians be joining in with these gloomy trends? The question was posed to me last week, “shouldn’t they be making work of beauty, in order to point people towards God, who is beauty itself?”
I must say, the person who asked me this didn’t think so, but was relaying to me a sentiment brought to him by perplexed others. I have occasionally met with these questions myself, but less often the more I go (perhaps I have been gradually sorted out of those circles). I hope I’ll be forgiven if I seem to be knocking down a straw man. Perhaps, in that vain process, we might also stumble over some useful thoughts on the grotesque and the beautiful in faithful art.
To begin with, I find the idea that upsetting themes and images ought to be avoided very puzzling coming from Christians, of all people, who gather each week around the imagery of ancient Roman torture and execution instruments. We who claim to follow the crucified God (and have done for nearly two millennia before Nietzsche was causing people to faint in their drawing rooms) ought really to be unshockable by now; though by no means un-grieveable. The notion that dark meditations are unfitting for Christian artists, raises more questions about the theology of the questioners than the faith of the artists.
I certainly don’t think that all aesthetic grimness is justified or, worse still, that beauty is somehow theologically deficient. “By no means!” How then shall we navigate the grotesque and the beautiful as artists of faith? Since I’m no aesthetic theorist, I’ll confine myself to considering some examples I have admired (and aped), and to exploring their theological imperatives and justifications.
The prophets of both testaments have always been my model as an artist, and prophets are called to tear down and to build up. In this spirit I see both grimness and beauty coming into play. I notice the former emerging in several ways.
Firstly, grotesque art often speaks of the things which are, but which cannot be spoken; because they are taboo, or inexpedient, or unpleasant, or ugly. Sentiments like doubt, shame, terror, lust or hate, for example. This is a task which saves the whole, because the whole is poisoned by the unexpressed and unheard suffering within. As regards the individual, the psychologist Carl Jung frankly called this “confession.” Within a community or a society, it is artists among a few other groups, who make this possible. Consider the Psalms; ancient songs for the community which often gave voice to doubt (77:9), despair (22:1), vengeful hate (137:9), self loathing (22:6) and so on.
Secondly, grotesque art emerges when artists attempt to deconstruct the powers and principalities. When power structures become wicked and oppressive, it is the job of their spin doctors, propagandists, publicists and architects to ensure that what remains seen is the image of legitimacy, stability and righteousness. The task of the prophetic artist is to re-present the powers as they really are (as best the artist can discern). What often results is a horrifying image of something we are used to seeing as orderly and harmonious. This is all the more jarring when we find that these are structures that we ourselves are passively leaning on or invested in. Consider John’s re-presentation of the Roman Empire as a diabolical and blasphemous dragon (Rev 13). Or Jeremiah, whose answer to King Zedekiah’s triumphalist propaganda was to walk about Jerusalem wearing an oxen’s yoke (Jer 27).
It must be added that, while the prophets often contended for the people against the powers, it was not beneath them to critique the people too, who were very capable of capitulating to the powers and becoming a poisonous power in themselves (as we plainly still are). Such was the message of Hosea’s work, which makes Tracy Emmin’s Unmade Bed look quite benign. Had he done what he did today, there would surely be no end to the disapproving pastoral visits.
Underlying all this is a theology which is cross-shaped to the last; a theology that doesn’t recoil from suffering but boldly steps into it. The history changing event, of the incarnation of God into human life, human suffering and human death, is also an ongoing practice… a way of being in the world. We are told that, if we want to follow, we will need to take our crosses with us, and the cross is a step into the sufferings of the world, not an off-the-shelf escape from them.
The route to resurrection is death, and so it is not in spite of all this grimness, but rather through it that beauty triumphs. In the work that I have admired, I think beauty has emerged in roughly two sorts of ways. The first I will find difficult to articulate, and the second is, I think, the concrete practice of living toward that hazy imagination.
A good starting point would be Theodor Adorno, who once wrote this:
“The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. [ . . . ] Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day, in the messianic light.” (Minima Moralia, maxim 153)
This is what Walter Brueggemann calls hopeful imagination – the task of creating encounters where a wholly beautiful future can be imagined. Christian hope is anticipatory. We are not forever looking backwards at a merely mechanistic atonement in the past, nor are we looking sideways for momentary escape from the experience of the present. Christian hope looks, ultimately, forward, to the renewal of creation, to the healing of the nations, and to a time when God’s Goodness resides fully among us. Every glimpse of beauty is a glimmer of this end, a present manifestation of a future which will ultimately swallow up and transform a suffering and broken present, and the faithful artist works to cultivate this sort of anticipatory imagination.
Of course this beauty comes, necessarily, with suffering: with the pathos of anticipation… the intensified longing for what will be revealed, while still surrounded by, and experiencing, the suffering, brokenness and incompleteness of the present. Even in (or perhaps especially in) works of utterly unclouded beauty, like Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, the pathos is only all the more present in the listener, who listens from the place of his or or her own broken and incomplete experience. Perhaps this is why authentic beauty in the present age is so often met with tears.
On the other hand, work which offers a moment of escape from the world’s ills cannot be, if I may say so, Christian, in that respect at least. It offers escape from the very story we are called to deeply inhabit – the story of God’s suffering creation, which is to be redeemed.
The second way in which I see beauty emerge from faithful artistic practice, is simply by making the world that we and our neighbours inhabit more beautiful. Of all the work I’ve created myself, I am perhaps most delighted with a natural slate floor, a coffee table, a good loaf of bread. These are not things which aim to transport the heart and mind elsewhere, but to make life here and now more beautiful, and to refashion it toward what it must one day become. We badly need to recover the thought of people like William Morris and John Ruskin, who believed everyone should live amongst things well-made, useful and beautiful: gardens that delight, architecture that lifts, furniture that charms, objects wise in form and function. The manner in which people today are housed in shoe boxes and high rises, betrays the fact that we no longer see the image of God in people, we see, rather, populations to be managed by governments. The fact that most objects of use today are neither well made, nor carry the wise human touch of the craftswoman and the craftsman, betrays the fact that we no longer see life in its fullness, but consumer markets for industries. It is the work of the artists, artisans, chefs, bakers, gardeners, builders, joiners, dancers, singers and poets to make life on the ground more beautiful – right there in the places and communities where they actually are. To leave this task to governments and multinationals while we busy ourselves making escapist art to fling meaninglessly into the placeless glitz of cyberspace would be a very sad abandonment of our calling indeed.
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This is one shoddy sketch of why faithful art may well be grotesque, or beautiful, or both. Faithful art lives in the real tension between the cross and the age to come, between suffering and hope. It shouldn’t surprise us too much that the deeper we sit into the biblical story, the more universally resonant our work will be. And never more so than today.
It is, I think, for such reasons that artists of faith are no longer content (if they ever were) to make cosmic tourism brochures for escapist religious institutions. A cruciform people will make cruciform work.
I’m told that some have begun to wonder what sort of art will survive when creation is renewed? It is suggested that perhaps the beautiful will remain, and the grotesque, naturally, will pass away. Maybe so, but the Kingdom of God, as we know well, is in the habit of turning our categories upside-down. The resurrected Jesus still carries his wounds. Perhaps it’ll be so with many things, that the grim marks of suffering, trauma and abuse might themselves be redeemed and turned into a mark of beauty, while triumphal greatness waits outside the gates.
David Benjamin Blower is a 6-string theologian, writer and podcaster from Birmingham, UK.