Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief via Creative Commons
Well, that’s how to start a new year! Thank you so much to Ben, Dave, Alastair and Huw for your reflections on beauty. I’ve personally found them very helpful and I know I’m not the only one. All that’s left to do is to summarise and then end with the obvious question- so what?
Some Starting Definitions
We’ve seen some very helpful definitions of this elusive word: beauty. Ally noted Umberto Eco’s conclusion that we use this word simply ‘to indicate something we like’. Surely, this is how the word is commonly used, but Ally pointed us towards a more objective grounding. The classical Greek notion of beauty as a system for formal aesthetics, reliant on symmetry and proportion and the like, is surely helpful to a degree (which I suppose would relate to other disciplines in the conventions of melody, grammar, metre, or even the craftsmanship of Dave Blower’s slate floor or coffee table), however, as Ally again pointed out, probably not as much as the other Greek concept of beautiful things being ‘horaios’ or ‘of the hour’.
Contemporary relevance as well as purely aesthetic considerations must be considered then when we think of beauty. But we shouldn’t stop there. Our insightful friends pointed us to consider whether beauty should be considered even more broadly.
Beauty as a glimpse of the new creation
Ally again got the ball rolling. Isaiah’s apparent foot fetish (Isaiah 52:7) suggests that biblically we should possibly look at the redemptive power of something, rather than its actual appearance, when considering its beauty. But even more than this, is there an indication in Scripture that beauty can be understood by Christians, as an anticipating of the new creation in our present experience? Dave Blower then took up the baton on this one and followed this thought through with one of my favourite paragraphs of the series:
‘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.’
But here’s where things get really interesting. NT Wright, Andy Crouch and others have made much of the continuity that will exist between this creation and the version 2.0 that Jesus unveils when he returns, and they’ve been quick to bring art into it. Perhaps, they’ve mused, works of art from our times will make it into the galleries, theatres and spotify playlists of glory. The safe example they always trawl out for this one is Johann Sebastian Bach. Surely, Bach will be in heaven.
Now, I must confess I’ve never found this idea very compelling partly because I’m presently making a conscious effort to resist the inevitable pull towards classical music and middle age, and partly because it all seems a bit Eurocentric, and partly because it still strikes me as just a bit silly! Well, whether Johann gets to warm up for Metallica in New Wembley or not, this way of thinking seems to have led people to conclude (which probably wasn’t the intention of Monsieurs Crouch and Wright) that only nice, pleasant and ‘beautiful’ work will make it through the flames, so Christian artists should focus on this type of work now. However, there is a problem with this, as David Blower pointed out with his parting shot. The Bible doesn’t map out the new heavens and new earth in much detail, but we can bank on one thing that will be there- Jesus’ scars! The lamb will look as if he has been slain (Rev 5:6) and Jesus’ new creation body was (and presumably still will be) marked by the wounds of his crucifixion (Jn 20:25,27).
So if the New Creation is seen as the realm in which we can anchor our concepts of beauty, we are left with the strange realisation that one of the few features of the New Heavens and New Earth we can be sure of is partially restored scar tissue, graphically reminding us forever of one of the most horrendous torture devices in human history.
So, the least I can say on the matter is that beauty is not as simple as it may seem (it certainly isn’t about looking or sounding pretty). Perhaps then it is not unfair to add that we may need some different lenses through which to understand what art is and what artists can justifiably be aiming to achieve through their work.
So What Else Could Art Be About?
Well it could be about:
- influencing nature (ancient cave paintings- Ben Harris. Although this is possibly slightly animistic for Christian art practice!)
- forging community identity (totem poles- Ben Harris)
- preservation of the past (Egyptian art- Ben Harris)
- exposing the unacknowledged ugliness we have come to value (the Old Testament Prophets- Dave Blower)
- Giving expression to the unexpressed and unspoken suffering within (the Psalms- Dave Blower)
- Deconstructing both heavenly and earthly rulers and authorities (Revelation- Dave Blower)
Yes, language! This last one may seem most ambiguous, but Huw Evans puts the case well that this is the fundamental purpose of art and helpfully also tells us what he means:
‘Art is fundamentally about language (hear me, language, which is not the same as speech or words) and about communicating emotion, or rather what R G Collingwood refers to as the ‘emotional charge’. This is not quite ‘how I feel’, as emotions are too primal for sharing directly, but is the ‘power’ of the emotion, which can then be experienced by another person.’
So after all of this spilt ink, what does it matter? I think that there are important lessons to learn here for artists and people who wouldn’t call themselves artists.
For the artist, firstly we must recognise that there is a quality we reach for in our work that can reflect something of the order that God has built into creation, and that he will illuminate further in his new creation. Whether we see this in terms of formal aesthetic rules or meeting more contemporary norms, we need to study our crafts, learn our crafts, and ultimately master our crafts, aiming for excellence in all we do. Whatever beauty is, it cannot circumnavigate that sort of work.
Secondly though, we must not let a pursuit of beauty lead us to make work that fails to connect with a fallen world. As Dave put it, we cannot ‘make cosmic tourism brochures for escapist religious institutions’. We cannot shy away from the ugliness of the world and our task of exposing its true horror. As Flannery O’Connor once advised writers (and the advice carries across the disciplines):
The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience (The Fiction Writer and His Country).
If we can present Jesus’ smiles and twinkling eyes, but we cannot unflinchingly portray his scars through our work, we are not doing our job (and we are certainly not pulling the age to come into the present). ‘A cruciform people will make cruciform work.’ (Thanks Dave, this is my new catchphrase!)
Finally for those who wouldn’t consider themselves artists, with a special leaning towards church leaders. If we want to serve artists, we need to understand what it is that they are trying to do. The artists in your church may not dream of creating pretty pictures that could happily hang in your church coffee shop. They may not want to make songs that would be safe to let your toddler go to sleep to. They may not want to write stories where everyone lives happily ever after. They may not even be very interested in beauty as a guiding concept. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, they’re probably just living out their calling. And doing it in an appropriate and godly way.
You may not be able to find a place for their work in your building or even in one of your meetings, but if you can’t appreciate and value what they are doing, they probably won’t find a place in your church.
And they need to find a place in your church. I guess, when push comes to shove, that’s why I think it’s vital that we reflect carefully on such a subject.
Phew! Now we’ve had our say, over to you. How do you see the relationship between art and beauty?
This is the last post in our series on ‘Art and Beauty’-to read the rest of the series, click here).
Jonny Mellor is a rapper, a writer, and the director of Sputnik.