Not too long after Nietzsche seized headlines declaring, “God is dead,” the art community was mulling over the looming demise of “beauty” as well. Are the two related?
In classical Western thought, beauty and God are related but indirectly Building on Greek philosophy left us visions of art as descending from perfect ideals that imply an eternal source or seed of beauty.
Plato declared beauty was “the splendor of truth” and equivalent to everything good, all attributes of divinity that are echoed and replayed in art forms. Art and music are simulations and manifestations of those archetypes but not divine in themselves.
Aristotle found immediate value in the beautiful things in this world, especially in nature and mathematics. He also alluded to the spiritual qualities in beauty as an occurrence “when all parts work together in harmony so that no one part draws unjust attention to itself,” a quality the Apostle Paul bestows in description of the Body of Christ.
Loveliness was imbued with qualities that were discussed, measured and weighed. So Greeks came up with formulas and theories on proportion, balance and tone we still teach in art school.
Most significantly, Greek philosophy undergirded Renaissance painters who created the bulk of Christian art as a back screen for our culture. Absolute perfection that couldn’t be surpassed (in things terrestrial) they labeled “divine” and applied this to artists such as Raphael and their work. So the two worldviews are forever melded, and it’s difficult to extricate the brilliant non-believing Greeks from any discussion of art, beauty and the church to this day.
On to our Sleeping Beauty – does she have rigor mortis yet, or will we send a prince to reawaken her?
Many toxins and circumstances led to the “death” of beauty, or at least her rapid downfall as an art star.
A series of global battles beginning with WWI and attendant weapons of mass destruction darkened the philosophy of Western thinkers. This change of worldview included artists. They struggled with using optimism and beauty as absolutes, especially as both were so entrenched in religious morality.
Dadaists and Surrealists challenged Christianity as well as the “beauty” that supported traditional Western/Christian art. Anarchists and Existentialists based their rejection of God and governments on new scientific discoveries of apparent randomness in the universe.
Max Ernst is a superb example of this. Originally a philosophy student, he switch to painting and through art promoted his Existentialist values. Yet Ernst’s paintings exhibit technical mastery, balance and delicate color use per Classical ideals of beauty.
Artists have problems if they totally reject the science of art that we use to define beauty. All this continues to effect contemporary artists, who are still wary of casting “beauty” too important a role or attributing much significance to her.
How does all this influence the church? Unfortunately we’re stuck between beauty and a hard place. That place is the disintegration of traditional ideals in Western culture, whether for good or evil.
What is “hard” for Christians is the expectation that they remain tradition bound and that classical beauty is always and only “good” as Plato said. Believers working in the arts are damned (only metaphorically) if they do or if they don’t. We are rejected by the larger world if we stick to puffy pink loveliness alone and suspect by the church if the work or subject is unappetizing and unattractive.
The Bible speaks indirectly about the arts, and not so much is written on art as a separate entity, but it has much to say on beauty. Since our theology effects every judgment on life including what we find “beautiful” or not, it’s worth investigating a bit.
Several theologians and art writers have done it well, including great Dutch theologian Geradus Van der Leeuw. Writing extensively on art and the church, he believed that beauty and holiness were entirely interchangeable.
“God speaks through beauty,” and, “God’s Word could never be without the highest beauty,” Van der Leeuw assured us in his “Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art.”
Although the Bible doesn’t claim this outright, scriptural grammar seems to back Van der Leeuw up. Hebrew and Greek words translated as “beauty” in the Bible are used to imply “glory,” “honor,” “renown,” “excellence,” “courage” and even “splendor and majesty” at times.
Of course this is all in the context of a biblical worldview where holiness (or attributes of God) are always beautiful, but the reverse can’t possibly always apply.
Because we live in a fallen planet, mankind has developed some decidedly quirky (actually perverse, putrid and truly vile) ideas about attractiveness and beauty. They won’t ascend even to the pagan Plato’s lofty levels, much less to immortal absolutes. Jeffrey Dahmer probably thought the taste of human flesh is beautiful. Due to the subjectivity of the human race alone we have a serious problem elevating beauty too far over our heads.
Still the Apostle Paul reminds us to “think on what is lovely (beautiful)” as much as possible. Some of these good thoughts will undoubtedly work their way into paintings, songs, dance and so on. But they may not resemble classical works, nor should they … except in one way.
What they named the “Thea mania,” or divine inspiration, is still around 500 years later. Artists who were lauded for approaching this “divine truth” are still thinking this direction, but their visual terminology is very different. So is their work.
Contemporary art, whether Christian or secular, concerns itself more with truth. Unfortunately “truth” doesn’t’ look so hot most of the time. It’s often sad or alarming, at least in this world.
Botticelli in “Calumny of Apelles” presented “Truth” personified as a rather alluring and impossibly gorgeous, nude woman. The metaphor is clear; she has nothing to hide and will always remain “beautiful” – and easy on the eyes. Everyone applauds the lofty type, and perhaps the goddess or beautiful landscape will lead all minds back to Jesus and Heaven, but that’s doubtful.
Even the Greeks saw a problem with personal interpretation of art and possible malice of a creator. Plato’s dialogues associated beauty with truth and goodness, but only in general. He trusted that visual art and music conveyed these principles, since they are more obvious in their message and beautiful without deception. He was suspect about poetry of all things, since beautiful words can so easily “deceive” and beguile, especially the young and impressionable.
So classical painters of Christian subjects had good intentions and created great works of art, but their symbols for beauty and other ideals don’t work so well anymore as a means of straight evangelism.
No longer do we agree on what “beauty” is, much less about what is “good.” We are complex, fragmented, decisively subjective and densely individualized. Americans are proud of those qualities and they manifest in our art as well.
Regardless of all the above, Christians believe God is the source of light, love and everything that could possibly be attributed to the notion of “beautiful.” Richard Viladesau worked out an entire theology of artistic revelation, insisting that God is the “absolute and necessary condition” for even the possible existence of beauty.
We know God is not dead nor has he any intention of expiring, and so beauty stays alive in Him. Every Christian who works in the arts as well as other realms decides for himself which attributes of God he attempts to manifest to the world and when and how he can best do so. One of them is beauty, but it is not the only one.
“Thou art beautiful O my love, as Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army with banners” – Song of Songs 6:4
SOURCES: Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly: “Is ‘Beauty’ an objective reality or only in the eye of the beholder?” Hamilton Reed Armstrong / Aristotle, “Metaphysics” Book XIII / Michael Stratton, “Aristotle’s Definition of Beauty” / “Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty, and Art,” Richard Viladesau.