Is art really all about beauty? image

Is art really all about beauty?

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Recently I was at a gathering of Christian leaders at which we were encouraged to pray for ‘art that releases the beauty and power of heaven’. Now I know that as the head of a Christian arts network, I should have been delighted by such a prayer but instead my mind started whirring. The initial question that popped into my head was ‘is that really what art is for?’ and this was quickly followed by the conclusion that I didn’t think it was, which then hastily led to a sense of concern that this may be more than an issue of pedantry, but that such headlines may actually box in and limit the very people we’re praying to be released.

Of course I am aware that beauty is a pretty important concept when considering art (yes, it was the b-word that caused me most consternation) but in my experience, when trying to explain why artists make art, Christian leaders reach for this word far more quickly than artists do. There is a danger then that if we misunderstand what artists are giving their lives for, we may alienate the very people we think we are valuing.

Or on the other hand, maybe I’ve just got a bee in my bonnet! ‘Only one way to find out’, I mused as I was supposed to be praying, ‘I need to put my contrarian angst to work.’

Therefore, a month or so ago, I began a research project of sorts to test whether my annoyance to this sort of language may be in any way justified. I began to ask some of the Christian artists whom I know and respect about how they would understand the relationship between art and beauty, and then I put their responses on our blog. And then, as a final move, I have summarised their four posts into just one post for Thinktheology, with a neat little application for you, even if art’s not really your thing. (I may be obtuse but at least I’m thorough.)

Here then is the summary of my findings…

Some Starting Definitions

First we need to define this elusive word: beauty. Alastair Gordon 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 Alastair 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 a slate floor or coffee table) however, as Alastair again pointed out, probably not as much as the other Greek concept of beautiful things being ‘horaios’ or ‘of the hour’. (To read Alastair’s complete post, click here)

In layman’s terms, contemporary relevance as well as purely aesthetic considerations must be considered when we think of beauty. But we shouldn’t stop there. My insightful friends pointed us to consider whether beauty should be considered even more broadly.

Beauty as a glimpse of the new creation

Alastair 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 as an anticipation of the new creation in our present experience? David Benjamin 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.

(For David’s post in the series, try here)

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 will unveil 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 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).

While I’m sure we’d all agree that the meaning of those scars is infinitely beautiful, I’m sure you can also see how, in more commonplace terms, this is significantly messing around with how we think of that particular word!

So, the least I can conclude on the matter is that beauty is not as simple as it may seem (it certainly isn’t about looking or sounding pretty or making us think happy thoughts). 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:

  • forging community identity (Native American art);
  • preservation of the past (Ancient Egyptian art. These two are explored by Benjamin Harris in his excellent historical survey of the theme, which you can read here);
  • 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);
  • language…

Yes, language! This last one may seem most ambiguous, but Huw Evans puts forward the case 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.

(And finally for Huw’s whole post, click here)

Well, while we could argue all day about which of these is of paramount importance, surely they could all be worthwhile goals. In fact, some of them are absolutely vital both within and outside the church. Art it seems is not only about beauty. Actually in many ways, it may be that beauty is one of the less helpful ways to define the goal of genuine artistic practice because of its frustratingly slippery nature.

So what?

So after all of this spilt ink, what does it matter? I think that there are important lessons to learn here for artists and non-artists alike, but I’ll confine myself here to speak to those who would like to engage more with the arts, but wouldn’t necessarily call yourself an artist (especially if you happen to lead a church)

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 want to release the beauty and power of heaven. 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 if they don’t find a place in our churches, Christians are unlikely to regain any sort of voice into our culture through the arts.

And if we don’t do that… Well, I think you get the idea.

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