Recently, I was asked to speak on the topic “Art vs. Hunger” to a fellow group of philanthropists. The topic required me to explain why regarding why I would give money to artistic endeavors when there are so many other possible positive uses for the funds. The gathered group took the role of stewardship seriously, and I appreciated the opportunity to expound my views upon the subject. I likewise appreciate this opportunity to set out in an article the argument I made that day regarding the importance of financially supporting the arts, for both ethical and religious reasons.
As philanthropists we daily face a difficult choice: can we give money to any cause (whether “Art” or the “Environment” or “Politics” or thoughtful “Think Tanks”) when we know of the hunger and sickness of people – different in age, sex and nationality but with the same lack of power and the same overriding need – that is literally killing them?
It is an exceptionally important topic for those of us trying to use wisely the time and talent and funds we have been given. For some people, funding Art, even “Christian Art”, is nothing more than a form of entertainment. I hope to ultimately show how, to the contrary, Art is vitally important for what it means to be human, including those who are hungry, and what it means to know God, whether rich or poor, healthy or sick.
Given the summary nature of this article, I will engage in some intellectual shortcuts by making conclusions out of propositions that should require lots of proof before being accepted by you. If at the end of the article you still question some stated conclusions, I would encourage you to read some of the burgeoning writing on the topic to reach your own conclusions.
Let me begin with a note about the structure of this paper. The first half of this essay is an exposition of the ethical argument for supporting the Arts. I believe (as do many people smarter than me) that this argument can be persuade folks with a variety of personal faiths and beliefs – whether religious, social, philosophical, economic or political.
The ethical argument, however, did not lead me to giving time and money to the Arts. I was led to do so by certain religious convictions, rooted in the Christian conception of the Trinity and the Incarnation, which I found even more persuasive. This religious argument for supporting the Arts is set out in the second half of this paper. If you find one argument weak, feel free to jump to the other argument in the paper. If you find both arguments weak, please dismiss this writer’s ability to communicate instead of the arguments!
The Ethical Argument for Supporting the Arts
Belief in Beauty – its existence, its powers, and its relationship to Goodness and Truth –is the underlying reason to support the Arts, whether in painting, sculpture, music, prose, poetry, film, theatre, dance, architecture, and the many other forms that Art takes. In particular, the relationship of Beauty, Truth and Goodness has been observed and acknowledged in the long intellectual tradition of those who have sought to define Beauty, from Aristotle to Augustine to Aquinas to Maritain. It is that relationship that holds the key to why the promotion of Beauty needs our support.
For some of us, Truth must always be nothing more than propositional – “if” this, “then” that. Truth based solely on observable facts. In the boardroom of a Vancouver-based think tank hangs a plaque that reads “If it matters, measure it”. If taken to mean that all that is important can be measured, then what an impoverished life such a conception of Truth would produce. How do you answer the question of “Is Hamlet true?”, “Are the parables in the Bible true”, “is a joke true?”, “Is your spouse’s love for you true?” These questions reveal that Truth can be found (or at least sought) in places propositions alone cannot go. It is not that the propositions are wrong, just insufficient. Truth is more profound than rules and facts.
Beauty is not identical to Truth (contrary to Keat’s famous line in Ode to a Grecian Urn), but Beauty is its closest ally: Beauty causes (usually involuntarily) the desire for Truth by giving us the experience of conviction and certitude through Revelation in the ordinary. We have all experienced that moment in front of a painting, or a stage or perhaps a flower when you are certain, absolutely certain, this is True: that moment when Beauty creates, without itself fulfilling, the desire for and goal of enduring Truth. Beauty comes to us without us having earned it or deserved it, other than our willingness to engage and participate. Beauty leaves us, if we allow it to affect us, with a willingness and desire to work hard to locate and secure Truth.
Likewise, as pointed out in a brilliant book entitled On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry (Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University), Beauty points to Goodness (which importantly includes justice):
Beauty may not be the only thing that produces these results, but it is perhaps the one thing that produces them all simultaneously.
In an age where it is almost impossible to convince one another in our culture of any sort of Truth or agree on what is the Good, we can at least achieve some consensus among ourselves about what is Beautiful. While Truth and Goodness can seem lost because of our neglect, Beauty (which does not rely on us to exist) still guides us toward those two ideals. Beauty, as in the past with all sorts of civilizations, is the best guide to reveal the Truth and the Good.
How does Beauty affect Goodness? Let’s look to the problem of Hunger. Hunger at its core is not about the lack of food, or even the lack of the distribution of food. It is about injustice. There is plenty of food in this world to feed everyone. Distribution problems can be overcome. But most aid agencies realize that the problem will not be addressed until:
All of these requirements to perceive, to avoid self-centeredness, a willingness to create and support ideals, a desire to pursue ideals, and an acknowledgement of the universal are all borne, cultivated, disciplined and encouraged by an encounter and response to Beauty.
It is an important aside to note that the word “fair” is used both as an aesthetic term (“Fair are the meadows, fairer still the woodlands”) as well as the measure of Justice (“fair trade” and “fair for all”). This is not a coincidence. The root of the word is “fit” in both the sense of “pleasing to the eye” and “firmly placed”. The main attribute of a beautiful object is its symmetry as aesthetically defined. Likewise, Justice is often defined as having “symmetry of everyone’s relations to one another”, a balance shown in the scales of Justice or Aristotle’s definition of Justice as a perfect cube. The links between these concepts run deep and wide.
And so, for these ethical reasons, Art is worthy of support: not to the exclusion of the myriad of social ills, but in order to address that injustice and so many others. And along the way Art can change the hearts and minds of an entire culture, as it has for millennia. Art is not antagonistic to addressing hunger. Perhaps the terms Beauty and Hunger should be combined as “A Hunger for Beauty” because, as Oscar Wilde noted, “Man is hungry for Beauty. There is a void.”
This is why Steve Bell sings “Why Do We Hunger for Beauty?” It is a real hunger, one for which the appetite is completely legitimate and needed to transform what it means to be human. At the end of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot the Prince says: “I believe the world will be saved by Beauty.” This ethical argument for Beauty opens up the possibility how this might occur.
And when people cease to believe that there is good and evil
Only beauty will call to them and save them
So that they still know how to say: this is true and that is false.
“One More Day” from New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001 by Czeslaw Milosz
The Religious Argument for Supporting the Arts
In his “Letter to Artists” (n.14, April 4, 1999), Pope John Paul II writes that "Human beings, in a certain sense, are unknown to themselves. Jesus Christ not only reveals God, but fully reveals man to man. In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself. All believers are called to bear witness to this; but it is up to you, men and women who have given your lives to art, to declare with all the wealth of your ingenuity that in Christ the world is redeemed: the human person is redeemed, the human body is redeemed, and the whole creation which, according to St. Paul, 'awaits impatiently the revelation of the children of God' (Rom 8:19), is redeemed. The creation awaits the revelation of the children of God also through art and in art. This is your task. Humanity in every age, and even today, looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny."
In this next portion of this essay, I want to again examine the central relationship Beauty has with Goodness and Truth, but this time from a Christian theological perspective. My conclusion is a simple but stunning one: Beauty is the starting point for both a person’s understanding of God and our growing relationship of becoming more Christ-like. Beauty matters because God is Beautiful and He made us Beautiful. In order to proclaim and live in the reality of a Christian worldview, we must again believe that Beauty matters.
God is Beauty
The first Chapter of Genesis emphasizes how God repeated after an act of creation that He “saw that it was “Tove.” In the NIV the Hebrew word “Tove” is translated “God saw that it was good”. But “Tove” is also synonymous in Hebrew for “Beauty” – it is the word used to describe Rebecca’s extreme beauty. “God saw all that he had made, and it was very beautiful.” This is a fundamental Truth of Scripture that has been lost in many Christian denominations. And as we are part of God’s creation, made in His image, His likeness, described by God as “Beautiful”, can we take the short step to seeing that God Himself is intrinsically “Beautiful”? When I say God is beautiful, I do not mean it is merely one of His many attributes but rather the very essence of God is Beauty as He is Goodness and Truth.
I should quickly clear up what might be misunderstood. Karl Barth was always worried that we attribute any transcendental to God because it might make God answerable to the Transcendental rather than the other way around. Barth says that “God is not beautiful in the sense that God shares in an idea of Beauty superior to Him, so that to know Beauty is to know him as God.” Instead, it is because He is God that he is beautiful, and He is “the basis and standard of everything that is beautiful and all ideas of the beautiful” (Church Dogmatics 2/1p. 656).
Well, this may seem like scholarly splitting of hairs, but the gist is correct: God is God and we must be careful when using labels to describe Him. Barth suggests that God’s beauty is part of His glory, and is an explanation of God’s glory. It is the “form” of God’s glory – which attracts rather than repels, which redeems, persuades, convinces, and evokes joy. This means that some definitions of Beauty will need to change: if the definition is not consistent with God, then it is wrong.
If God is Beauty, then how does that change our understanding of Beauty? First and foremost, we need to recognize that a Trinitarian God shows specific attributes of Beauty. The beauty of God is the beauty of the ecstatic love each Person of the Trinity has for one another and humility toward one another as Father, Son and Spirit. It is not a static beauty but dynamic. von Balthasar insists that to discover God’s beauty we need to look to the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as His life displays God’s love in its clearest form. This means that the person of Jesus plays a pivotal role in defining Beauty. Beauty is also linked with outgoing love – a central role of the Spirit.
If we look to the Trinitarian character of God as defining Beauty, we realize that beauty and the infinite (or sublime) must be joined. Much of modern and post modern art has tried to separate the two. But the “infinite” can seem daunting unless we see it as being part of the life of God. That is why Rusty Reno said “we are not overpowered by God as sublime truth; we are romanced by God as pure beauty”.
If Beauty is defined as being Trinitarian God-like, then we know that created beauty is good, that physical matter matters. Again, at the beginning of Genesis God tells us that His creation is good, it is beautiful. We must never (as Plato and others sought) to try to leave the physical behind to achieve some concept of beauty that is not physical. We also know that beauty treasures the Other, just as God treasured the beauty of His created order. This means, among other things, that created beauty does not have to mimic God’s beauty. Any perception of creation as reflecting God’s beauty needs to take seriously the corruption of creation and the Holy Spirit’s role in revealing what beauty reflects God.
The second implication about a Beauty that is God-like, arises from recognizing Jesus Christ is the one in whom creation has reached its ultimate goal. If Jesus is the measure of divine beauty, then He is also the measure, the culmination, the climax of created beauty. In Jesus, we see divine beauty and created beauty (with wounded and deformed beauty) coming together as one.
The third implication appears as we remember that the Holy Spirit realizes now in our midst what has been achieved by Jesus, thereby anticipating the future. This means created beauty is full of promise, not nostalgia. It has a sense of future glory, not paradise lost. The Beauty we apprehend now is a Spirit-given foretaste of the Beauty still to come, that languishes in bondage to corruption.
Fourth, we delight in a diversity of particulars as God does. God liberates things to be the particular things they were created to be. No bland sameness for God. Fifth, beauty is by grace excessive, uncontainable, abundant. Sixth, beauty elicits desire-desire to dwell with and enjoy that which is beautiful. God evokes this in us.
To know that God is Beautiful places on each of us the imperative to uphold, support and strengthen the role Beauty wishes to have in our culture, our world.
God is Truth
We assume, as Christians, that we are to pursue Truth, for Jesus is Truth and the Truth will set us free. But how do we in fact approach Truth? For most of us, our worldview assumptions, including those regarding Truth, are based on ideas that informed the Enlightenment as much as the teaching of Jesus. From Rene Descartes to Immanuel Kant down to the 20th Century, it was assumed that to understand who we are and what we are, we needed to start with an understanding of Truth. And that form of Truth was limited to analytical truth. History has taught us that for the past three hundred years if one starts an understanding of life and meaning with the pursuit of Truth, it means never attaining it. And much of the intellectual post-modern reaction is about the rejection of the project to seek Truth at all.
But what if Truth can only be understood within the framework of the Good, which can principally be revealed by Beauty? Immanuel Kant’s trilogy was, chronologically, “Critique of Pure Reason” (to seek Truth), then Critique of Practical Reason (to seek the Good) and then Critique of Aesthetic Judgement (to seek the Beautiful). Kant reasoned that we needed to know what was True before we could discern what was Good, and from that develop an aesthetic sensibility to perceive Beauty. The great Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar inverted this inquiry by starting with an examination of the Beautiful (“the Glory of the Lord”), then the Good (“Theo-Drama”) and then Truth (“Theo-Logic”). This inversion is more than mixing chairs up in some form of musical chairs-instead it turns the whole search for Truth on its proper path.
People are skeptical about Christianity because they start with what Truth demands (which demands are actually based on faith), but should instead start with Beauty. Unless this order is approached correctly, it will fail most of the time. As stated in the previous section, Truth can be found (or at least sought) in places that propositional claims alone cannot go. We should not be surprised that strains of North American Christianity that reduce religious belief to propositional statements and admonitions of morality result in many people seeking to find Truth elsewhere. It is not that the propositions are wrong, just insufficient. It was John Calvin who stated that “morality is the enemy of true religion” because it replaces relationship with rules. Truth is more profound than rules and facts. But that discovery will occur only if approached after one seeks Beauty.
von Balthazar claims that Truth is not based on the accumulation of facts but rather a revelation from which Truth can be discerned. Like Polanyi, von Balthasar argues that only in the course of committed action is it possible to reflect on the Truth of what that action has called us to do. And how do we commit to an action we do not know to be True? The answer is by being attracted to the action, seeing it as Beautiful. von Balthasar insisted for theological purposes we will never come to affirm the Truth of Revelation unless we first perceive it as Beautiful. To admit that something is Beautiful is to also assert that we are attracted to it. People do not usually let themselves be argued into recognizing that something is beautiful: rather it is a matter of seeing it as beautiful. Or as it is often said of Christian faith-it is caught, not taught. Apologetics should really be less about arguing and more about showing. In other words, proofs of God’s existence won’t do much good for those who do not already perceive the Beauty of the Revelation from the outset.
But could the Enlightenment search for Truth get us to understand our proper relationship with God and our fellow man as well? No. By starting with an isolated ego rather than as a person with and in relationship with God and others, ultimate reality is rendered inaccessible by Kant and his fellow Enlightenment thinkers, confining us to a world of phenomena and of propositions. Kant asks us to be Good because we are to act AS IF we were free, AS IF God existed, AS IF our souls are immortal. But ethical action requires a belief in real freedom and real responsibility. So Kant never really can lead us to ethical action. With respect to Beauty, Kant ends up stressing the “serenity of disengaged contemplation of the sublime, in place of the engaged moment of rapture when the soul directly encounters the beautiful.
Let’s be careful: there is a difference between the Enlightenment’s disengaged worldly beauty and Divine glory (kalon of Plato and the kabod of the Old Testament). While they both have the crucial feature of enrapturing us, the perception of the Hebrew kabod to Israel results in mission (sending) whereas Platonic beauty tends to terminate in static contemplation. Beauty should result in mission, and mission result in drama (action): the action of our “yes” or “no” to God and more importantly, God’s everlasting “yes” to us.
von Balthasar saw that the Enlightenment and its consequences in the 20th Century resulted in the loss of Beauty as ever present (as we moved from rural nature to urban architecture that pointed only to Man), as a goal, as a discipline to study and even as a belief was undermining the meaning of life itself. In his masterpiece The Glory of the Lord, von Balthasar wrote the following:
“Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the True and the Good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word that both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer fostered by religion, Beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face that threatens to become incomprehensible to men. We no longer dare to believe in Beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters [Goodness and Truth] without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at [Beauty’s] name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admit it or not- can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love" (Glory of the Lord, p. 18).
von Balthasar argued that without Beauty, Truth is almost impossible to discern as we do not have Beauty as a guide, and Goodness becomes merely self interest. Again, we are called to uphold, support and strengthen the role Beauty ought to play in our lives and the lives of our neighbours.
We are Made in God’s Image
We need to remember that as Genesis tells us, humans are beautiful in God’s eyes. Sin so pollutes our lives and perceptions that many people see humanity as ugly. But just as a beautiful ancient sculpture – Vinus de Milo, Winged Victory – retains its beauty even after the accidents of history, so too we retain God’s judgment that we are beautiful despite sin that has tarnished us. Many artists have given up on any concept of Beauty, and especially as it relates to humans. Look at Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Bacon, etc. and you will find that in much of 20th Century art humanity is distorted, dismembered, defamed. No reflection and certainly no glorification. This is at the heart of much criticism for and against modern and postmodern art.
The history of Art recognizes this privileged position as being made in the image of God. From Homeric times to Gustave Courbet, in fact, Western art explored the human experience of life as “beautiful”, reserving places of particular privilege to the dignity people achieve through suffering. Figuration and narrative recognize humanism rooted in the Christian dogma of Incarnation, which gives dignity and importance to every manifestation of life, even pain.
The new interaction of beauty and vulnerability, indeed, echoes the biblical conviction that “God will not despise a shattered, humiliated heart. The focus on the human body, long avoided in early Christian art as a way to avoid pagan art influences, came to the forefront with Francis of Assisi, whose deeply human style of Christian life put a premium on emotional and physical experience. We should remember that, for most of the last twenty centuries, art was religious, fashioned for the liturgy and for personal devotion. The images it offered were thus “sacred”, drawing meaning from the system of faith within which the images functioned. The countless representations of the Madonna with child, for instance-or of historical subjects like the baptism of Christ-gave the human figure a centrality and dignity explicitly related to the dogma of Incarnation.
This particular understanding of Beauty, with an acknowledgment of brokenness but also of the transcendent, is particular to the Christian understanding of God.
Over the past century or so a separate concept of anti-Beauty has developed. Humanity has been reduced by much of popular culture from being children of God to chemical processes with no transcendent value. At a given point in time, the long Christian tradition of seeing ourselves as imago deo died, and the image, which Western civilization had perpetuated in art since the Middle Ages, became obsolete.
Not only religious subjects, but images of free human beings committed to the good and inspired by Someone or something above or outside their own interests, gave way to more “modern” images: of doubt; of fragmentation of the individual; of conditioning factors that diminish or even annihilate humankind. It is a sad statement that The Scream by Edvard Munch is one of the most iconic works of art in the 20th Century. Part of the Christian task is to re-establish the presence of and argument for Beauty to combat the anti-Beauty around us all.
Jacques Barzun the famous former professor of Art at Columbia University who wrote the surprising 800 page best seller From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present stated in his Bollingen lecture series “The Use and Abuse of Art”:
“Nowadays anything put up for seeing or hearing is only meant to be taken in casually. If it holds your eye and focuses your wits even for a minute, it justifies itself and there’s an end of it…The Interesting has replaced the Beautiful, the Profound, the Moving.” He goes on to make the point that contemporary art cannot both claim to be mostly casual and humourous and still an important institution. “Destruction by novelty becomes an incessant function of [modern] art.”
It ought not to be this way. Beauty, the very essence of God and of humanity, should not be derided but exalted. And that requires patrons. We must learn to train ourselves to reading contemporary art Christologically. Art has become so dreadful precisely because contemporary man denies that he has been made in the image of Christ.
So when we ask where our dollars should go, and to what good goals should we commit ourselves, can there be a more important task than to once again claim that Beauty exists and should be honored? That Goodness is important and can be lived with the guiding hand of Beauty? And that Truth can be found only through Goodness?
Can we as Christians allow a culture to claim not only that there is no God but that there is no Beauty? Or will we rise to the task of again allowing all of humanity to cry out “Tove” in its search for the purpose of the Incarnation: to learn what it means to be fully God and fully Human.
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
East Coker, The Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot
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