Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Beauty and Truth

As the new academic year approaches, I am renewing my intention to write regularly about art, faith, culture, and the places where they meet. Actually, I have been writing all along, but not here. Instead, I've been working on a book about exactly those things, which I've been calling Sanctifying Art. Lately, I've been a bit stuck on the book, so it occurred to me to return to this short form in hopes that it will help me get unstuck as well as inviting others into the conversation.

One of the topics I've been wrestling with is the place of beauty in so much theological writing about art. It seems to me that many in the church assume that art and beauty automatically go together. For artists, on the other hand, beauty is often not the point of what they are doing, or even a desired outcome. For instance, in "The Sublime is Now", his essay for the December, 1948 issue of The Tiger's Eye, Barnett Newman dismissed any attempt to define beauty, whether in nature or elsewhere, as an outmoded question. He wrote,
I believe that ... some of us ... are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it. The question that now arises is ... how can we be creating a sublime art? We are reasserting [humanity's] natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions.
For Newman and some of his contemporaries, art was about an encounter with the absolute ground of being, which he called the sublime. He was more interested in truth than in beauty.

Since then, of course, many artists have denied that art has any concern with the problem of the sublime, either. Rather than evoking exalted emotions, many artworks today evoke revulsion, confusion, or outrage. Sometimes, the artworks that arouse these baser emotions do so out of the artist's passion for some issue of social justice; other times, they are created out of a desire to shock an audience that is perceived as numb and complacent into feeling anything at all. Such art may be broadly described as prophetic, calling the viewer to action through the uncomfortable truths that it expresses.

Still, some artists do aspire to make objects of beauty. And for those with other aspirations, beauty is often an unintentional yet not undesirable side-effect. It is not that I think that art cannot or ought not be beautiful. It is rather that I have noticed that those who expect to find beauty when they encounter contemporary art often walk away outraged and disappointed. It would be more helpful to the church and to artists if the we began to look for truth, rather than beauty, when we look at art.

No comments:

Post a Comment