Monday, March 10, 2014

On Beauty and Saving the World

Matthew Adelberg, Rosary, 2013, oil on panel, 9" x 12"
I have noticed that several people have understood my chapter on beauty in Sanctifying Art to mean that I do not believe in beauty. On the contrary, I believe very much in beauty. I believe in beauty as an experience that is so deep and moving that it changes peoples lives. Experiences of transcendent beauty feel like being in the presence of God. Indeed, in my deepest heart I believe with Dostoevsky that beauty can save the world.

Where I part company with so many who write about beauty is, first, in the easy conflation of beauty and art; and, second, in the assumption that certain works of art are intrinsically, undeniably, beautiful while others are simply not. In my book, I wrote extensively about the difference between personal taste and objective judgment, noting that we can like or dislike works of art while simultaneously noting that this does not necessarily correlate with whether those same works of art are well or poorly designed and executed. I also pointed out that, since works of art that one person declares beautiful another person might describe as ugly, it is not possible to say that any given artwork is definitively more beautiful than another.

I do believe that is is possible to say that some works of art are more harmonious than others, that some point more directly than others to transcendence, even that some invite us more intentionally into contemplation of the divine. Such works are more likely to be called beautiful by more people than those, for instance, that reveal human brutality or suffering. Artworks that are disquieting are less likely to be called beautiful even when they reveal important truths, perhaps precisely because the artist has rejected the qualities of harmony, balance, and unity that classically have been associated with beauty, or because they depict situations or persons that society calls ugly,

So can I call any artwork beautiful? Yes, of course I can. This morning, I was reading Makoto Fujimura's blog post, Tears for Fragile Emanations, and saw an image of his astonishing painting, "Charis-Kairos (The Tears of Christ)", from his Four Holy Gospels Project. My first thought was, Oh, it's so beautiful! Without being at all literal, Fujimura's painting evokes sky and water, fragile flowering bushes and rocky cliffs so stalwart that they seem eternal. The thin, transparent layers of paint invite me to look ever more deeply, to wonder what is hidden as well as what is revealed.

Similarly, a small painting that now graces my office, "Rosary" by Matthew Adelberg, is so beautiful to me that I can hardly stand it. The two hands, clasped tightly together around a rosary, suggest both hope and despair, the dirty fingernails and carefully-observed folds of skin at knuckle and joint contrasting with the smooth purity of the beads, the tightness of the grasping fingers held lightly against an infinite field of gold. At once iconic and illusionistic, this painting asks me to consider the palpable reality of both heaven and earth in one, single, gasping breath.

Partly, these two paintings evoke the experience of beauty in me because they exhibit exactly those qualities of harmony, balance, unity and technical skill that the classical aesthetic theorists described as essential elements for a beautiful artwork. Likewise, each of these paintings suggest both ecstasy and pathos, exhibiting the kind of beauty that encompasses the truth of both human suffering and divine transcendence, as suggested by many of those who write about aesthetics theologically.

Finally, however, I experience beauty in these two, very different, paintings because each of them resonates with something in my own experience of life, with my own deep yearnings and memories. I acknowledge that someone else with different taste and life experience might find Fujimura's abstraction utterly meaningless and opaque despite the title that points to Christ. Alternatively, some other person might find Adelberg's finely rendered, rosary-clutching hands trite and sentimental rather than evocative of deeper realities. Indeed, as beautiful as I find both of them, and as much as I would like to believe it, neither of these paintings is likely to save the world.

But Dostoevsky said that beauty would save the world, not art. And this I do believe. To say that something is beautiful is to love it, to cherish it, to feel a thrill in its presence, maybe even, as in the story that Fujimura tells, to give one's life for it. An experience of beauty is an experience of love, of joy, perhaps even of eternity. Just as Holy Communion is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, an experience of beauty is a moment of beatific vision, in which we not only experience the immediate, immanent presence of God but also see the thing we call "beautiful" through God's eyes of love. I'm not entirely sure about the world, but I do know that the experiences of God's love have the power to save me from despair over all that is broken in the world around me. And that is beautiful.


  1. I could not agree more earnestly with this post, and to be an artist and a person of faith... the merger of these identities is the desire to facilitate beautiful glimpses into the presence of God.

  2. Your comment in the next to last line, "the experiences of God's love have the power to save me from despar over all that is broken inn the world around me." Reading that, I am reminded that in an ugly world full of brokeness and pain, heartbreak and despair, the church and it's artists, poets, preachers, singers and saints offer hope that God is doing something beautiful in the midst of all this ugliness. Thank you for this post.

    1. Thank you, Nick, and thanks to Anonymous, too, for reading and responding. It helps me to know that someone is paying attention, not so much to me, but to the issues that I feel are so important for all of us who care about both art and faith.