The importance of Beauty
A lot has been said and written about beauty over the last few years. Whether it is Roger Scrutton throwing a tantrum about Modern Art in general, or the Turner Prize specifically, or Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care movement (which I fully endorse and do what I can to participate, as it were) Or even evangelicals lamenting that beauty is in dire straights. There has been a lot of concern expressed about the status of beauty and whether or not it is in crisis. A lot of people feel beauty needs defending.
In a world wrought with violence and destruction as much as it is currently, beauty is more important than ever. In a world that values utility, “form over function”, beauty is more needed than ever. Especially as we seem to apply “utility” to our humanity more and more.
(Ironically, “form over function”, as a derisive jab, is a twisted (lack of) understanding of the Modern architect’s mantra of “form (ever) follows function”. I suggest “lack of” understanding because the charge is usually hurled at Modern architects and designers for supposedly favoring aesthetics, pre-empting its function, as if utility is meant to be plain and banal.)
Defending what is greater than ourselves
I am less concerned about defending beauty and I have no conception of beauty in crisis. I believe that is a bit of hubris to believe, 1) that we are capable of destroying beauty and 2) we have the capacity, never mind the ability, to defend beauty. Beauty is not a physical object. Beauty is the transcendent understanding of the incarnate. If God, as if it were even possible, had not created anything, would there still be beauty? As a Christian I have to say, yes. There is beauty intrinsic to the Trinitarian relationship. So at the most fundamental level, as an attribute and expression of God, without humans ever having a chance to affect beauty, beauty will always exist.
How do we believe we are capable of destroying beauty? And how do we believe we can defend beauty? Can we defend God? We can defend our faith, but we cannot defend God. God is fully capable of defending himself. As such, I believe beauty can defend itself quite capably. By extension, as created in the image of God with a creative nature intrinsic to our being, we will always be capable of creating and discovering beauty. Everyone, Christian or not, has been given a measure of faith.
Let’s explore this idea of creating and discovering beauty a bit more. Are we capable of creating as God creates? Not exactly. We cannot form clay and breathe life into a new human. But we are created in God’s image. We do reflect God’s creative process when we make something new. As Georges Seurat sings in the song “Finishing the hat” from the musical Sunday in the Park with George, “Look, I made a hat where there never was a hat!” In making something new, in the way that we are capable, we do breathe new life into a new form, whether the drawing of a hat out of charcoal and paper, or a physical hat out of fabric or felt.
But then there is also discovering beauty. The problem I have with people trying to define beauty—by saying there is an objective standard by which we are to judge what is and isn’t beauty—is that as soon as we define it, we limit it. There is a Buddhist saying that goes something like, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” The point being that as soon as something can be defined, there is nothing left to discover. Or as C. S. Lewis puts it (as quoted in Jill Carattini’s excellent blog post at RZIM, “The Death of God”):
“My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence? The incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not.”
My problem with Roger Scrutton and his ilk is not that I disagree that beauty matters. Beauty does matter. It is not that I disagree with what they consider beauty. Everything they find beautiful, I also find beautiful. My problem is that they limit what can be beautiful. That “this” (whatever “objective standard” is deduced, agreed upon, and quantified) is beauty and that is all there is. Anything outside of this boundary, beyond this definition, external to this standard, is not beauty. To me this is like defining God, like meeting Buddha. Something that needs to be ‘shattered’.
This is where I believe we have the capacity to redeem. Not in imposing a standard or definition. Not in taking something over, taking back, or co-opting. But in rethinking and reimagining what is beauty. Beauty is something that is beyond what we find as beauty. As a divine attribute, how can it be anything else? Therefor, when God sees us in our pre-redemtpive state, he sees us beautifully. In all our ugly sin, he finds beauty, beauty worth saving. That is also beauty.
We have the same capacity. We can find beauty where no one else does. The stone that was rejected became the cornerstone. How can we look at the ugliness of the cross and not see the beauty of salvation? We can see things beautifully. In this sense, we can redeem art. We can examine things to find the good. Look for beauty, not just where people don’t expect it, but in things that people think aren’t beautiful. Don’t let someone’s definition of beauty constrain you. There is Beauty to be found everywhere. We just have to look and be willing to see.