Cover Story


"STEALING BEAUTY" Continued...

Issue: "What is art?," March 20, 2004

One concept that the whole range of theologians from Thomas Aquinas, the medieval scholastic, to Jonathan Edwards, the American Puritan, agreed on is that beauty is connected to love. When we see a beautiful object-a tree, a waterfall, a painting, even a person-what we feel is a pang of love for that object. Aesthetic experience is a type of love.

For example, watching or reading a tragedy creates, as Aristotle said, a catharsis of pity, that is, of compassion, a species of love. Love goes deeper than the surface, so that we can love those with, as we say, "inner beauty." The more we know someone the more we can love that person, as is true also for our aesthetic response to nature or art. We can love things that, superficially, are homely (a pet bulldog, a run-down cottage, a caricature).

Love can be misdirected, just as beauty can lead us astray, but in its nature, love is profoundly moral. We are to love God, which must include His works. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Aesthetic experience can make us more sensitive to our neighbors, giving us compassion for the human condition and empathy for those other than ourselves, as well as greater appreciation for the universe that God has made.

According to the classic thinkers, love is what ties the absolutes together, the common bond in the good, the true, and the beautiful. Beauty and truth and morality are to serve each other, and the person who loves in a genuine way has them all.

A Way out, and in

The problem with so much of today's contemporary art, such as the Turner Prize winners, is that it is so empty, so nihilistic, that it fails as art. "Beauty" does not have to mean "pretty," and shocking or self-consuming artifacts have a rich tradition in Christian art, as is evident in Dante's Inferno and Grunewald's Crucifixion. But today's art of mutilation, pornography, and minimalism is depthless and one-dimensional. It has unity but no complexity. It lacks infinity. It displays little skill, intelligence, knowledge, and craftsmanship. Above all, it lacks love.

As a way out of today's aesthetic dead ends, many artists are rediscovering classic forms and styles. Others are highly contemporary, while managing to convey beauty and truth. Christians have the opportunity to take up what God has given them once again, to use the arts to remake the culture along God-pleasing lines. Many Christians are, in fact, finding callings in the arts, and they need the support of their fellow believers.

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is an example of a work of art that conveys the faith in a nonsentimental, even shocking way, in a film that is a masterpiece of cinematic art. It is controversial and provocative, and it is having an impact on the culture.

God is still distributing the gifts of Bezalel, and He is still calling people in whose mind He has put skill, whose hearts stirred them up to come to do the work.


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