Saturday, 29 November 2008

On Beauty

As a painter I am very interested in the way things look. Likewise, when I write I consider carefully the aesthetics of the words I choose and the allusions they create.

For those of us whose day to day business is the pursuit of what might be regarded by some as light fancies or vanities there are many misconceptions to navigate beyond and pitfalls to avoid.

Beauty is both objective and subjective- being a virtue we all seem to admire yet likewise being in the eye of the beholder and so forth. There is something universal about the beauty of the sunset, the spring blossom or fluffy kitten but our taste in painting seems to vary from person to person / culture to culture. We might say that beauty is both subjective and objective: subject to personal choices and preferences whilst working within an objective framework of absolute values. What are these values?

The Greeks understood beauty in terms of symmetry, clearly illustrated in the geometric order of their pantheon. Plato described beauty in terms of the harmony and balance of aesthetic order deriving from advancements in the understanding of mathematics, physics and philosophy. The Greek system of aesthetics greatly informed the thinking of the Modernist abstract painters and minimalists of the mid to late twentieth century such as Mondrian, De Stjil, Donald Judd, De Kooning and their infamous champion, art critic Clement Greenberg, in their quest for an absolute aesthetic.

Many of our popular notions of beauty are still influenced by the Greeks but the Greek notion of aesthetics should not be confused with biblical concepts of beauty. The Greek system of aesthetics moved beyond the visual language of architecture, art and design towards a higher meta-narrative. We should be careful not to confuse the Greek notion of beauty in metaphysics with God who transcends all. Whilst the bible affirms the absolute values of harmony, balance and order (we see this in the Genesis 1 and God’s creative method) it likewise gives great dignity to fallen humans who are a broken reflection of the beauty of God. If you over invest in beauty in the Greek sense you will eventually come to loggerheads with the gospel which recognises not just ugliness but also the noise of children and the beauty of someone singing out of tune.

The bible makes a distinction between aesthetic beauty and redemptive beauty.

In Genesis 2:9, before God describes his trees as “good for food” he first declares them, “pleasing to the sight”. The visual qualities of his creation are declared good along with the rest of the universe. God is clearly interested in the way things look as well as their function. Rachel, Sarah and Esther were all noted for their beauty.

In the bible, notions of beauty is aren’t just limited to formal aesthetics. This is where God’s word has much to our contemporary creative culture, cutting deep to the false values we place on how things look on the surface. God’s word also describes beauty in terms of redemption.

In Revelation the church as Christ's bride wears beautiful garments. These beautiful clothes aren't from Armani - rather, the beauty is the good deeds of the saints. In Proverbs the woman of noble character isn't noted for her looks but rather her godly character. Why do we sing of the beautiful Saviour? We sing of the beauty of redemption.

The arts can serve to enhance our lives, enlarging our understanding of God and His creation and offering glimpses of hope to the lost. Where the arts reflect the redemption of Christ they are at their most beautiful.

1 comment:

dave bish said...

Excellent words. Beauty is vital to the gospel. Your reflections on something like Lewis' Weight of Glory?