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Monday, 5 August 2013

'Beauty will save the world' - or will it?

The phrase "beauty will save the world" is at the heart of a current and fascinating online debate:

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn borrowed it from Fyodor Dostoevsky to set the theme of his Nobel Lecture in 1970. British conservative writer Roger Scruton has written extensively about how aesthetics—and beauty in particular—enlarges our vision of humanity, helps us find meaning in our lives, and provides knowledge of our world’s intrinsic values. And Gregory Wolfe used the phrase for the title of his recent book, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, the theme of which is the importance of an aesthetic understanding for sustaining a civilized culture.’

Wolfe writes that:

‘Whereas I once believed that the decadence of the West could only be turned around through politics and intellectual dialectics, I am now convinced that authentic renewal can only emerge out of the imaginative visions of the artist and the mystic. This does not mean that I have withdrawn into some anti-intellectual Palace of Art. Rather, it involves the conviction that politics and rhetoric are not autonomous forces, but are shaped by the pre-political roots of culture: myth, metaphor, and spiritual experience as recorded by the artist and the saint.

My own vocation, as I have come to understand it, is to explore the relationship between religion, art, and culture in order to discover how the imagination may "redeem the time."’

Yet the proverb 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder' suggests a problem with our understandings of not only beauty but also of the other two transcendentals i.e. that our understanding of them is entirely subjective. This is perhaps most obvious in terms of perceptions of truth, where different cultures, political movements, religions and scientific theories clash over their differing ideas of truth. In terms of beauty, clearly collective ideas of beauty can be formed, yet these can also be iniquitous, as with ’size zero’ in the fashion industry and the way in which that perception of beauty pressurises people into anorexia and bulimia.

Many theologians and philosophers of art have used their idea of beauty in order to critique modern or contemporary art. Cecilia González-Andrieu in Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty is:

'critical of much contemporary art, seeing it as undertaking tasks inimical to that of revelatory symbolism, generally as supplementing the artist’s ego or bank balance. This direction of her thinking leads her to make some judgements which would seem to be contradicted by other evidence, such as her suggestion that the modern idea of art is unproductively narrow. This seems strange given that, since Marcel Duchamp’s use of ready-mades, the modern idea of art has been uniquely diverse with artworks being made of any and every material and taking any form.'

Similarly, Adrienne Chaplin in It was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God begins her essay with some art historical reflections in order to argue that the concept of beauty has been absent from and even inimical to modern art. Beauty has been associated with the sentimental and shallow while the purpose of modern art was to subvert and to shock. She quotes Barnett Newman as saying, "The impulse of modern art is the desire to destroy beauty."

Nevertheless González-Andrieu and Chaplin do highlight the confusion which exists regarding definitions of beauty. Chaplin states that entering this debate means entering "a complex interdisciplinary web of theories and views" while González-Andrieu notes that beauty is indefinable. W. David O. Taylor has posted 9.5 Theses about beauty which derive from conversations with friends over a series of texts - ranging from Aquinas to Milbank while taking in a lot of Von Balthasar along the way - that focused their attention on questions surrounding art, aesthetics and beauty. His provisional conclusion was that the centuries-long discussion about art and beauty, specifically about art's relationship to beauty, is a dizzying mess.

My sense too is that unarticulated assumptions about beauty often drive critiques of contemporary art from a Christian perspective and this without sufficient acknowledgement of the indefinable nature of beauty and its consistent capacity to be seen in the most unlikely of forms. On this basis, how can beauty - or the other transcendentals, for that matter - save the world!

One of the fascinating things about modern and contemporary art is the way in which it often finds beauty in the throw-away, the ready-made, the hidden or disregarded e.g. Martin Creed’s Work No. 88 - a crumpled ball of paper - or João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva’s Fried Egg - a film where three superimposed slow motion images of an egg frying in a pan coalesce gradually into one combined image. In a culture of detritus, American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball uncovers heartbreaking beauty in garbage with a scene in which a crummy old plastic bag floats in the wind above a dirty sidewalk.

My friend, Alan Stewart, in his ‘Icons or Eyesores’ presentation on spirituality in contemporary art shows people a photo of a sepia-tinged crucifix. Most people quite like it until they are told that it is ‘Piss Christ’ by Andres Serrano and that the crucifix is submerged in the artist’s urine. Serrano has said that the image is about the commercialisation of religious iconography (a critique of Christian kitsch!) but Alan sees it as a depiction of the incarnation, with God coming into the detritus and waste of human life, and that, it seems to me, is profoundly beautiful.

One of Corinne Bailey Rae's favourite songs on 'The Sea' is the jazz-flavoured lament 'I Would Like To Call It Beauty'. She loves playing it live, loves the almost telepathic interplay she and her drummer enjoy. "I guess that song is about my experiences of late. It's about grief and what it does and the things it makes you aware of."

The title comes from a late-night conversation she had with her late husband Jason Rae's younger brother comparing their views of the world. Corinne was speaking about God and Jason's brother said he believed in a force that binds everything, holds everything. He said, "I would like to call it... beauty". She was flabbergasted. "What a thing to say! Really we were talking about the same thing..." So powerful was the sentiment that she took it for the song title, and duly credits her late husband's brother as its co-writer.

"I have experienced a lot of beauty in the loss," is her remarkable admission, "in the way that I've been able to survive. The way I feel like I'm being held - held up. I guess the song is about the amount of beauty that is in grief because of the way that people hold you up, and forces and nature, how they hold you up."

The incarnation then is particularly relevant to this debate because, while in no sense a conventionally beautiful act (see Philippians 2. 6-8), it is the ultimate affirmative act based on the understanding that nothing is lost and everything can be redeemed. For this reason, I think that affirmation is a more helpful concept to us than beauty as, rather than separating out the beautiful from the ugly as in conceptions of beauty, affirmation seeks to see the image of God in all things.

This is the approach of Charles Williams who, in The Descent of the Dove, writes this:

"... the Incarnation ... produces a phrase which is the very maxim of the Affirmative Way: "Not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh but by taking of the manhood into God." And not only of the particular religious Way, but of all progress of all affirmations: it is the actual manhood which is to be carried on, and not the height which is to be brought down. All images are, in their degree to be carried on; mind is never to put off matter; all experience is to be gathered in."

Christine Mary Hearn notes that the Way of Affirmation holds that "God is manifest in many things and can be known through these things" as in Psalm 19. 1: 'the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament his handiwork.' She notes too that it is the way of poets as was the case with Anne Ridler whose "devoted Anglicanism" was inspired by this philosophy found in her friend Charles Williams and the 17th-century poet Thomas Traherne The Way of Affirmation should have particular resonance for Anglicans as the Genius of Anglicanism (greatly under strain in its present divisions) is its affirmation of both Catholicism and Protestantism.

Philippians 4.8 - "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things" - encourages us to follow the Affirmative Way. No criteria is outlined for these categories, leaving us to interpret them for ourselves, but the assumption is made that if we seek such things we will find them.

Simone Weil set out a methodology for the Affirmative Way when she wrote that in order "to receive in its naked truth" the object which is to penetrate our mind, "our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything" and that such "absolute unmixed attention is prayer."

Simon Small in 'From the Bottom of the Pond' writes:

'Contemplative prayer is the art of paying attention to what is.

To pay profound attention to reality is prayer, because to enter the depths of this moment is to encounter God. There is always only now. It is the only place that God can be found.

Our minds find paying full attention to now very difficult. This is because our minds live in time. Our thoughts are preoccupied with past and future, and the present moment is missed. We live in a dream; contemplation is waking up.

There are many forms of contemplative prayer ['Repeating a word or phrase in the mind, slowly and rhythmically; holding a visualization of an image; watching the breath; or bringing awareness to different parts of the body are some of the methods used'], but they all involve bringing the mind into the present moment. It is the only goal, but not the only fruit. In the practice of contemplative prayer we wait attentively for the Now to express itself. The form this takes will always be unique and sometimes hidden. The moment when the depths of now are revealed is when contemplative prayer becomes contemplation.'

This is what Jean Pierre de Caussade called 'The Sacrament of the Present Moment' by which he meant, as Elizabeth Ruth Obbard explains in Life in God's NOW:

‘God's coming to us at each moment, as really and truly as God is present in the Sacraments of the Church ... In other words, in each moment of our lives God is present under the signs of what is ordinary and mundane. Only those who are spiritually aware and alert discover God's presence in what can seem like nothing at all. This keeps us from thinking and behaving as if only grand deeds and high flown sentiments are 'Godly'. Rather, God is equally present in the small things of life as in the great. God is there in life's daily routine, in dull moments, in dry prayers ... There is nothing that happens to us in which God cannot be found. What we need are the eyes of faith to discern God as God comes at each moment - truly present, truly living, truly attentive to the needs of each one.’

This is also what George Herbert memorably termed, ‘heaven in ordinarie’ and such a way of praying underpins much of the contemporary spirituality which draws on perceptions of Celtic Christianity. David Adam, for example, writes in Power Lines: Celtic Prayers about Work that:

"Much of Celtic prayer spoke naturally to God in the working place of life. There was no false division into sacred and secular. God pervaded all and was to be met in their daily work and travels. If our God is to be found only in our churches and our private prayers, we are denuding the world of His reality and our faith of credibility. We need to reveal that our God is in all the world and waits to be discovered there – or, to be more exact, the world is in Him, all is in the heart of God. Our work, our travels, our joys and our sorrows are enfolded in His loving care. We cannot for a moment fall out of the hands of God. Typing pool and workshop, office and factory are all as sacred as the church. The presence of God pervades the work place as much as He does a church sanctuary."

Other examples of similar styles of prayer include, Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Gaelic prayers and poems collected in the late 19th century, which "abounds with prayers invoking God’s blessing on such routine daily tasks as lighting the fire, milking the cow and preparing for bed." Many of George Herbert’s poems use everyday imagery (mainly church-based as he was also a priest) and are based on the idea that God is found everywhere within his world. Ray Simpson and Ruth Burgess have provided series of contemporary blessings for everyday life covering computers, exams, parties, pets, cars, meetings, lunchtimes, days off and all sorts of life situations from leaving school and a girl’s first period to divorce, redundancy and mid-life crises.

Martin Wallace sums up this sense of paying prayerful attention to the everyday in order to affirm God's presence in the everyday when he writes in City Prayers: "Just as God walked with Adam in the garden of Eden, so he now walks with us in the streets of the city chatting about the events of the day and the images we see" He encourage us to "chat with God in the city, bouncing ideas together with him, between the truths of the Bible and the truths of urban life" and, "as you walk down your street, wait for the lift, or fumble for change at the cash-till … to construct your own prayers of urban imagery."

Viewed in this way, Work No. 88, Fried Egg and the plastic bag scene from American Beauty are examples of the kind of prayerful attention which characterises the Way of Affirmation and this thinking is fundamental to much contemporary as Eamonn McCabe explains, in Photography: a Guardian masterclass:

'Rather than travel the world in search of perfection and prettiness, simply step out of your front door and start looking. Some days are diamonds and you'll come across something special – something that also resonates with other people.'

'The photographer Raymond Moore knew all about this ... Moore used to wander around Britain and Ireland, leaning over people's fences and photographing the most mundane things, from caravans to telephone lines. He once published a book called Every So Often, because every so often you turn a corner and find something beautiful.

No matter where you are, there's something to photograph if you work at it. People sometimes tell me,: "Oh, I live in Croydon (or wherever) – there's nothing around here." But even in Croydon you can go round the old factories, the football pitches, or the tram lines and find an odd sort of beauty.'

To underpin the Way of Affirmation from a Christian perspective requires a different approach to understanding and applying transcendentals from that with which we have traditionally worked i.e. beauty, goodness and truth.

In The One, the Three and the Many Colin Gunton used his theology of creation to identify three concepts that he called (drawing on the thinking of Samuel Taylor Coleridge) ‘open transcendentals’. That is, "possibilities for thought which are universal in scope yet open in their application." Gunton’s three open transcendentals are: relationality ("all things are what they are by being particulars constituted by many and various forms of relation"); perichoresis ("all things are what they are in relations of mutual constitutiveness with all other things"); and substantiality (all things are "substantial beings, having their own distinct and particular existence, by virtue of and not in the face of their relationality to the other").

Gunton argues that the transcendentals "qualify people and things, too, in a way appropriate to what they are." In sum, he suggests, "the transcendentals are functions of the finitely free relations of persons and of the contingent relations of things." These are, therefore, notions which are "predicated of all being by virtue of the fact that God is creator and the world is creation." As such "they dynamically open up new possibilities for thought" enabling Christian theology to make "a genuine contribution ... to the understanding and shaping of the modern world." If this is so, then art criticism would be one arena in which the concept of open transcendentals could be explored.

Exploring the substantiality of an artwork would involve describing and assessing its distinct and particular existence; what it is as, for example, pure paint and a flat picture plane. We could talk, for example, in terms of ‘truth to materials’, a phrase that emerged from the Arts and Crafts Movement  through its rejection of design work (often Victorian) which disguised by ornamentation the natural properties of the materials used. The phrase has been associated particularly with sculptors and architects, as both are able to reveal, in their way of working and in the finished article, the quality and personality of their materials; wood showing its grain, metal its tensile strength, and stone its texture.

Henry Moore, for example, wrote in Unit One that, "each material has its own individual qualities … Stone, for example, is hard and concentrated and should not be falsified to look like soft flesh … It should keep its hard tense stoniness." Juginder Lamba is one example of a contemporary sculptor for whom ‘truth to materials’ is significant. Many of his works began with the artist searching through piles of joists and rafters looking for salvaged timber that would speak to him of its creative potentialities. His sculptures retain the personality and characteristics of the salvaged wood even at the same time as they are transformed into characters and forms of myth and metaphor.

Exploring the substantiality of an artwork is to recognise that an artwork is an object in its own right once created and, as such, has a life beyond that which its maker consciously intended. Artists sometimes express this sense themselves when they talk about seeing more in the work as they live with it than they were aware of intending during its creation. For some, this is an indication of some sort of spiritual dimension or dynamic at play in the work.

Exploring the relationality of an artwork would involve describing and assessing the many and various forms of relation by which the work was constituted. Among these could be the relationship of the artwork to: the artist who created it; other artworks formed of similar materials or with similar content; the space in which it is being exhibited (both the physical and social space); and those who come to view it.

Artists have their own intentions when creating and are aware of and use (play with) the associations and emotions evoked by the materials and images used in the making. These associations and emotions are as much a part of the work of art as the materials and images (this is particularly so in conceptual and symbolist art, as both begin with the idea or concept) and are present whether the viewer or critic responds to them or not; in the same way that Biblical allusions exist in Shakespeare's plays whether contemporary students recognise them or not. Just as Andrew Motion  has argued regarding Shakespeare that our understanding and appreciation of the plays is reduced if we don't recognise the allusions, so our understanding of visual art that uses or plays with associations, emotions and ideas is diminished if we fail to respond.

The reality of the art work as an object in its own right once created and, as such, with a life beyond that which its maker consciously intended also hands a creative role to those who view it.

Accordingly, Alan Stewart has written:

"An artist will of course set out to say something particular, but once their work becomes public, it assumes its own life. Therefore each fresh encounter will produce a new conversation between the art and the viewer, resulting in a whole host of possible interpretations, none less valid than the other. Appropriating our own personal meaning from another person’s work doesn’t diminish it, if anything it enlarges it. We might even want to say that in re-imagining and re-investing something with new meaning, we may in fact in some cases redeem it or re-birth it."

Interpretation, to have validity however, has to fit with and follow the shape, texture, feel, colour, images, content, associations and emotions of the work itself. Richard Davey has a marvellous phrase for the network of relationships which form around any artwork; "respect for the work of art as an object itself made by an embodied human being for embodied human beings."

Exploring the perichoresis of an artwork is to recognise what the artwork is in its relations of mutual constitutiveness with all other things. Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics is particularly helpful here in suggesting that "Art is a state of encounter" and that the role of artworks is that we learn "to inhabit the world in a better way" through participating in "arenas of encounter", created by the artworks themselves, in which momentary micro-communities are formed:

"Today’s art, and I’m thinking of [artists such as Gonzalez-Torres, ... Angela Bulloch, Carsten Höller, Gabriel Orozco and Pierre Huyghe] as well as Lincoln Tobier, Ben Kinmont, and Andrea Zittel, to name just three more, encompasses in the working process the presence of the micro-community which will accommodate it. A work thus creates, within its method of production and then at the moment of its exhibition, a momentary grouping of participating viewers."

What such artists produce, Bourriaud argues, "are relational space-time elements, inter-human experiences ... of the places where alternative forms of sociability, critical models and moments of constructed conviviality are worked out." In other words, such artworks create "relations outside the field of art": "relations between individuals and groups, between the artist and the world, and, by way of transitivity, between the beholder and the world."

In this way substantiality, relationality and perichoresis form a distinctively Trinitarian underpinning to the Way of Affirmation which can, as Wolfe puts it, "redeem the time."


Corinne Bailey Rae - I Would Like To Call It Beauty.

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