A Christian Essay in Aesthetic Value - Final Part
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”
I have made very little use of the word ‘beauty’ as it is over-used in discussions of the arts and aesthetics, the science of beauty. In art it means precisely conformity with the criteria I have proposed; that which communicates truth in love and love in truth is perceived as beautiful whatever the techniques or contents might happen to be – we are attracted and entranced rather than repelled by the discords of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and the horror depicted in Goya’s Disasters of War. The dictum that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is true, but it omits love because Keats lacked faith in the God Who is both truth and love, meaning both are one in life and in art; he did not accept that ‘God is love’ as a theological proposition, but proclaimed “the holiness of the heart’s emotions” and in his work he made the act of self-communication, the act of love, fundamental to artistic truth. As I said, the atheistic artist is an anomaly; to lay open the ‘inmost reality’ is to preach the truth, to be an evangelist singing the Creator in singing creation, such people are truly ‘anonymous Christians’. In life beauty means that which we perceive when we perceive the reflection of the Creator in His creation. In artefacts it means that which we perceive when we perceive in them the reflection of the human face. Those who admire the sleek lines of the motorcar in fact enjoy in them their reminder that humanity has transcended the limitations of the flesh and can now travel very fast indeed; others prefer reminders of our place in nature to signs that we have overcome it; then again, sentiment endows particular objects with beauty, and some can find a beauty in the unnatural habitat of urban man. L. S. Lowry said of the people he painted “I did not care for them in the way a social reformer does. They are part of a private beauty that haunted me. I loved them and the houses in the same way: as part of a vision.”
I have said repeatedly that works may be judged in one way or another, but if anybody still asks ‘Why bother?’ I can only state bluntly that if good art presents the beauty that “will save the world”, the opposite is quite damnable. In philosophy and theology aesthetics is treated as a Cinderella subject, but always remember that Cinderella went to the ball and ended up a princess, and now this Cinderella gives the crown to the queen of the sciences. Animals and the environment matter because through them the love of God is communicated to us, aesthetics and artistic truth matter because through them we receive that communication. The arts matter because through them we take possession of the created order of divine communication and fulfil our vocation to reflect and participate in the divine action, the act of love, the act of self-communication that is being communicated to and through by God, catching us up into the perfect action of the Trinitarian community of love. Therefore the choice between good art and bad is a choice between ultimate realities; between that which is good and true, pure and holy, and the opposite – between God Himself, and the world, the flesh and the devil. To pass aesthetic judgement and find some work to be good is to know in it the meaning of love, to see the face of the God Who is love; and to understand that, heigh-ho, love really is all, and the love “che muove il sole e l’altre stelle” is the same as that we find reflected in that work. To choose the bad is to distance oneself culturally from the communion of saints, which is the Body of Christ, Who is God incarnate; and to make such a choice whilst hoping to remain in that blest company is to entertain a fundamental misapprehension regarding Christian membership of Christ. Membership of the Body of Christ radically precludes any reservation of mind or body from belonging to that Body; we may not be half-Christians giving half of ourselves to the celebration of the meretricious and half to Christ; the only options are ‘all or nothing at all’. We are, then, offered the choice of Moses, the most momentous choice of all, in our aesthetic decisions as, in them, “life and death, blessing and cursing” are set before us. “Choose therefore life, that both thou and thy seed may live” (Deut. XXX 19).
I will leave you with some words of St. Paul’s, joining my wish for you to his prayer for his readers, that “the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”.“For the rest, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline; think on these things”. (Phil. IV 7-8; Matins Monday 4th week after the Epiphany).