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Beauty Is More Theatrical Than You Might Think

September 15, 2010

I think beauty is more theatrical and less theoretical than we might think, but allow me to explain this statement in connection with last week’s conference sponsored by the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews.

This conference was structured by a series of plenary papers engaging with the latest work of David Brown, five volumes published by Oxford University Press between 1999 and 2008. After these presentations, David Brown was given the last word, an opportunity to respond to questions and comments. Brown handled this difficult task brilliantly, and in this post I want to focus on one of his main points: how to identify beauty.

Several speakers at the ITIA conference wrestled with how to discern beauty within the stuff of this world, a world full of imperfections and brokenness. Most would recognize the beauty in a Shakespeare sonnet or a Beethoven symphony, but is Picasso’s Guernica beautiful? Is the vision of Ecclesiastes beautiful? Is there anything beautiful in Jimmy Corrigan and comics of Chris Ware? (All of these and more were subjects of short papers at the conference.)

Brown rightly observed that great art, or any object that might be considered beautiful, is all too often confused with something that has a Christian message. On the contrary, Brown maintained that art is great to the extent that it has power to communicate and evoke particular ideas. In other words, great art is not defined by beauty, at least not aesthetic beauty as traditionally defined in terms of harmony, proportion, perfection, etc. As an example, Brown highlighted the power of pop music to communicate a message although it is not always beautiful, and hence it can have the status of great art but not beautiful art.

This approach raises two major questions for me. First, what does it mean for art to communicate powerfully? If great art is identified by its power to communicate a particular idea, how do we know when that idea is being communicated? Or what if multiple ideas are being communicated, some not even intended by the artist? In his paper, Clive March indicated that theologians are often reluctant to debate the theories of communication inherent in their discussions, which proved true at this gathering. What does it mean to receive a message, and when this message contains theological truth, how does this connect with the role of the Holy Spirit? These were some of the most poignant questions of the conference, and in dire need of discussion.

Second, does speaking of great art in terms of powerful communication necessarily have to jettison discussions of beauty? Brown suggested that instead of taking beauty out of the equation, another option is to broaden our conception of beauty. But is this really the answer? Would not broadening our conception of beauty still leave beauty in the domain of principles and abstractions rather than the concrete? Rather, what would be the result if we identified Jesus of Nazareth, God in the flesh, as our starting point and standard for beauty?

As Christians, it seems that rather than broaden our conception of beautiful, what is needed is to focus our idea of the beautiful on the concrete universal of Jesus. This is a move toward personalising rather than principlising beauty, putting beauty in the realm of concrete performance rather than abstract theories. In fact, we might follow the suggestion of Kevin Vanhoozer, who views beauty as a theatrical instead of a transcendental, as a “biblically attested schema of God’s concrete being-in-communicative-act.” (Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology, 277). In this sense, beauty is not only placed within the realms of the personal and the concrete, but it is bound up in an act of divine communication.

Identifying beauty as a theatrical revealed preeminently in Jesus of Nazareth would have clarified several key issues at this conference, such as the locus of revelation (God’s performance in history) and how revelation and the beautiful are received (how is a theatrical performance best received?). In sum, I think beauty is less theoretical and more theatrical than we might think.

Wes Vander Lugt is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, and regular contributor and co-editor of Transpositions.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink*
    September 15, 2010 9:43 am

    Wes,

    Thanks for these great observations that bring several themes in the conference together. I’m not sure that I fully understand what a ‘theatrical’ as opposed to a ‘transcendental’ is. Would you be able to elaborate a little bit further? I gather that a theatrical is a concrete performance that serves as a norm. And it is easy for me to see how Chirst’s life is a performance of goodness and truth that Christians strive to emulate or (to even use more Platonic language) participate in. But how do we relate Christ’s life to beauty? Following some of what N T Wright said last night in his lecture, would you say that Christ’s life as both the embodiment of the already and not yet provides a norm for beauty (a norm that resists sentimentalism as well as, what he called, brutalism)?

    • September 15, 2010 10:03 am

      Thanks for your question, Jim, and I would be happy to elaborate this a bit further.

      Vanhoozer notes how medieval philosophers first talked about transcendentals (truth, goodness, and beauty) as characteristics of being, but this tended toward a view of truth, goodness, and beauty as abstract universals. Along with Vanhoozer, I desire to see truth, goodness and beauty grounded in God’s concrete action in history, which is the only way we know God’s being in itself.

      Balthasar talks about Jesus as the form of beauty, as displaying in his person and work all the characteristics of true beauty. I think you are right (and Balthasar would agree) that Jesus is already the embodiment of beauty while not yet having revealed the fullness of glory and beauty that will be revealed when he returns.

      To reiterate, I think we are better off identifying God’s performance in history as a standard for beauty rather than abstract principles. So to hit the ball back into your court, do you think Guernica could be called beautiful in this (more theo-theatrical) sense, or are you more comfortable talking about it as great art in the sense of having the power to communicate?

      • Jim permalink*
        September 15, 2010 11:03 am

        In regards to the Guernica question, I am still not sure whether I would call it beautiful. I know that some have suggested that Guernica is beautiful because of (ironically) its negation of beauty, which points towards our desire and need for beauty. Such a broad concept of beauty could find its ground in the cross. Apart from this, it does seem that Guernica has some formal qualities that could be described as beautiful. And perhaps someone could simply attend to the formal (i.e. use of composition, tone, light, etc.) while ignoring the various representations of suffering. but I’m not sure that I want to be the kind of person who can do that. Maybe yet another way to speak of Guernica as beautiful would be to focus on the way that beauty grasps us and calls us out of ourselves. In this view, the statement ‘that is beautiful’ is illicited, almost commanded, by the referent (think sunset, blossoming trees, etc.) A beauty that calls us out of ourselves seems to be one that is rooted in a sense of wonder at the very existence of the object of my beholding. It seems to me that Guernica has a way of doing this, of drawing us into the image and holding us captive there. But fascination can have as much to do with fear as it does with beauty, so perhaps we are stunned simply by Guernica’s horror rather than its beauty.

        At the end of the day, I find it hard to say, simply, that Guernica is beautiful. It would seem disingenuous to ignore the ways in which it is ugly. Though, ugliness does not imply an absence of aesthetic excellence as Dayton Castleman pointed out in a comment awhile ago. It just that I worry about redefining beauty to include things like Guernica if it means that we begin to ignore the ways that it is not beautiful. But, I should point out, whether or not Guernica is beautiful says very little about whether Guernica is a great work of art because there is no reason (that I can see) for why works of art should be beautiful.

        As far as communication goes, I am skeptical of this term in relation to works of art simply because of its connections with expressivist theories of art. But there is a way to talk about art communicating that does not reduce the work of art to a kind of language that refers back to the mind of the artist. I’m not sure why the greatest art would have the greatest power to communicate, but I suppose that is a discussion for another time.

  2. tim permalink
    September 15, 2010 3:25 pm

    2 points concerning Christ:

    First, I am uncomfortable naming Christ as the embodiment of good without also referencing the embodiment of evil which he became when hanging on the cross. Christ is always in danger of becoming in our estimations more God than human, and discussions of Christ-as-ideal-beauty lean heavily toward deity unless they are counterbalanced by Christ as embodying the opposite extremes of beauty as well. The prophecy in Isa 53 notes, “he had no form or comeliness that we should look upon him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by all, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” This at least rules out certain types of beauty. It is another matte all together to call the cross beautiful, in which case Guernica would fit the bill as well.

    Second, in discussing Christ as beautiful, I question how much we really move beyond the theoretical and into the theatrical. We can imagine that Christ WAS beautiful in word and deed, but isn’t that still quite theoretical for us? It is still a matter of interpreting the record and constructing meanings of beauty. Where I was hoping the post would go, and this was hinted at a couple of times, was in the direction of the Holy Spirit’s continued action/creation/representation in the world. Nature as theatrical and the Holy Spirit as the director/orchestrator. The Holy Spirit as inspirer of art, thereby creating a theatrical witness to God’s beauty – a dance between God’s Spirit, the artist, the medium and the audience.

    • September 15, 2010 8:06 pm

      Tim, do you mean that Jesus embodied evil, or that he defeated evil through his action on the cross? I don’t think “embodiment” would be the right terminology, since that implies Jesus enacting evil. You are certainly right that Jesus was not ‘attractive’ in outward appearance, but I think one could only be reticent to call Jesus’ action on the cross beautiful if it is abstracted from his entire life and work of victory of sin, evil, and the devil. And if we associate beauty first and foremost with the action of God, then this transforms our faulty understanding of beauty that has no place for pain and suffering.

      I am glad you mentioned the Holy Spirit, because I think this is exactly the next step to take. The Spirit does exactly what you are saying, taking the truth, goodness and beauty performed by Jesus into the world. In fact, in my research, I have suggested that God as Father, Son and Spirit play the roles of playwright, protagonist and producer in the divine drama enacted on the world stage. Part of the Spirit’s role as producer is to inspire witness to God’s beauty as you have mentioned, which is a wonderful way of putting it.

      • tim permalink
        September 15, 2010 8:25 pm

        You are right. Embodiment was not the correct word to use. My thought was the ugliness of a beaten, bruised, stabbed Christ hanging on the cross, bearing the weight of the world’s evil. I am unsure God’s way in the world can be called beautiful. I think beauty can have a place for suffering, but I think “the good” and “the beautiful” are different things. I don’t think, then, that we can define beauty by God’s action in the world. I’m not sure I can move past beauty being defined from a human perspective.

        A visceral example: I did not find The Passion of Christ a beautiful movie just because of my theological belief in the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice. Knowing God’s action in the world did not protect my gut from being turned upside down in disgust. I can theologically and mentally, make a leap from the beatings to “the good,” but to call it beautiful . .. . not so much.

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