- Roberta Ahmanson
Why Beauty Matters
Morphē Arts – Why Beauty Matters Conference
All Souls Langham Place, London, UK
June 16, 2018
You never know where you’ll get the lead for a talk like this. This one comes from a chat with someone I only see at weddings, birthdays, or funerals. This occasion was a memorial service for his sister-in-law, someone I had grown up with. As usual, we were talking about what we were up to at the moment. I mentioned I was working on a talk on why Beauty matters.
My friend looked at me: “Why does Beauty matter??” he said. “Because there’s so much ugly.”
Well, there you are. Simple. To the point. What more needs to be said? We need Beauty. And, so it is there. Yet the Bible suggests another reason Beauty is there. Psalm 145:9-12:
The Lord is loving unto all: and his mercies are over all his
All thy works praise thee, O Lord, and thy saints give thanks
They show the glory of thy kingdom, and talk of thy power;
That thy power, thy glory, and the mightiness of thy
kingdom might be known unto men.
That’s what Beauty does. That’s one big reason it matters. It tells us who God is.
Nevertheless, today “Beauty” is one of those “contested” words. Current thinking in the art world is that Beauty is a bad word, up there with “creativity.” The “Beauty” industry, together with Hollywood images and the art market, gives us a superficial example of what the word means. And then, there’s the rest of us who kind of like the word but aren’t sure how and when to use it.
Advertisers know all this. And, being the unscrupulous folk they are, they use our uncertainty and our longing to make a sale. When I’m at home in California, I regularly walk past an Ace Hardware Store, which for the past several years has had this message in its window:
A Desire to Nurture…. A Passion to Create….
A Longing for Beauty…..
Our Tools Are Your Inspiration
We look at that ad, and we know, deep inside, that this advertiser has tapped into something embedded in the human soul, our soul, whether we know how to talk about it or not.
Our culture is shot through with examples of how pervasive this longing is. The art market is booming. The Art Market 2018, a report produced by Art Basel and USB, sales reached $634.7 billion in 2017, up 12% on 2016. The three largest markets are the United States (42% of the worldwide market), China (21%), and the United Kingdom at 20%. Dealer sales (46% of which are done at art fairs) accounted for $33.7 billion, while the Wall Street Journalreported that spring sales at the three largest auction houses (Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips) brought in $2.8 billion. In addition Beauty Culture – skin care, make-up, fragrance, hair care, weight loss, tanning, fashion – is thriving. In March of this year Orbis Research reported that the global cosmetics products market was valued at $532.4 billion and expected to rise to a market value of $805.6 billion by 2023.
But none of those indicators tell us just WHY Beauty matters. All they tell us is the power of the quest for this indefinable thing that we all long for.
In 1882 in an interview with the New York Evening Post, Oscar Wilde, whose own life is a litany of unfulfilled longing, said:
Man is hungry for Beauty; therefore he must be filled. There
is a void; nature will fill it.
So, let’s consider what Beauty is and why it may matter. Before that I need to make a distinction. This is not a talk about why ART matters. Beauty and Art, contrary to some people’s thinking, are not the same thing. Art is a two- and three-dimensional, multi-sensory visual language. It CAN be beautiful, but it doesn’t NEED to be beautiful to be good art. What it needs to do is to communicate well. There are times, I would argue, when Art needs to be beautiful, but certainly not all the time and only when appropriate. Beauty is something else altogether.
Ugly may even be a part of Beauty. William Morris, founder of the English Arts and Crafts Movement, famously said: “ Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” His Oxford mentor John Ruskin maintained that to be beautiful any building, any image had to have a flaw; it couldn’t be perfect. Maybe that explains anteaters and hedgehogs or some of the fashion we see on the streets. Whatever Beauty is, it is not perfection, at least not in this world.
Let’s back into it. Outspoken art critic Dave Hickey has never balked at using the word “Beauty,” even for the past few decades when it has been out of style. In The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, he writes:
Beauty is not a thing…. The Beautiful is a thing. In images, Beauty is the agency that causes visual pleasure in the beholder, and, since pleasure is the true occasion for looking at anything, any theory of images that is not grounded in the pleasure of the beholder begs the questions of art’s efficacy and dooms itself to inconsequence!
So, one very simple reason Beauty matters is that it gives us humans pleasure. The Bible reminds us, though, that this can be a two-edged sword. One of the reasons Eve in the Garden convinces herself to believe the Serpent’s lie that eating the forbidden fruit will not cause her to die is that it is “pleasing to the eye.” It is a whole other speech to explain the many abuses of Beauty – from Caesar Augustus rebuilding Rome to legitimize his empire to Adolf Hitler stealing the great art of Europe to adorn his Reich – but it is enough for us today to remember that anything so good can also be turned to evil.
In Ezekiel 16, the prophet describes how God took Jerusalem from a cast-off new born to a beautiful human being. But, what did Jerusalem do? Her people “ trusted in [their] Beauty and played the whore because of [their] renown.” Instead of Beauty being an attribute and a gift of God to draw the people to their Creator, they took that Beauty for granted, as a possession, and used it to hold power over others. Perhaps this has its roots in the Serpent’s abuse of beauty to tempt Eve to believe his lie.
Beyond pleasure, as Hickey said, another reason Beauty matters right off the bat is that it points to justice. Every year my husband and I retreat to the Big Island of Hawaii to rest, read, regroup. We stay at the same place, know the people, know the walks. Every evening we watch as Beauty brings all the activity of the day to a halt.
Half an hour before sundown people gather at the main beach. Old people. Babies. Toddlers. Middle-aged. Honeymooning couples. Teenagers. All stop. All eyes look west for about 30 minutes, maybe less. Why? The sun is setting. Glory. God made the rising and the setting of the sun to praise him, says the psalmist. That Beauty stops everyone in their tracks.
And, that, according to Elaine Scarry, author of the 1999 book On Beauty and Being Just, is the justice that Beauty offers. For the sunset belongs to rich and poor, weak and strong, every race, every disability, every idiosyncrasy, every religious belief, all are welcome. The sunset – and the sunrise – are for all!! Justice.
CaliforniaPoet Laureate and former Chairman of the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia, says that the experience of Beauty can be divided into four stages.
First: Arrested attention – we HAVE to look, to linger over whatever we have seen, or heard, or read.
Second: A thrill of pleasure – an unusual thrill out of proportion to the object’s immediate importance – it is bigger, deeper than we are.
Third: A heightened perception of the depth or meaning of things – we understand something we didn’t understand before, we are more than we were before the encounter.
Last: Then it’s over – the moment is gone. We can remember it, look back on it, but we cannot hold onto the thrill.
I had an unexpected opportunity to experience that process in Lithuania a few years ago. My husband and I, both Scandinavians, drove all the way around the Baltic Sea, starting and ending in Copenhagen. On that journey Lithuania was perhaps my biggest surprise. It is a Catholic country sandwiched between Orthodox Russia and Lutheran Latvia and, for many centuries, Eastern, also largely Lutheran, Germany. On the way to Vilnius, the capital, out in a field far from any town, there is a hill of crosses with origins stretching back over several centuries. Clearly, these crosses were a tangible way for often beleaguered Catholics to bear witness to their faith. Under 18thand 19thCentury Russification, the Orthodox Russians would take the crosses down and the Lithuanians would put them back up. Then came World War I when the Germans took them down and the Lithuanians put them back up. Then 20 years of independence gave everyone a rest until the Nazis came, followed by the Soviets, and the process continued. Finally, the Soviets just gave up. The Lithuanians were too persistent. Since the Berlin wall came down, the country is independent and the crosses arise without threat. Pope John Paul II put one there as did the Armenians in 2001 on the 1700thAnniversary of their country becoming Christian in 301 A.D.
We didn’t know what to expect. I thought it would be “interesting.” That was an understatement. It’s a long walk to the hill. Stretching out on either side are all kinds of crosses, wood, metal, works of art, humble cobblings, shrines, stone, you name it. As I started to walk up the hill, I realized tears were streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t even know I was weeping until I felt the hot tears. I was in Beauty. The Beauty of this tangible witness to indomitable faith.
So, another reason why Beauty – whether it is Plato’s perfection of proportion or Cicero’s decorum – matters is that it breaks through our defenses and gives us perspective. One example. An artist friend in Edinburgh meets regularly with another artist friend who doesn’t believe there is a God. Not long after “Sacred Made Real,” an exhibition of 17thCentury polychrome sculptures and paintings of Christ and the saints at the National Gallery in London, the two talked about the last time either of them had cried. The non-believing friend immediately said: “When I saw the images in ‘Sacred Made Real.’” Hickey says that Beauty should change the viewer, and that show changed that young man.
That shift can lead to y et another reason Beauty matters – its power to convict us of our own shortcomings. In a vision described in Ezekiel 43, the prophet has seen the temple, the dwelling of God Himself, in great detail. God speaks:
Son of man, describe the temple to the people of Israel that
they may be ashamed of their sins.
God’s Beauty enables us to see ourselves in stark contrast. In accord with Hickey’s claim that Beauty should change the viewer, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI put it this way:
Beauty pulls us up short, but in so doing it reminds us of our final destiny, it sets us back on our path, fills us with new hope, gives us the courage to live to the full the unique gift of life.
That new hope then gives us the courage to stop the direction we are going and change our lives. Let’s take this example from American author William Faulkner’s 1939 short story “Barn Burning.” Ten-year-old Colonel Sartoris Snopes turns in Abner, his abusive arsonist father, because, for the first time in his life, he has seen Love and Beauty. Where? In the home of Major de Spain, the man his father is working for. The lane to the house is lined with oaks and cedars and other flowering trees, the fence “massed with honeysuckle and Cherokee roses.” The home itself is beautiful; the people treat each other with love and respect. Shocked at this vision, Colonel Sartoris longs for it so much he is willing to break the cycle of abuse and turn his father in. Beauty gives him Hope. As Colonel Sartoris stands beside his father, he thinks:
Hit’s as big as a courthouse…. They are safe from him. People whose lives are a part of this peace and dignity are beyond his touch ….
Of course, that’s just a story set in the Deep American South 30 years after the Civil War. But could Beauty make a difference in any real place and time?
Let’s take a look. The Beauty and grandeur of ancient Egypt’s monuments is undeniable. Images from tomb paintings, such as this one near just north of Aswan, give us glimpses of ancient life, but most famous of all is the temple at Abu Simbel and the pyramids of Giza. Fewer than 20 miles away, men, women, and children make their living sorting garbage. Of Coptic Christian background, these people, targets for radical Muslim attacks during and since the Egyptian revolution in 2011, sort garbage because Muslims are not allowed to touch it.
According to United Nations statistics, almost one third of Egypt’s 90.2 million people live below the poverty line, with a national literacy rate of 74 % for those over age 15. Fail twice in school and you are out until you pass a literacy test. Alcohol, drugs, and physical and sexual abuse are endemic. Given that background, the prospects for these children are not great.
Still, that isn’t the whole story. More than 30 years ago, a Coptic priest named Abu Simaan [Abu Simaan] came to the city to start a church and help the people. Today his Rock Church, literally carved out of the rock at the top of the garbage city hill, has some 15,000 members as well as conference facilities, a medical clinic for both Muslim and Coptic patients, which served both communities during post-revolution attacks, and walls covered with carvings by a Polish volunteer. Then, about 25 years ago, a middle-class Coptic woman, Mama Maggie Gobran, also got involved. Today her Stephen Ministry has a staff of more than 1,200 reaching 24,000 families up and down the Nile Valley. The work includes medical clinics, elementary schools, vocational training centers, [Training Center girls]teaching weaving and shoe making,literacy classes, weekly home visits, and camps. Like the house that inspired Colonel Sartoris Snopes, these centers, havens of peace, dignity, and Beauty, give those who come hope and the courage to go forward.
These are examples of the power of Beauty to transform lives. Tangible. In an essay called “Beauty in the Light of Redemption,” 20thCentury Roman Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand pointed out that many Christians question the value of the Beauty of things we see from sunsets, star-studded night skies, and desert abstraction to great works of art, architecture, and design for two reasons. For one, they argue, this “Beauty of Form,” as von Hildebrand calls it, is a luxury, not bad in itself but something extra, added-on, certainly not central to our salvation. Christians should apply themselves to great economic and social ills, not spend their energy and resources on trifles like Beauty. For another, Beautiful things (Even sunsets? One wonders.) can be a distraction, taking us away from the more important pursuit of godliness and God Himself. Von Hildebrand isn’t buying it.
This utilitarianism is by no means the spirit of the Gospel…. An estimate of all things from the viewpoint of their practical and absolute necessity … is to be found neither in God’s creation or the revelation of Christ. In these, on the contrary, the principle of superabundance rules. Is God not lavish in his creation? … Is Beauty in nature not the clearest proof of this divine profusion, since it is in no way practically indispensable in the economy of nature?
Not only may that Beauty be in nature but it also may be in art or music or ceremony or architecture. It matters because it bears witness to the reality of God. [Hagia Sophia exterior]One example is the famous church of Hagia Sophia, built in Constantinople, from 532-537 A.D. by Byzantine Emperor Justinian. For more than 900 years it was the greatest church in Christendom, a witness to the glory and grandeur of God. And, it was convincing. In fact, the glory of Hagia Sophiawas so great it convinced the Russian Prince Vladimir to convert to Christianity. Looking for a more satisfying religion, Vladimir sent envoys to his long-time trading partners in the Byzantine capital. As the Russian Primary Chronicle records, the Beauty of Hagia Sophiawas the deciding factor in their recommendation to convert to Orthodoxy:
We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such Beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that Beauty.
Closer to home there is evidence that the historic churches of England are drawing a new generation to Christ. In the June 17, 2017, London Telegraph Olivia Rudgard reported the results of a survey that shows not only that 21 percent of young people in Britain between the ages of 11 and 18 describe themselves as practicing Christians, but also that 13 percent say they decided to become Christians after visiting a church or a cathedral.
The Church of England’s national youth evangelism leader at the time, Jimmy Dale, said the results of the study commissioned by the Christian youth organization Hope Revolution Partnership and carried out by ComRes, “shocked” him and his team.But, John Inge, bishop of Worcester and lead Anglican bishop for churches and church buildings, told the Telegraph, “This shows the power of church buildings … They give the sense that the Christian faith has inspired people to build these extraordinary buildings.”
In the 19thCentury at the end of his novel The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky put these words in the mouth of the Prince: “I believe the world will be saved by Beauty.” By that, he was pointing to the Beauty of Jesus Christ and the redemption we have only through Him. How doesBeauty save the world? Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI explains:
The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to [Saints image] two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb…. Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place where Beauty – and hence truth – is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of hell.
Finally, Beauty matters because it tells us where we are headed. It points to the New Jerusalem, the New Heaven and Earth. And, it points to what we will become for Eternity.
The theologians, opticians, architects, and builders who gave us Hagia Sophiaunderstood their church to be an outpost, an embassy of the Kingdom of God, of the New Heaven and New Earth to be fully realized when Jesus returns. That was one reason it had to be so beautiful inside. A witness. A promise.
Before the year 1000 many churches in this tradition depicted the New Jerusalem on the arch over the altar in glittering mosaics you see here in the 9thCentury Santa Praesede in Rome. In others, the Last Judgment and Christ in eternal Glory were above the door as you walked out, as you see here in Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello in Venice. This image comes from Revelation 21:
And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it ….
We also long to dwell IN that Beauty. The Eastern Christian tradition long understood this. And, Hagia Sophiais a prime example. The church functioned as what Alexei Lidov, director of the Center for World Culture at Moscow State University, describes as a “spatial icon,” that is, a space where the art, the architecture, all the decoration, the music, the incense, the feel of the wall marble, the liturgy of the service, all work together as one entity. Each person there is not merely seeing Beautiful things, he or she is inside them.
My favorite example, though, is the cathedral in Naumburg, Germany. The original church became a cathedral in 1028, but a chapel to honor those founders wasn’t built for another two centuries in 1248.
Come there with me now. Step into the nave, [Nave]the choir to the East. To the West, a stone screen with brilliant red light filtering through. Read the story in stone. The Last Supper. Judas taking the silver, his face a portrait of despair. The treacherous kiss in Gethsemane. Peter’s sword severing the servant’s ear from his head. Christ before Pilate, terror in the governor’s eyes. The Flogging. Christ struggling on the road to Calvary. Front and center, the Cross, the doorpost. This may come from the Fourth Century commentary by the African Tyconius, who describes Christ as “the gateway” to heaven. Above, you see Christ’s bleeding arms forming the lintels of the door. Mary in agony to your left. Grieving John to your right. Take a step, another and another. Walk THROUGH the cross with me.
Blink your eyes. Ahead is light. Just above the founders of the churchstand poised to step down to welcome you. Beyond the altar, in radiant red, yellow, blue, and green, the prophets, apostles, saints, and Virtues call out. Higher still, the Trinity and Christ in Glory. All welcome you into Glory. Into Heaven. Into the realm of your ultimate citizenship. The New Jerusalem.
When Eve succumbed to the Serpent’s lie and used the Beauty of the fruit as one excuse to disobey God, appearance and reality were separated, perhaps an effect of that Fall. Appearances are deceiving. Jacob passes for Esau. David is a boy who is braver than most men. The Son of God “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” What you see is not what you get. But the New Jerusalem will look beautiful and it will BE beautiful. What you see WILL be at last what you get.
But the Beauty will not end with what we can see. It goes much deeper. It will be what we are. The Bible tells us we become what we worship. Psalm 135:15-18 explains:
The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
made by the hands of men.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
yes, but they cannot see;
they have ears, but cannot hear,
nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them.
During the First Great Awakening in New England, Jonathan Edwards, then a pastor, wrote a book called Religious Affections to help Christians sort out which feelings, emotions, experiences were truly of God and which were not. The Puritan Divine claims that our love for God is genuine only if we are drawn to Him for His Beauty and not for how he can benefit us. He wrote:
The basis for true delight that a real Christian has is in God and in His perfection. His delight is in Christ, and in his Beauty.
If we delight in Christ’s Beauty, the next step is for us to become Beautiful as well, not just to see but to BE Beauty. In his first letter, John the Beloved Disciple tells us how it will happen.
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
Finally, our moments of being IN Beauty rather than its outside observers will become our everlasting experience. The abuse of Beauty that began in the Garden when Eve yielded to the temptation to disobey God because the fruit was pleasing to the eye will be over. We will live forever IN tangible Beauty, inside and out. Psalm 27:4 puts it this way:
One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the Beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
All of this is why Beauty matters. Beauty is what we were born for. It is the goal of our striving, our reward when we reach home, the source of all delight, the hope of the world, and the eternal glory of God.Category: Art & Culture,Tag: Beauty,