Beauty Bits & Pieces

A theologian who does not love art, poetry, music and nature can be dangerous. Blindness and deafness toward the beautiful are not incidental; they necessarily are reflected in his theology.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Of all the modern substitutes for religion, it is the aesthetic sense which is the most esteemed.
Edward Norman, Entering the Darkness

That quote above by then-Cardinal Ratzinger leaves me fidgety. I would rather hear about the potential effect on theology of his pilot’s license—he does have one—than appeals to art, music, nature, the expected perfumes. The guidance system of the papal helicopter, in its ordering of objective elements, bears closer resemblance to religious truth than the emotional promptings of the aesthetic sense.

Marcel Gromaire. The Pilot
Marcel Gromaire. The Pilot (1928). Albright-Knox, Buffalo.

And where does love of nature take the theologian except into the eco-mysticism that installs a shrine to Gaia in the cathedral of St. John the Divine? Contemporary nature piety is the springboard for re-sacralizing the natural world, reversing  Christianity’s historic de-divinization of it.

Nature is to be respected. But loved? Nature kills. We can love nature only to the degree of our control of it, our protection from it. (Look in your medicine cabinet for simple cues to your fidelity to nature.) Yes, a sunset is beautiful; but only because the sun is far enough away not to incinerate us.

Tacitus stated it for the ages: “Viewed from a distance, everything is beautiful.”

Photo of tornado over Oklahoma City. (Photo: John Finney
Tornado over Oklahoma City. (Photo: John Finney)

Three centuries into the ongoing displacement of religion by aesthetics, talk of beauty is much in the air these days. It ranks among the finer pastimes of polite climbers. On a more significant level, it has thickened into an arena in which Christians struggle to align beauty with salvation history. We speak of beauty now in tones reserved for salvific virtue. Accent on it leaves me wondering if we have strayed off our own turf. We seem to be playing an away game, no longer on home court.

Does Christianity subvert itself by embracing the revelations of an Enlightenment discipline? Are we adapting ourselves to a secular, and secularizing, frame of mind?

Is the imperative of beauty a new bondage, this time to the strategies and structures of the world’s source of transcendent meaning? Is emphasis on beauty a surrender—disguised by religious language—to forces that distance us from the plenitude of our own wellspring: the Galilean Jew we greet in the Creed?

George Barbier. Art Deco print
George Barbier. Incantation (1920s). Illustration for a French Almanach.

We can doxologize beauty—its value, its boundless variety of forms—until the clocks stop. But, in the end, we are still left with that bothersome business of how to recognize it, how to achieve it. When talk is done and the table cleared, are we any further along than Justice Potter Stewart on obscenity? He admitted it was impossible to define but “I know it when I see it.”

Aestheticism as Adriadne waving goodbye to Oscar Wilde
Aestheticism as Adriadne waving goodbye to Oscar Wilde (1882). Punch cartoon.

When it comes to visible beauty, I definitely know it when I see it. No doubt about it. Not sure, though, I see it where you do. Besides, do you really know when you see it? Or do you just think you do? Is there a gene for telling the difference? Might taste be shaped by natural selection? Is bad taste an acquired characteristic or a hereditary predisposition? And while we are at it, why are you wearing that ugly tie?

Portrait of longhorn cow
Anonymous. Prize-winning portrait of a longhorn cow (19th C).

It all gets sticky very fast. No conscientious writer on art can offer absolutes, though the temptation to try is great. Authority attaches to schema; honor accrues to pronunciamentos that nail it all down. Art presents a bewildering array of choices. How to pick the right one, the one that speaks well of us? Freedom of choice is risky. Wary of taking our chances, we want beauty clinched in an unequivocal canon. We look for a fixed set of properties applicable from now to kingdom come. It is the lure of the infallible.

Only it does not work that way. Tastes change with the times. Think of the doyens of eighteenth-century taste who despised the Gothic that we so prize today. Besides, it is not a critic’s job to mimic the labor of philosophers and psychologists of perception. The best a critic can do is offer an eye—which is to say a sensibility, that j’ne sais quoi of things rooted in a life and a conscience.


Mark Tansey cow painting
Mark Tansey. The Innocent Eye Test (1981).

It is impossible to look at fetal photography without astonishment. One of the most exhilarating things about it is its testimony to the sovereignty of our eyes.

They are not separate members that grow on their own. The eye is a very organ of the brain! Emerging out of it, an eye is the brain’s emissary to the light. It comes into the world with its own way of knowing, wordless and immediate.

The eye, like friendship, seeks its own society. It functions according to its own principles, likes, and demands, each molded by temperament and circumstances. And it loses its innocence as we all do.

Mark Tansey’s wonderfully witty The Innocent Eye Test takes aim at the notion of a critic as one who views art through a clear crystalline lens, unclouded by a priori biases or wayward concepts. But in the real world, no such innocent eye exists except—just maybe—in a cow. Tansey’s earnest research team brings a placid milker to gaze at Paulus Potter’s The Young Bull. Does she recognize her Dutch predecessor as the real thing? Did Potter get it right?


Paulus Potter. young bull
Paulus Potter. The Young Bull (1647). The Mauritshuis, NL.

Golden Age livestock leaves no mess. Not so the barnyard participant in this investigation. (Note the man ready with a mop on the left.) Viewed from the detached distance of art, Potter’s idyllic livestock is lovely. Less so, its modern avatar.

Tacitus, again.

Note: John Finney is an award-winning landscape photographer. He organizes group tours to photographers through wild places. (e.g., Isle of Harris, Isle of Eigg, Iceland in winter). Limited to four guests at a time, these are concentrated workshops. See Wild Landscapes Tours