Some Thoughts on Beauty
Borgund Stave Church in Norway
With thanks and credit to C.B Robertson. His book Holy Nihilism helped spark this and I borrow heavily from his thinking on the matter, but hopefully expand and add my own thoughts.
I have been thinking a lot about beauty and what it is. Any burgeoning art movement should think on beauty and seriously engage with what beauty is. It is not enough to make declarations about beauty but then be unable to define the term or explain why a certain piece of art is beautiful and another is not. This is not to say that instinct is absent either, we react instinctively to many different phenomena of the world, sometimes we see beauty and struggle for words it seems so obvious to us. Beauty can stop us in our tracks, take our breathe away, inspire us and some give over their lives in pursuit of creating beauty. It is not a subject to be taken lightly.
Beauty has a complex history in the Occidental world. Christianity has an extremely odd relationship with beauty. We would be remiss to ignore the iconoclasm of the early Church and the rebirth, and popularity, of the Puritanical approach that swept through the faith. Indeed there are many elements of the Christian faith that seem actively hostile to beauty, we need only look at the aforementioned history to see this or listen to the likes of the early church fathers and ascetics. I will return to the complexity of Christianity and Beauty later in this essay because first it is worth having a discussion about the notion of beauty as an absolute.
Before we even get to that though it is worth pausing and looking at a potential challenge that faces us. Some people use beauty specifically in relation to the human form. There has been much interesting work done on the notion of beauty of humans and what we find beautiful in facial features or of human bodies. An interesting book one might read on this is ‘Survival of the Prettiest’ by Nancy Etcoff - this is a good look at the topic of beauty in the human form. Whilst she touches lightly on art (regarding usually paintings of humans) she is focused on understanding the human form. She is not interested in if a person considers a poem beautiful, or a landscape painting beautiful, or indeed even if a view is beautiful. Human beauty shall be placed to one side, for now. We are interested in beautiful art, vistas of nature, music, and the like (which when depicting a beautiful human will have some overlap).
Beauty as an absolute is often heralded by many. It is not a Christian idea and we find it across human societies. Aristotle makes a claim about beauty that “The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness”. Is it true though, can we have objective beauty without explanation? I doubt this. Whilst absolutes might exist beyond us, such as Good or Evil, the notion of beauty is distinctly more complex. To examine what makes something beautiful we can reach towards an answer as to whether beauty is an absolute or something relative.
Beauty is often seen as intimately connected to the good. A lush valley with running water, trees, and open fields is seen by almost all human cultures as desirable. Some might term such a place to be beautiful - this seems obvious when we understand such a view represents deeply important parts of life for us: water, materials, places to grow food or hunt. Contrast that with a view of the desert. People often speak of the beauty of the desert, it is not uncommon to hear people discuss such places as having a ‘strange beauty’. The landscape itself is harsh and unwelcoming to living, yet for many they might find beauty within it, still others would adamantly disagree. Where someone sees the vastness as beautiful another could easily see it as ugly and devoid. Nature is of the world, it exists and we project our realities upon it, perhaps even our ethnic realities upon it. Would a forest dwelling Pygmy of Papa Neu Guinea be able to see beauty in the Mongolian Steppe? Perhaps it is completely outside of his bio-spiritual awareness...
Some people might even argue that to describe nature as beautiful is wrong-headed. This approach would posit that without intentionality it is not capable of being judged in the same way an artwork is. Of course there could be a theistic approach that the natural world is part of divine creation and is thus permanently beautiful. This is somewhat unsatisfactory to me however as not every sunset I see is beautiful - indeed in some parts of the world such as close to the equator sunsets are almost abrupt. Completely opposite to long lingering sunsets that paint the sky and that magical golden hour of photographic madness. To me it seems a given that only certain moments and parts of nature qualify as beautiful - even if creation is a divine gift to us, but also that my perceptions of the natural world are shaped by things as different as racial memory to an upbringing in a certain part of the world (many people see no beauty in cloudy rainy days...).
Inequality is an absolute. It is a state of reality that surrounds us everyday. It is an absolute, of that I have no doubt, every creature on the planet is aware of it and lives with it. Truly it is understood within the parameters of life, not every oak seedling can become a majestic oak tree. Thus it is obvious and natural to me that perceptions of beauty in the natural world will be ultimately unequal - they are relative to a person, and a people. This does not negate the value of beauty or discussing it, it ties beauty strongly to the core of identity and reality that is incarnate in that people.
Critical to this point we must return to the original ‘universal’ appealing landscape that most humans like. Some would perhaps even call it beautiful. The lush valley with water, trees, resources. It is ultimately harmonious in nature - but it is often not necessarily beautiful. An argument presented by C.B Robertson that I find appealing is that beauty and harmony are two distinct things. That beauty is a combination of harmony and tension interacting with each other. That contrast is an important part of beauty in both art and our appreciation of nature. The desert bloom is the tension of life reliant on water in a place where there is none. It is a stunning form of beauty that is rare and fleeting, this makes it truly beautiful. It exists only when the tension is present. I feel the same way about poetry, good and beautiful poems play with harmony and tension. The harmony of the meter, the constraints of rhyme, the inherent tension in expressing emotion in such a manner that is not simply normal speech. There is always a line between what makes something good technically and what makes it beautiful and we must always strive to explain that no matter the field.
This idea of specialist knowledge and appreciation also tends towards a difficulty with universalist notions of beauty. Aristotle states that order is a part of beauty but a lay person could view orderly woodwork and not see the beauty in it whilst a woodworker may be more attuned to the requisite skills used and the final result to them is not merely orderly but also beautiful. The eye of the beholder is often used as a way to denigrate the notion of human beauty and make the less attractive of us feel better, it is a pretty lie in the realm of human beauty but in the myriad fields of human endeavor it does not seem to be the case. One of the more powerful examples of this would be in the realm of violence. Huge numbers of people, both men and women, are unable to see the beauty in violent sports like boxing. To me, and many others, the opposite is true, we see beautiful combinations of punches thrown that appear as masterful compositions as a great composer makes. We see timing and balance not out of place in a ballet performance. There are moments of sheer beauty present - a blend of harmony of movement with the tension of violence to create something spectacular. Yet a predisposition to violence and perhaps an appreciation of it might be innate, carried within us, eternal flames that only some carry whilst others can’t. The eye of the beholder does then matter, it is why we are able to have artistic forms of sport like diving, gymnastics, and so on. These are ultimately judged by those most capable of discerning the beauty in them.
Returning to Christian or even broader religious conceptions of beauty violence is another arena where the two butt heads. If we are to understand our theology then suffering, pain, death, and thus violence are all conquered by God. The Kingdom of Heaven is a harmonious place without strife. In a similar fashion before ‘the Fall’ it must be assumed these things were unknown. This has always struck me as the core of the pacifism at the heart of the faith, the desire to return to a state where harm is no longer possible, where risk is completely eliminated. Death has been conquered. So how could a Christian see violence as beautiful? It is of this world, the fallen world, it is of Satan, and as it will no longer exist following victory it is most certainly not absolute. The beauty of violent sports would not exist, for it to exist suffering must be present. Some Christians will argue that God can create beauty out of anything, even the negative sins of the world. This is not a satisfactory answer, it hinges only on the idea of mystery and power of God. The same God who sees such things as evils that are non-existent in his own perfect Kingdom of Heaven. It does not seem reconcilable to me that the reality of violence pairs with any notions of beauty in the Christian world view when put under real scrutiny.
In a Twitter debate a Christian friend proposed to me that “It's not about our interpretation of what we consider beautiful. It's about accepting that anything beautiful is divine.” Again this might square theologically with the notion of Christian art but it is a half answer about what beauty is. As I raised above if things that are beautiful rely upon that which God has declared to be eradicated (suffering, death) then those things can’t also be divine. This argument becomes too reductionist in nature. It equates divinity with nature but also it means there are no ends in themselves. In this Christian understanding beauty only exists to show God and encourage a deeper connection and worship of God. To see something as beautiful as itself is to rob God of the worship desired and is a distraction from achieving perfect union. Christian artists produced many beautiful works, but there is an element of a bait and switch with them. It is not the beauty itself they are creating, only a path towards encouraging you to seek God. Indeed early elements of Christianity are so ascetic in origin it is hard to see how beauty ever found a place within the religion. Distraction of the world takes the Christian away from God is an incredibly common theme throughout Christian thought. This quote from Sayings of the Desert Fathers highlights this asceticism of the early Church “They said of Helladius that he lived twenty years in his cell, and did not once raise his eyes to look at the roof”. Another quote clearly speaks against improving the body, of making it beautiful as many tend to do “If the body is strong, the soul weakens. If the body weakens, the soul is strong’. You need not take it from me and a few quotes the very real iconoclastic period, or the ugly modern protestant churches, or the Puritan rejection of beauty are all real examples. The No True Scotsman response is also never a particularly satisfying one, the resurgence of shunning beauty after the Bible became translated and more widely read hardly seems coincidental.
The motivations of Christian artists to proselytize is a driving force we can’t ignore. It has produced beautiful art and architecture in particular. Although it is worth remembering that the skill and aesthetic qualities people appreciated did not change overnight, much of the design and art of Europe would stem from pre-Christian notions of beauty and what is desirable. The stave Churches of Norway for example are very beautiful, scholars and others believe that this unique style most likely originated from how pre-Christian pagan temples were built and constructed. The existing forms were used to create a new form, Christianity is adept at absorbing elements of native traditions and culture to spread. This is not to mean this essay is a polemic against Christian notions of beauty, but it is to highlight the issues I find with them.
I find myself still torn on the subject of beauty as an absolute, a universal. There is much appealing in that view, and some might be surprised by myself as a man of the right making arguments on the relative nature of beauty. Some ask ‘if beauty is relative what is the point?’. What is the point of eternal struggle? The teleological linear view that exists within our culture (largely due to Christianity) is that the struggle is only worthy because of the ultimate victory, or even possibility of victory. It is a radical change in thought to think in cycles. If everything happens in cycles struggle is the permanent face of nature. To overcome and to achieve is to necessitate the fall once again so the process and be repeated. Once I have ascended the mountain I must descend. This incarnate truth of struggle as being worthy as an end itself will not be accepted by many. Some might see that final victory as able to happen. But if that is not the case Man is always left with a choice - defeat or eternal victory through struggle. Beauty is the same, we create our own beauty by striving to overcome and attain perfection. We see beauty in the darkest of places if we carry fire within us. Another man, another tribe may not see it but that does not invalidate our own vantage point that we have erected and built. The power to convince is always with us, and circumstances change. Beauty is a critical part of a healthy vitalist culture worthy of living, in the competition of life that leaves many options.
This is a topic no doubt I am sure I will return to - the question of what is good and what is beautiful is something important.