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.