A Theological Prolegomenon to Art and Poverty

Parker Haratine’s powerful article explains how art can draw our attention to ‘fallenness and finitude’, revealing the ‘experience and reality of poverty’, for the next piece in our series on ‘the art of poverty’.

Whether we ask a theologian or artist, a religious or non-religious person, one would be hard-pressed to encounter someone who has not experienced pain, difficulty or adversity. Even the brightest theologians struggle with addressing evil. Each of us have experienced hurt and bad in one way or another; it might seem that difficulty is a part of the fabric of life. Some of these difficulties result from our creaturely finitude. Humans experience pain and will die. Some result from moral wrongdoing. Humans do harm and bring suffering upon others and themselves. The experience and reality of poverty is something that calls particular attention to these finite and moral aspects of human life and action.

What I wish to consider here is the experience and reality of poverty as it relates to finitude and fallenness as observed in Christian tradition and, additionally, how art might inform theological considerations on this topic. Art requires that we direct our attention, and I think it especially appropriate that we use art to direct our attention towards poverty in context of our finitude and fallenness because, theologically, these are conditions for poverty. I thus offer a theological prolegomenon to thinking about art and poverty, one that will put these in broader theological context and describe how we might approach art and poverty in particular.

Christian theology, of course, has addressed the issue of poverty in a variety of ways. The branch of theology called theodicy contends with poverty as an instantiation of evil, and the doctrine of creation contends with poverty as a result of our creaturely finitude. Art, too, addresses poverty in its own way. Art can be a way of expressing the experience of poverty, and this expression can be of therapeutic value.

In relation to evil more generally, art and theology have noticed a peculiar human experience: we are at once repelled from and drawn to look at negative aspects of life.

Plato depicts this tension in the following famous passage from The Republic:

Leontius, the son of Aglaion, was going up from the Piraeus

along the outside of the north wall when he saw some corpses

lying at the executioner’s feet. He had the appetite to look at

them but at the same time he was disgusted and turned away. For

a time he struggled with himself and covered his face, but,

finally, overpowered by his appetite, he pushed his eyes wide

open and rushed towards the corpses, saying, ‘Look for

yourselves, you evil wretches, take your fill of the beautiful

sight!’[1]

 

Leontius is inwardly at war with himself over two impulses: one to obey the dictates of reason, and the other to indulge in his ‘appetite’ for the morbid, the horrible.[2] Through the story of Leontius, Plato goes so far as to call the eyes ‘evil wretches’ for this act of indulgence.

Similarly, consider Augustine’s view of curiosity and vain entertainment. Augustine names curiosity, the desire for knowledge or entertainment for its own sake, as the lust of the eyes. For Augustine, curiosity is a part of the unholy trinity, which is a distortion of the Holy Trinity of Power, Wisdom, and Love.[3] He depicts curiosity in the following vivid passage:

Pleasure attends things that are beautiful, harmonious, sweet-smelling, tasty, and gentle to the touch; but curiosity will seek out even their opposites simply to give them a try, not in order to suffer harm, but from a lust of experience and knowledge. For what pleasure is there in looking at a mangled corpse? It horrifies you. And yet people go running to wherever it lies, just so that they can feel gloomy and grow pale.[4]

Like Plato, Augustine sees there is a paradoxical desire, an appetite to see the horrific. And like Plato, Augustine roundly criticizes the indulgence of this desire, calling it a ‘disease’, a ‘passion’ for knowing things for their own sake.[5] For these thinkers, curiosity involves a misdirection of one’s attention towards the unfitting for its own sake. Accordingly, the desire to see evil must be curbed and put in its place.

What is it about this aspect of life—evil and suffering—that both repels and engages our attention? Is ‘beauty’ the true pursuit of art? Is curiosity about ‘mangled corpses’ simply a moral fault?

These questions have implications when considering art’s relationship to poverty, most evidently because, from a Christian perspective, poverty is possible only because of evil and creaturely finitude. If we take Plato or Augustine’s view strictly, we might say that art shouldn’t engage with or depict poverty, since the experience of poverty isn’t an expression of, in the classical sense, beauty.

There are two ways we might expand our consideration of Plato and Augustine’s thought. First, there is the classical, humanist tradition of art. In this view, art is a vehicle for beauty and to cultivate one’s character. This view will point to a variety of magisterial works, such as Homer’s Odyssey or Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Considering the former, the audience is swept up in a grand narrative, instructed by Odysseus as an archetype of perseverance and Telemachus’ transformation from cowardice to bravery. Considering the latter, one is drawn to reflect on the disciples and Christ’s person and work. The audience, in both cases, can see these works as beautiful and be positively transformed because we give them our attention.

While art can be for such an instructive purpose, a common refrain of the Christian tradition is that we are fallen, presently bound by frailty. There is a certain aspect of our creatureliness that includes being bound; there is also a certain aspect of our fallenness that includes an experience of those things that oppose our flourishing and a lack of what should be—simply put, evil. We are creatures fallen.

In light of this concern, there is a second approach. One might say that art is precisely for the purpose of calling our attention to this aspect of reality. The philosopher Agnes Callard suggests as much in her recent essay ‘Art is for Seeing Evil’.[6] Take out the tragedy in a novel, she suggests, and the richness (maybe even the purpose) of the novel is no longer present. Novels, paintings, the whole lot of art is to direct our attention to the evil aspects of life that we find so hard to focus our attention on, Callard suggests.[7]

What I would like to suggest is that neither of these views are entirely satisfying. Neither seems to resolve the tension highlighted by Plato and Augustine, and both suffer from being too focused on an exclusive end. On the one hand, I find Callard’s view to be unsatisfactory: if art is only for seeing evil, then the Mona Lisa is for seeing evil. But no one approaches the Mona Lisa to learn of evil, and, presumably, no one leaves the Mona Lisa having vaguely learned of evil. Taken to its extreme, such a view is too flat-footed to account for the varied experiences individuals have of art. Yet, on the other hand, I find the emphasis of the classical view unsatisfactory. Even if art is for seeing the beautiful and growing one’s character, it cannot simply ignore the negative aspects of life.

I thus propose a middle ground between Callard’s suggestion and the classical view. In this middle ground approach, we can understand art as a vehicle for directing one’s attention toward both the good and the bad. Christian discourse typically claims these negative experiences as part of being fallen and finite, so we must contend with these basic states within our consideration of poverty. And because art and theology at their finest and broadest are to examine God and all things in relation to God, a theology of art must address creaturely finitude and fallenness.

Consider this statue by Henri Vidal, titled Cain venant de tuer son frère Abel, which takes an interesting approach to the story from Genesis 4 where Cain kills his brother Abel.[8]

If we take Callard’s viewpoint, we can appreciate that Cain directs our attention to evil. But we are also left silent with other pieces. If we take the classical view, there is little room to understand Cain; or, if there is, it is that one may understand Cain only to the degree that he moves us to see something greater.

Rather, Cain instructs us to understand grief and sorrow, regret and lament. I am not principally drawn to understand beauty or goodness through this statue. The slouch in his shoulders; the lack of murder object in his hands; the shame in covering his face; by viewing these, I am drawn to understand deeply negative, yet integral parts of life—that we are fallen creatures, and we can do evil actions. Cain helps me see and understand these aspects of reality precisely as aspects of reality.

As Callard correctly maintains, we often direct our attention away from the horrible things of this world, poverty included. Our attention is bound by what we consider useful and profitable, so we need avenues such as art to help us attend to evil.[9] Theology and art, too, recognize that there is a tendency to look away from our creatureliness and the evil against which we struggle. Because we are presently in a state of finitude and fallenness, a theology of art must address our finitude and sin.

In this view, then, it is more advantageous to understand art as a vehicle for directing one’s attention towards both the beautiful and evil. Consider how Telemachus’ bravery is instructive to such a degree because he was a coward; the Last Supper is poignant, in part, because of the foreboding death illuded to by Judas’ presence. And Cain provides a paradigm of ill-will, grief and lament. Because these pieces can direct our attention to bad or evil aspects of life, they also can provide examples to reflect on poverty precisely because poverty is a type of evil. This is the case regardless of what form the poverty has, be it familial, spiritual or economic.

Because these pieces can direct our attention to bad or evil aspects of life, they also can provide examples to reflect on poverty precisely because poverty is a type of evil.

This is not to say that evil and fallenness will forever be a part of reality. One might worry that, if a theology of art must incorporate an understanding of evil, then evil and thus poverty has a proper place in God’s created order.[10] Such a concern is legitimate, and my suggestion is more subtle: a theology of art must address our present condition, even if our final end ultimately will explain our fallenness and finitude. Even if fallenness will be redeemed, one must have the vocabulary to articulate what it is that will be redeemed.

And, if art can help us in this process of directing our attention to those areas of life affected by fallenness and finitude, it is not so merely for its own sake but to understand our common human circumstance.

 

[1] Plato, The Republic, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992), lines 439e-440, 115.

[2] There is a contested tradition on how to interpret disgust in this passage. Cf., for example, Rob Bodice, ‘Why Leontius Looked at Dead Bodies: Vicissitudes of “Disgust,” Part 1’, April 17, 2019. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/feelings-history/201904/why-leontius-looked-dead-bodies

[3] Augustine grounds his view in the following passage: ‘For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the vainglory of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world’. 1 John 2:16 ASV.

[4] Augustine, Confessions, trans. and ed. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2019), 192.

[5] Ibid., 192–3.

[6] Agnes Callard, ‘Art is for Seeing Evil’, The Point, July 15, 2022 (https://thepointmag.com/examined-life/art-is-for-seeing-evil/).

[7] To be fair, Callard does not specify whether her claim requires (i) any piece of good art instructs us about evil, or (ii) for something to be art, it must instruct us about evil. On either construal, though, my view stands distinct.

[8] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ca%C3%AFn_venant_de_tuer_son_fr%C3%A8re_Abel_by_Henri_Vidal,_Tuileries_Garden,_18_July_2017.jpg

[9] Ibid.

[10] Thus, e.g., Ian A. McFarland in From Nothing: A Theology of Creation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 131.

Author

  • Parker Haratine is a PhD candidate in Analytic Theology at the University of St Andrews under the supervision of Oliver Crisp. Parker primarily researches the nature of goodness, sin and evil in dialogue with Anselm of Canterbury and contemporary theology.

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