Strange Beauty

Beauty and the beast

Beauty has been an important theme in recent intellectual Catholic discourse and it draws together some of the ideas that we have been playing with as we think about our thinking.  Our engagement with beauty belongs to a line of reflection that stretches through Augustine back to Plato.  Beauty and love are the things that lead us on into the heart of divine reality.  We should therefore prize beauty and strive to make our liturgy and our art beautiful and authentic so that it can help lead people into right reverence of the glory of God.  I have on my laptop the slide show of a visiting lecturer with the attractive title ‘Beauty will save the world’.

So far, so good, but there is a critical edge here, as we have already seen.  There is a suggestion that much of modern culture is degraded, its beauty meretricious.  The art, like the thought, of the twentieth century was a mistake that needs to be rectified.   Above all it must be kept out of our worship.  Hence some of the features of the liturgical revival of the last twenty years, the promotion of ancient melodies and ancient languages, suspicion of the guitars and drums that enliven the worship of other Christians, dislike of the chaos of modern architecture.  There is an important implication in all of this that modern culture is intrinsically godless, something to be escaped from rather than engaged with.

As we saw earlier, this seems to chime in with some of the aesthetic claims made by McGilchrist in the second half of his book, where he develops a wider argument that our culture has been overtaken by our left-selves.  On the theme of art he makes some interesting comparisons between the flattened two-dimensional surfaces of much twentieth century art and the richness of perspective found from the time of the renaissance to the romantic period.  The loss of dimensions in drawing is typical of the left-hemisphere, analytical view of the world.  Perspective comes with the ability to see things whole, a right-hemisphere skill.  One could probably make a similar case in music and in architecture.  Here too we seem to have an invitation to go back to something that we had before, something more authentic, something that has been lost.

Both of these positions have an attraction to them and can inspire a certain sympathy.  A lot of art in every age is less than great, though that seems to have at least as much to do with the activity of artistic production as the canons according to which it has been produced.  It is true that a lot of art from the early twentieth century onwards challenges the eye and ear of the beholder in ways that earlier productions did not.  Some of it is ugly and deliberately so.  It does include movements that recover primitive or patchwise perceptions of reality, abandoning depth and perspective for strange abstractions, hard to read.  If we believe that truth (and God) is to be found only where we can recognize beauty, then we might indeed want to claim that the twentieth century was the century abandoned by God and should not have been allowed a foot in the door of our faith tradition.

Art and Analysis

Yet the relation between art, God, beauty and truth is far from straightforward.  The relation between analytical and holistic representation of reality also has more to it than at first meets the eye.   I don’t want to offer a thesis about art (I’m not competent) but I do want to justify and affirm some of the things that were done intellectually and artistically in the century of my birth.  I want to suggest that at its best it has opened our eyes to seeing the world differently, to discovering strange beauty and with it another pathway that leads to the God who is beyond all things.

We can begin with perspective and note that for all that it brings depth to paintings, it is in origin an analytical, geometric abstraction.  The abstraction imposed on the emergent painting enables the faithful representation of the visible world.  It is further worth noting, that in art, the faithful representation of the real world (whether in picture, statue, drama or story) may be different from a literal representation of the real world.  The painter or the poet wants to make us see something important.  Caravaggio’s powerful, earthy faces in the Emmaus scene, the desperate sob captured in superposed glimpses of angled eyes and nose in Picasso’s Crying Woman.  Again reflection and conceptualization have a role to play in channelling a wider experience that takes us beyond the chosen scene.  And here we begin to recognise the question that troubled Plato, the complex relationship between art and falsification (we’ll come back to that).

We can find conceptualizing parallels in the world of music.  The process of analysis which led to the creation of the tempered scales enabled the now classical (once strangely new) music of Bach, the revolutionary music of Beethoven, the new harmonies of Wagner, the challenge of the Wiener Kreis’ twelve tone series.  A Bach choral suddenly appears out of the lyrical dissonances of Berg’s violin concerto.  We are invited to hear things differently and to recognize new structures in the musical universe.

Similarly, back to visual art, the process of abstraction and conceptualization which led to theories of perspective also leads us to reflect on the elements of our perception themselves, to explore ourselves seeing the segments of our world.  We move away from straightforward representation.  Perhaps this might seem like the dissolution of form.  But it could also be seen as an invitation to acknowledge that the reality we take for granted is our construct – and that therefore there may be other ways of seeing the world aright.

The objects of art provide a metaphor for the modern intellectual currents by which they are frequently shaped.  They are important for me – and perhaps for you as well – because those currents shaped the way I think and argue, and learnt to see the world.   Their pedagogy brings about those moments when a building that seemed modern and dull to adolescent eyes, hungry for romance, suddenly stands proud as a thing of elegance and integrity.  Just as a set of arguments that at first seemed sterile and destructive, can later be found to have cleared the space for a new and richer reflection.

Beauty and Deception

Let us return to beauty and falsification. Thomas Mann’s short story Liebestod from the early twentieth century offers an ironic, critical response to the romantic image of the artist, inspired by the compelling personality and music-theatre of Richard Wagner.  The beautiful young wife of a wealthy but uncultivated businessman is in a sanatorium.  She is a singer but is not allowed to sing, because the strain would kill her.  A young musician comes to stay at the sanatorium and develops an idealized romantic attachment for her.  It is never entirely clear what she feels about him.

Out of fragments of her history he creates a story in which this beautiful, talented creature was snatched from the high world of art and torn from her circle of friends by a crude bourgeois husband who proceeded to crush her fine spirit.  In a moment of inspiration, when the husband visits, he confronts him with the truth he has constructed.  The husband is taken aback and tries to tell him, that that was not how it was.   Eventually, in a state of exaltation, the musician persuades the singer to risk joining him at the piano to sing the Liebestod (love-death) from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.  He plays and she sings.  And at the end her strength fails and she dies.  In the last scene the husband has returned, tragic, with his round red face, and brought with him their child, with a round red face, who cries and cries.

The music of Tristan is noble, heroic, achingly beautiful.  At the end, the two lovers die together as Isolde sings her Liebestod.  Mann juxtaposes this mythical world in which all choices are redeemed in the overpowering beauty of a final song, with the awkwardness of reality: the ugly, ordinary, sorrowing husband, the ugly ordinary crying child.  The lofty choice of the musician for the sake of noble love and transcendent art turns into a selfish, and self-deceiving act, that leaves someone else’s tragedy in its wake.   Beauty and art are not an automatic pathway to truth.  The rich colours of the romantic imagination can lead us into illusion.

Reality and strange beauty

So what about the ugly bits of reality?  What sweet harmonies or colours do justice to the world’s slums or the torture-chambers of tyrants?  How would you paint a lavish reception for the elegant and finely dressed brokers and politicians at an arms fair?  The beautiful world includes poisoned landscapes, cracked paving stones, huts with rusting, corrugated roofs, the sick, the wounded and the dying man whose death is not transfigured by the shimmering arpeggios of a symphony orchestra.  Our century has presented us in art not just with the beautiful, but with the ordinary awfulness of human life as well, and this is a service to our sense of reality.

            The beauty that leads to God must be able to cope with the whole truth about the human condition.  There is nothing beautiful in any straightforward way about the cross.  It is a cruel, degrading way to kill a human being in public.  Yet this is the symbol at the heart of Christian art.  It points us towards a new and strange beauty, that arises not in a world without ugliness, but in a world where all things and all people are looked on with the eye of love and of compassion.  It is the world represented on Achilles’ shield where images of peaceful celebration stand alongside images of war and the attack of wild animals.  It is the world that stands still in the meeting between Priam and Achilles, when the old man comes to claim the body of his son, and for an instant the mortal enemies share human tears.  It is a world captured in the haunting strangeness of Britten’s War Requiem or Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony and the songs from Babi Yar.

Such beauty and such truth are too much for everyday.  We need simpler songs of love and sadness as well – and a healthy sense of the ridiculous.  We need art, however crude, that cheers up our homes.  Religious people, too, need ordinary as well as great art (part of the genius of western Christianity has been to provide both) to help them on their way.  We need what consoles and uplifts, as well as what opens our gaze into the abyss.  We should be slow to condemn what nourishes this person at this time, however banal the song, however crude the image may seem to us.  And we must be ready for the time when the consolations of art must be laid aside, so that we can recognize in the world before our eyes the strange beauty that most surely points to God.