Artistic Sensibilities

A blogalectic with Masha and Mr. Pond.

From Sense and Sensibility:
"You must not inquire too far, Marianne—remember, I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste, if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold! surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give... It exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility—and I dare say it is a picturesque one too, because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque."

"I am afraid it is but too true," said Marianne; "but why should you boast of it?"

"I suspect," said Elinor, "that to avoid one kind of affectation, Edward here falls into another. Because he believes many people pretend to more admiration of the beauties of nature than they really feel, and is disgusted with such pretensions, he affects greater indifference and less discrimination in viewing them himself than he possesses. He is fastidious and will have an affectation of his own."

"It is very true," said Marianne, "that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Everybody pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was. I detest jargon of every kind, and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning."

"I am convinced," said Edward, "that you really feel all the delight in a fine prospect which you profess to feel. But, in return, your sister must allow me to feel no more than I profess. I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles, or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower—and a troop of tidy, happy villagers please me better than the finest banditti in the world."

Marianne looked with amazement at Edward, with compassion at her sister. Elinor only laughed.

—Jane Austen
For some weeks now, Mr. Pond and Masha and I have been having this extended blogalectic on art and beauty, and I fancy our discussion is not unlike the conversation above. Masha emphasizes a strict and aesthetic view of beauty. I make some codgerly comment about how I prefer simple, healthy, lively things. And Mr. Pond laughs and attempts to get us to agree.

It's fun. But it does perhaps leave Masha and I, like Marianne and Edward, at some form of an impasse. I think Mr. Pond is right when he says that "If I can be so bold, the ‘Art’ that Masha seeks to produce seem to correspond with Jenna’s conception of ‘Good Art’: the sympathetic communication of the intimate and the universal through beauty." Masha and I do appear to agree on some levels. We disagree on terms, though, and I disagree with Masha's accusation that my granting the name of art even to ugly and/or blasphemous creations is relativistic. I do not equate art with goodness, therefore my definition of art does not call evil good.

I certainly believe, however, that goodness and beauty are the rightful pursuits of all art.

Having read Mr. Pond’s admirable discourse on the Neoplatonic interpretation of beauty, I really feel my lack of a PhD in attempting to respond. I did learn a lot from it, though. For now, I'll simply clarify one of Masha's statements by noting that as Neoplatonism has not made its way into magisterial church teaching, one can be Catholic, big C or little c, with or without baptized Platonic ideas of art and beauty.

My own understanding of beauty is more instinctive than anything else. I’m intrigued by Masha’s definition of it as "the visible form of the good," (visible presumably standing in for all senses, including the spiritual faculties) but must agree with Mr. Pond that:
This definition is one I like and admire. I haven’t fully embraced it in my own thinking, though I do share a conviction that Beauty and the True are irrevocably linked, and the True inevitably coincides with the Good.
All I can say is that beauty can be found anywhere on this earth, and in wildly different things, if one only troubles themselves to search it out. I find beauty in the thick wet greenery of Seattle and the open, red desert of Phoenix; in the crumbling old towns of Italy and the newer skylines of America’s cities. I find it in the solemn laying on of hands by all the priests at an ordination Mass, and in the energetic dancing of the bride and groom at their wedding.

More, I find it in all the virtues, at least when they’re practiced righteously rather than self-righteously. And perhaps because of that, I find it in the penny dreadful's bright portraits of courage and love, just as I find it in the subtler colors and softer prose of the more complex work of literature. Even by Masha’s definitions, then, I am unafraid to call both by the name of art.

This week’s topic regards the nature of beauty and meaning and whether one can exist without the other. Which brings me, at least, back to the matter of communication. But perhaps because of my wide-open definitions, the question seems to have a simple answer. You can have meaning without beauty; you can mean something quite ugly. But beauty always speaks. It haunts and comforts, even when it doesn't bother with words.


  1. Jenna,

    Oh dear...I hope I haven't been an unwitting contributor to the mounds of online aggrevation you're dealing with! I'm sensing a good deal of frustration coming through this post, which seems mainly to come from my use of "relativist" to describe your definitions of beauty and art. I'm sorry. I forget sometimes that "relativist" can be such a loaded word, and is too often used only to refer to people who lack a moral compass, which you obviously don't. :)

    I want to clarify, and apologize if you think I was using it to in anyway imply you lacked a moral or spiritual framework, or were unable to seperate Good from evil.

    I was using "relativist" Only in reference to the definitions of beauty and art which, because they provided no framework, and no objective standards by which to accept or reject, left the definition entirely open to the subjective reactions of each individual. When we define beauty entirely in relation to ourselves, i.e. "beauty is something that makes me feel.." or "I don't see/equate..therefore my definition.." then the definition itself looses power, it fails to define. It becomes only personal, only subjective. Obviously, moral relativists do this on another plane: "I don't see marriage as monogamous, therefore my definition of marriage does not equate extra-marital sex with adultery." But the moral aspect was not what I was claiming, only the aesthetic.

    I'm sorry if that comes across as having a strict sense of aesthetics, or of failing to appreciate the beauty of the everyday, which is also not what I was intending. I feel a bit as Kathleen Norris must have: "I spoke as an artist, they heard an artiste. A throwback to the 'disease of Shellyism'."

    I'm sorry again if I offended.

  2. Hey, Masha,

    My turn to apologize... I didn't mean to sound so offended. You said last week that you were comfortable with disagreement, and though I am usually less so, I made an effort to be--something I probably shouldn't have tried after driving twelve hours in one day. :) I'm sorry I came off frustrated.

    Thanks for clarifying your use of the word relativist, a word which did startle me. It's good to hear what you were actually thinking, and to separate it out from its moral connotations. That helps me understand where you were coming from.

    I don't see my definition of beauty or art as merely personal and subjective, though probably I haven't explained this well at all. I see both objective analysis and subjective response comprehended in the discovery of beauty, and I imagine art more as the iterations of a fractal than a binary on/off. That is, I don't divide created things into art and non-art, but into levels of form and rule and complexity.

    There's nothing necessarily wrong with having a strict view of aesthetics. :) I hope I didn't offend you, but if I did, I apologize. It does seem that I've misunderstood something, and maybe when I get over this head cold, I'll be able to think what that is. I suspect we just haven't quite found the place where our ideas diverge, the starting idea that makes us define terms so differently.

    But at least we seem to have some very similar ideas on beauty. I wasn't contradicting your idea of beauty as the visible form of the good, by the way. I really did like that definition. It's just a very big idea that I haven't thought through yet.

  3. I wasn't offended at all, but after reading about your Hog's Head frustration, I thought about how overwhelming it can sometimes feel to be confronted with numerous disagreements at the same time, and I realized that I didn't clarify "relativist" and that you might have thought I meant it in a moral, or semi-moral way, which would certainly have been a reason to be frustrated and insulted. :)

    I try not to force my comfort with disagreement on everyone else, as everyone has different levels of what they can take, and every day is different. I still happily disagree with your art definition, but with less of a feeling of causing stress - so thanks for the clarity!

    The definition of beauty is definitely designed to be thought through, I'm glad you liked it..it's not my own, I just absorbed it. But it fits. This discussion is fantastic in giving me Things to Think Through, and I'm glad it's doing the same for you.

    I agree though, that I'd like to find the point of divergence and delve into that..maybe if I could get everything off-line and read through slowly I could..but maybe not.

  4. The conclusion of this article, Jenna, reminds me of the discussion I've been having with Masha about the kataphatic and the apophatic ways of thought/spiritual practice. I wonder if your reason for being not quite on par with Masha's definition is the same as mine--an inclination toward the apophatic and the particular, rather than the kataphatic and the universal? Looking down into the particulars instead looking up through them, as it were. Just saying. :)

  5. Interesting, Mr. Pond. Very interesting. I had to Google those words, and I'm not quite sure I understand them yet.

    So, in your comment on your own post, you say you prefer to see the Beautiful and the Good both as emanations from the True. I think I'm with you on that; not sure I could say just why at the moment, but it resolves more naturally with my own ideas than the other.

    From your comment:

    Raphael’s School of Athens, Plato’s hand pointing upwards toward the Universal, Aristotle’s hand spread downward toward the particular. It’s a question of whether one conflates the particular into the Type or Universal, the upward focus, or whether one seeks the Universal withing the particular, the downward gaze. Put more accurately, Plato points to the kataphatic way, Aristotle to the apophatic. And in that divide, I do pursue the particular, and the apophatic way–silences rather than words, contemplation rather than discourse.

    I'd actually say I was raised to distrust the apophatic way, and my own experience of spiritual experiences has made me even more hesitant to pursue it. Which I don't like, because my own philosophy seems to tell me that both are necessary. But I struggle to even believe, let alone pray, without the presence of images and words.

    On the other hand, I suspect I'm closer to Aristotle than Plato in a lot of ways. Also, while I almost always try to use some words, however weak, I have a strong sympathy for the idea that the deepest of thoughts and prayers cannot be expressed in plain logical form, but only through the transcendentals.

    Feel free to straighten out my confusion, if it isn't hopelessly tangled. :)

  6. No, it's not hopelessly tangled! There's always hope... ;)

    Seriously, though, what you're saying makes a good deal of sense. And I might have quite a lot to say about that, though it will probably toddled beyond the limits of a reasonable comment thread. I will say that apophasis does not equal not using any words or images. It's fundamentally a different way of approaching the world. I think that nonsense can be a form of apophasis.

    An introduction I've found very helpful is The Way of the Heart, by Henri Nouwen. Not splendid as an academic text, but beautiful and moving as a sort of confession. Worth spending time with.

    So, yeah. Let's talk about this more.

  7. I actually had a dream about this blogaletic last night. Which is strange since I haven't been really following it. Anyway, in my dream I'd come up with a very good comment. But now, of course, I can't remember it. So, for my contribution, I'd just like to say that whenever speaking of beauty, truth, the good, etc, etc, I'll just go with whatever C.S. Lewis says on those subjects. :)

  8. Gonna have to look for that book, Mr. Pond.

    George, LOL! I hate it when that happens. It's usually safe to go with some Lewis thought, though. ;)


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