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."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.
"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.
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.