7.25.2011

In Search of Beauty

In response to Masha, Beauty is Not..., and Mr. Pond, the way down is up

Last week's challenge was to show what beauty is not, hopefully to grant us a better image of Beauty itself. After I pointed out that beauty is not innately evil, Masha carried the idea further:
"Beauty is never evil, and never banal. But it can be small, and it can be simple. It can be grand and it can be dark and terrifying. It is often unsettling in some way, like the angels who greet us with "Fear not" - it overwhelms us."
Mr. Pond hit the discussion with the rather shocking statement that "Beauty is not. Nor is it bounded" and then went on to explain:
"Empirically, there is nothing which can be recognised as beauty or the beautiful. We cannot say with scientific precision that this thing is certain and this other thing isn’t, any more than we can successfully, scientifically determine the precise nature that separates one work of art from another."
And as someone who, while appreciating science for what it can do, considers the spiritual and mysterious to be at least as important, I like both these concepts very much. Beauty is not simply especial prettiness; it can be terrible, strange, unsettling. It haunts, as John Eldredge would say. And like its creators, whether man or God, it cannot be easily boxed up by empirical observation and cold data.

So what are we to do with this concept of Beauty—that strange thing that makes us smile and weep and yearn and laugh and tremble and relax in turn? Beauty, which we cannot objectively quantify, but can recognize with all confidence? Beauty, which I find in Harry Potter, Masha finds in Hemingway, and Mr. Pond finds in grim old fairy tales, though we may occasionally look askance at each others' choices?

We've come a long way from defining art, where we began our blogalectic; here, we can circle back to it. We once debated the definition of art and what qualifies as such. And in hopes of progressing further toward mutual understanding, here's—not so much my arguments as my passion for granting the name art to Little Women along with Les Miserables.

1. Separation of Art proper from mere entertainment seems to make several grave mistakes. Exhibits:
  • It presumes passivity on the part of the audience. (I am never a passive receptor, not even when watching television.)
  • It strikes against the creative powers, which are the same whether forming penny dreadfuls or Nobel laureates.
  • It seems to place importance upon the beauty of the surface while generally ignoring that of the substance.
2. I want different things from art than the Gatekeepers of Greatness seem to desire. I don't want to find a liberal political agenda in a story any more than I want to find a conservative religious one. I want a story to wrap me up in faith, hope, love, virtue; I don't want it to strip me down to disillusionment and amoral existential despair. I want paintings and sculptures that hold meaning and images, not ones that are without form and void. I want art to ask questions without cutting off all possibility of answers.

That is where I find the Beautiful, the True and the Good. All of that matters more to me than elite awards or scholarly acceptance or even, to a certain extent, technical perfection. Life is too short and too painful to weight my longings further toward this world.

[Note my repeated use of the phrase seems to in the above claims. Perhaps I have misunderstood. If so, enlighten me.]

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