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In the Eye of the Beholder

From a biblical perspective, do goodness, truth and beauty serve as a bridge to the divine or do they serve as a substitute for the divine—idolatry.


Beauty is getting renewed attention. Artists and art critics are addressing this topic with considerable vigour. The term also shows up in the writings of scientists and cosmologists and particularly among theologians. The latter are seeking to make the link between our experience of beauty and our sense of God.

How and in what way (if at all) does beauty connect with morality?

I say "renewed attention" because since the mid 20th century talk about beauty in the arts had all but disappeared. Perhaps it is not surprising that in the flattened world of postmodernism, the human spirit would be on the lookout for what have been called the transcendentals, goodness, truth and beauty. These ideas are seen to have power to help us make sense of things—to pull our experiences together. When you think of beauty like that it should be no surprise that many find beauty appealing, especially in a world where many feel trapped in the experience of fragmentation and disconnection.

Biblical faith raises the question of whether goodness, truth and beauty may serve as a bridge to the divine or whether they serve instead as a substitute for the divine—idolatry.

Those who adhere to a sacramental view of the arts and hence of beauty are keen to preserve its position as a way to transcendence. By sacramental view I mean a view where the arts are thought to be a resource for grace in the world. A similar position, but one without religious faith, has looked to aesthetics and the arts as resources for contemplation unconnected with the interests of ordinary life. Others are bent on seeing the arts as embracing the realities of daily life, and so being in touch with matters of morality.

It is this latter view I have been wondering about. This is a viewpoint which harkens back to early classical culture and shows up again in the 19th century. How and in what way (if at all) does beauty connect with morality? What links are there, direct or indirect between the harmony that comprises 'beauty' and the harmony that we seek in social order (justice) and personal order (virtue)?

I am not suggesting that art is to be driven by a moral agenda, nor for that matter am I suggesting that beauty is to be some sort of centre piece for the doing of artistry. My question is whether matters of aesthetic taste have any bearing on matters of moral life. It seems to me that a view that aims to completely separate these two will not ultimately work. Both are concerned with values, different sorts of values to be sure, but the different sorts are not without common ground. To put it succinctly; if you are going to talk about beauty, you must talk about life, and if you are to talk about life it is not easy to avoid talking about morality.

Though this connection (if it is so) will certainly be of interest to those of religious persuasion, it is of interest not only to them. This link between beauty and morality shows up in the work of those who have no apparent religious interests. This may suggest to some a good reason to be wary of bringing these two aspects of human life together. I have in mind the work of Iris Murdoch (The Sovereignty of the Good) and more recently a small work by Harvard professor of aesthetics Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just. Scarry argues the beauty affects us in a way that renews our search for truth and invites us to move toward justice. It does this not directly, but indirectly, in giving us an experience of balance and harmony and a stronger sense of the other. My hunch is that there is a real link and that it will be discerned through imagination coupled with a well rounded perspective on what it means to be human.

John Franklin is the executive director of Imago, www.imago-arts.on.ca. He can be reached at franklin@ultratech.net.

 

 
 
 
 

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