Ever since I was first exposed to classical art my freshman year of college I have enjoyed it. Sculpture especially are my favorite. When looking at Greek sculptures you quickly perceive that the aim of their creators was the ideal. The muscles of the men are exact and chiseled while the figures of the women are perfect and graceful (though fuller than the modern skeletal supermodel). Gritty realism, which is fashionable today, was not important. After all one had only to look around to see that real people’s bodies were less than perfect. Rather the purpose of the art was to point to something higher than itself. Architecture too reflected this. The Parthenon, for example, was built according to strict theories of aesthetic and mathematical perfection.
This approach to art was absorbed by the medieval and renaissance artists who followed. If asked if his statue David looked like the historical person, Michaelangelo would probably had said that it did not. He was making a likeness of the man after God’s own heart. The only right way to render such a likeness was to give him an ideal body. It is this pursuit of beauty, above realism or utility, that marked much of early Western art.
Fast forward to today and we see a gigantic shift in thinking. Both beauty and the making of something which points beyond itself are no longer valued. Whether anything at all exist beyond this material world is itself in doubt. The Enlightenment, Freud’s theories of wish fulfillment, and Darwin’s survival of the fittest has driven it out of us. The classical idea of beauty as striving towards transcendent ideals has been abandoned because there is no longer anything to transcend. Material reality is all there is and the only thing which we can make art about. Beauty turns subtly into pornography.
In a world inundated with the materialist mindset art can only be self-expression. I believe this art can be very good. It can connect with us when it shares universal human experience. However, self-expression has also resulted in art that deserves to be hung in doctor’s waiting rooms. If you insides are full of kitsch then no amount of authentic self-expression make your art better, it can only make your art more kitsch. I recognize as an artist myself that what I am saying can sound hurtful. Pouring your very self into a poem, song, or painting, only to have someone call it rubbish is one of the great fears of artist. But if art is merely self-expression then everything is art and nothing is art.
In architecture the above mindset has meant that utility and efficiency are the priority. The International style of architecture is perhaps the most hideous offspring of such a view but it has filtered into everything from skyscrapers to suburban developments. One only needs to look at the lack of architectural diversity across the varied landscape of the United States to see this.
I think beauty is a necessary part of being human. The soul shrinks inside without beauty. Concrete landscapes break people inside as well as outside. It is easy to compare the lack of beauty to recent movements in food culture. Just as the most efficiently processed foods are not the best for our bodies, so mass production is not healthy for our minds and souls. Thankfully there are generations that feel like something is missing and are slowly rebelling against it.
Sites like Etsy have made a small return to the craftsmanship that existed before mass production. However, as is obvious with in the case of food valuing beauty costs more without the immediate tangible benefits. Why buy something handmade when it would be far cheaper to get it at Walmart. Same when buying or building a house. Reintroducing beauty into the culture is perhaps the hardest to reach for those who need it the most.
I do have to interject a story of a family that I am friends with. Recently they purchased an original painting. Good art is expensive but they are a family that is not exceptionally well off. Rather there was a change in priorities. Now they have something that has lasting value, not just monetarily but in other ways as well.
All this begs the the obvious question, “Why does beauty matter to Christians?” My previous post was a partial attempt to answer that question and ended by saying that beauty points us to God. Many who are discontent with the materialistic world turn to art itself as an answer. They need Christians to come alongside them and say, “What you are looking at is only the glimmer of something greater.” Another reason it matters is that we were made for beauty.
A week ago I visited the Oregon Gardens near my home. As I was walking around its paths, admiring the mixture of flowers, shrubs, and trees rising up on either side I recalled that man and woman’s first dwelling was in a garden and it was their job to care for it. Beauty not only recalls Eden but prepares us for the new heaven and new earth. I don’t believe, as some Christians used to, that by making the world a better place we can usher in the millennial kingdom. I do think we should work to expand God’s kingdom in the multiple ways it manifests itself in our place of exile. Just because the house is eventually going to go down in flames doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put up some better wall paper in the meantime. Besides, I think the new earth will have plenty of gardens and will need some practiced gardeners.