Monday, November 30, 2009

On Art and Beauty

Last Sunday after Mass, one of the other ladies in the choir suggested I consider going to art school.  I can only imagine three observations that might have served as basis for this advice: 1) I sing in the choir 2) at a parish that is particularly attentive to the Sacred Liturgy and its beautiful celebration, and 3) my style of dress.  Despite her extraordinarily brief knowledge of me, she was quite insistent that she could see the artist in me (and she would know, she clarified, since both her parents were artists), and I really should consider being an artist, because I clearly had that sort of gift…

I always take people who discern my vocation for me with a grain of salt.  But as I read through our holy father's recent address to artists, I found my thoughts swimming in a familiar stream: art as a means to beauty.

I’ve long felt like I’m on the fence as to whether I am an artist.  Certainly I am a person with artistic gifts, as evidenced by my lifelong love for (and talent for) things like music and writing.  I do look at the world with an artist's eyes, ever alert for beauty, and as time has gone on, I’ve been able to unlock understanding of graphic design, art, fashion, and architecture, thereby deepening my ability to dialog with beauty at all times.  Despite these artistic understandings, I have never felt drawn to a career as an artist, and my artistic gifts are much more subtle than those ordinarily associated with visual arts (I have little skill at drawing or painting, taking photographs, decorating a home, designing clothes, or any other typically “artsy” skills).  The only artist's career I'd ever considered was that of a writer, but even so I never seemed to find my niche.

So: an artsy person but not an artist?  Even the label "artsy" seems a stretch, for it suggests a particular social scene with which I have little commerce.

In the aforementioned address, Pope Benedict hailed artists as custodians of beauty.  That sounds just lovely.  But what is beauty?  According to the Thomistic tradition, beauty requires three elements: integritas, consonantia, and claritas (often translated wholeness, proportionality, and clarity, respectively).  That is to say, a thing that is beautiful is not lacking in any way, is perfectly proportioned (and balanced), and reveals its inner reality through its outward form.  It is this last one, claritas, that interests me the most.  A thing is beautiful insofar as it reveals what it truly is.

I was very surprised to learn in high school that fact was not always sufficient to express truth.  I can't recall the name of the book, but it was about being at war, and some of the stories the author told were not factual, but they nonetheless represented the life of the soldier in that war (one of the yucky more modern ones - perhaps Vietnam?).  Truth is more than facts.

"Decoration is a poetic expression of structure, one which gives knowledge of things beyond the mere facts of engineering by beautifully revealing the forces of nature that would otherwise be invisible."  I had long known that merely being inside a beautiful building raises my heart to higher things, but never had I considered architecture as poetry before reading about it last week in Denis's new book.  Decoration in architecture is based upon a building's structural necessities, but reflects this in a more abstract manner, in a more poetic manner - so a column can be decorative, but a steel i-beam, not so much.

Truth is more than facts.  Beauty is a revelation of a truth.

"This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair," said Pope Paul VI, as quoted by Benedict in the speech above.  "Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart, and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration.

So my pursuit of beauty as an end in itself is not so much laudable as perfectly natural.  The more one understands beauty and the Mystery it makes present, the more impossible it becomes not to manifest that beauty in every aspect of life.

If being an artist simply means expressing beauty, as the words of our holy father's address might suggest, then most certainly I am an artist, even if art is never my career.  I do live by the via pulchritudinis, the way of beauty, for His beauty has captured my heart, and I can live my life no other way.
Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here.
-Dostoyevsky, as quoted by Pope Benedict, Address to Artists, 11/21/09

Full Disclosure: Though an occasional duty of my work-study has been to help with promoting Denis R. McNamara's new book, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, its mention here has nothing to do with the job (as my casual tone might suggest).  I merely mention it because I think it's excellent, and because if you like my theological posts and the idea of a book about architectural theology intrigues you, I am quite certain that you will like this book.

1 comment:

  1. "for His beauty has captured my heart, and I can live my life no other way."

    I /love/ this phrase.

    This post reminds me of a conversation Kimberly and I had about two months ago about how all beauty gives glory to God and could not exist without Him. Even if those experiencing or creating do not realize Our Lord's greatness in a beautiful concerto, a majestic painting, or a captivating written work, Truth and Love are revealed to them in all of those things.

    Our posts, dear, are not really all that different. Yes, we are coming at the subject of beauty from different angles, but why do you think I was able to revel in the beauty of all of the people that day, including myself? In our human forms, Our Lord blessed with a beauty previously only His so that we are "poetic expressions of structure" rather than simply beings in existence.

    And I only see that because "His beauty has captured my heart, and I can live my life no other way." John 14:17 :D

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