The Way of Beauty

by Thomas More College on March 29, 2011

In 1999, Pope John Paul II wrote a Letter to Artists. In this he called for a “new epiphany of beauty” and for a “renewed relationship between Church and culture” in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

A “new epiphany” will not just happen by itself.  This article aims to set out a basis upon which art schools can be founded that will give artists, including Catholic artists, the training to create beautiful sacred art.  (For the time being let us define “sacred” art simply as art with a specifically religious purpose.  It might be intended for private devotion in the home, for example, or for incorporation within a liturgical celebration or building.)

The Pope also calls for good “secular” art work.  There is in fact a strong connection between the two.  Historically, one might even argue, as I have heard it said, that the fine arts were born on the altar — that religious inspiration and patronage lay behind all the great cultural movements of the past.  If this was true once, it can be so again.  Once standards of beauty have been set, once a vision of human existence and its ultimate meaning have been established for all to see, the culture at large will tend to measure itself against these standards, and to draw inspiration from this vision.  Beauty is its own argument.

I am hoping for the eventual appearance of a new, post-Vatican II style of art, as distinctive as the Gothic or the Baroque which characterized earlier Christian eras.  But this is unlikely to happen unless the training of artists instils within them the virtues and skills necessary to create prayerful, beautiful art that is capable of drawing us closer to God.

The method suggested here is based on the way artists have always been trained in traditional societies the world over: that is, through disciplined imitation.  This makes artists adept at conforming their skills to the creation of art with an external purpose. The need for beauty in the making is important for the fulfilment of this purpose. It is proposed here that beauty is not simply “in the eye of the beholder” – a matter of personal taste.  We may disagree about what we find attractive, but there is an element of objectivity that has to be acknowledged.  And this implies that the artist can be educated to discern and to love beauty.  It cannot be sought directly, in “abstract” as it were, and the artist need not even be very interested in a “theory of aesthetics”.  Nevertheless, some consideration of the nature of beauty is necessary for those devising the training of artists.

What is Beauty?

In his Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II cites the famous and mysterious phrase of Dostoyevsky: Beauty will save the world.  Does this mean that the beauty that is in the world will save it?  Or must we look for a beauty from beyond the world?  The answer is a bit of both.  The beauty that is in the world comes from beyond it. It directs us to where it comes from.  The Christian religion, especially, is all about this saving beauty.

Hans Urs von Balthasar writes (in the first pages of the first volume of his series The Glory of the Lord): “We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it.  Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.  We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”

So what is beauty? I see it, like its sisters, truth and goodness, as an objective quality. It is a quality in a thing that directs us to God. It calls us to first to itself and then beyond, with an invitation to go to Him. If we heed that call we respond with love to that beauty and open ourselves up to it and to its ultimate source, the inspiration of the artist, God. When we do this it elevates the spirit and provides consolation to the soul. Beauty is the quality in a painting through which the artist can “bear witness to the Light”.

Beauty is not the only thing in art that directs us to God. Sometimes, the subject matter, even if poorly represented, can do this also. It is possible, therefore, to have ugly art that fulfils its liturgical function in a mechanical sense. For example, an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, though poorly painted, may still be recognizable as such, and so in some way will direct our thoughts to Our Lady in heaven. But this ugly sacred art would do the job so much better if was beautiful as well. (And just as it is possible to have an ugly image of a beautiful object, it is possible to have a beautiful image of an ugly object!)

Beauty’s call can manifest itself in different ways.  It could be as a shout or trumpet blast, revealing God’s glory, splendour and might – I feel that Turner’s dramatic seascapes do this. It can be a beacon, iridescent with reflected light, the source of which is beyond the world – I would choose Monet as an example. Aidan Hart, the Orthodox iconographer, refers to this as “burning-bush art” – because it “burns” with the fire of God’s glory.

But, in contrast, the call of beauty can be as the “still, small voice” that punctuates the silence. These might be the shadowy, numinous paintings, perhaps with a melancholy edge, that suggest a presence of something that is beyond what is portrayed and seems to reveal the hope and solace that lies there. The portraits of Rembrandt and the still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi come to mind.

Beauty can also call us like the “cry of one in the wilderness”. It acknowledges the despair and pain of human suffering, but it does not leave us in desolation. For at the same time it seems to reassure us of the hope that is in the world to come, which transcends suffering. This hope is present even in death. Grünewald’s crucifixion, is perhaps, an example of this. When paintings of this type show human suffering, we grow in compassion and love because we empathize with the suffering and sense the hope that lies at the root of all suffering, through God. In contrast, the distorted figures of Francis Bacon, though brilliantly executed, mock those who suffer and diminish our love for mankind and God. So for me, although Bacon’s art is powerful, that power is misdirected and is not beautiful, therefore it is not good art.

Just as beauty can manifest itself in a variety of ways, so our reactions to it can be varied. We may respond fully, with love for God. This love is fuelled by grace. When this happens we experience a powerful call to God and recognise it as such. In its fullest sense, it is similar to the response to Christ by some of those who saw and heard him in his ministry. (In his Letter to Artists, the Holy Father described beauty as “the Good made visible”. Christ, the Word made flesh, is the purest example of this, making Christ the Form of beauty.) When St John describes the effect of Christ on those who saw and heard his ministry, he says that some reacted positively to the Light, “grace answering to grace” (John 1:16).

Others, when confronted with the same example of beauty, will respond knowing that it is good, but will not know the full meaning of that call. When Samuel was a boy he heard the “still, small voice” (1 Samuel 3:3-19). He responded three times and responded obediently. But he did not know that it was a call to God for he was “a stranger to the divine voice”, and ran to Eli each time. Finally, Eli had to tell him to whom he should go. Drawing a parallel, many will recognize beauty and be attracted to it, but never move beyond that, unless something acts as Eli did for Samuel so that they may know the full truth. These people are the aesthetes who see beauty as an end in itself. It is as though they savour the smell of cooking, but never eat the meal. The passage in Samuel, where Eli taught Samuel to know the voice for what it was, suggests, that our ability to apprehend beauty can be taught and can develop.

Some, of course, will see what is beautiful and be unmoved, or even respond negatively. They may lack the grace to make any sort of loving response. Some hate what is good. We are all free to ignore or reject God’s love. However, when this happens, we are unlikely to say: “I see an object of beauty, which I know to be a call to God. I do not love God therefore I choose not to respond lovingly.” Beauty provokes first a response that takes place deep in our hearts.  For complex emotional or moral reasons to do with our own upbringing or personal history, that response may involve a feeling of displeasure.  Equating feeling with judgment, we may see what is beautiful and call it ugly.  Or we may do the reverse, opening ourselves to the ugly and mistakenly calling it beautiful.  Some even claim to have a preference for what perturbs the soul, what shocks or depresses, claiming that this alone can be “real” or “true”.

No one is purely loving or, indeed, purely self-centred, and so no one is ever likely to be completely consistent in his or her reaction to beauty.  Without a pure visible standard available to us, which we could use to measure beauty objectively, it is difficult to know who is right and who is wrong.  This difficulty is what gives rise to the currently fashionable, though false, idea that beauty is a subjective quality.  Certainly, to know something as beautiful is a fragile kind of knowing, for it requires heart and mind, will and intellect, to be in harmony.  But just as in the case of truth and goodness, we can be educated to improve our perception of beauty.

What kind of education am I suggesting?  How can we base a training programme for artists on the assertion that beauty is somehow objective?  The answer I have come up with is simple.  The objectivity of beauty implies a certain transcendence of time and fashion.  To identify art that is worthy of study and imitation, we must look to those artists whose work has by common consent outlived their own time.  Fashions and trends do not necessarily point to beauty, and their influence will be greatest in the work of contemporary artists.  For this reason, we look – to begin with, at least – at the acknowledged masters of the past.

There is no hatred of modernity involved in this, no desire to “turn the clock back”.  We want to learn from the past in order to move forward into the future.  This is not to say that there are no masters of good modern styles in existence.  It is very likely that there are.  It is simply saying that the uncertainty in identifying them is great because they cannot (by definition, if they are modern) have passed any test of time.  It will be difficult therefore to obtain the necessary consensus and select, with any confidence, artists of contemporary styles for our core repertoire of masters.  I do not see that we lose anything by this, for we do not need to agree upon an exhaustive canon of great art before we can make any progress.  We only need enough examples to allow the students to learn what they need to know.  In deciding what these will be, the school will also designate the media studied (egg tempera, watercolour, oil, etc.).  Eventually the students, or apprentices, will become in turn masters of their craft, able to demonstrate the true originality that flows from submission to a reality beyond oneself: to objective truth, goodness and beauty.  Once firm foundations in skills and, one hopes, powers of discernment have been laid, the student, inevitably will begin to follow his intuition and look to incorporate any influences that they judge to be good.  These could be from any time, including the present, and in any medium.

Educating for Self-Expression

The Church needs beautiful and inspiring sacred art.  Perhaps we could simply equip artists with the necessary drawing and painting skills, then give them their commission, together with some guidelines or patterns for modern iconography, and suggest that they pray to God for inspiration and paint the best they can?

The problem that faces us is that the ethos of individuality and self-expression is so ingrained in our society that many will be unable to recognize and co-operate with divine inspiration when it comes.  Art is nowadays often regarded merely as a form of self-expression.  Therefore the danger exists that once having acquired the ability to draw and paint, the artist will fall in love with his own skill.  If this were to happen, the temptation to draw attention to himself (perhaps through a flamboyant use of that skill) would be great, whatever the subject matter or the purpose of the art he is creating.  Humility is traditionally inculcated through the practice of obedience to a master.  Because of our difficulties in obtaining a consensus on masters of modern styles, it must be taught through an apprenticeship in time, in which the greatest artists from the past are imitated.

Our apprentices would also learn something of the ethos of the great artists and their cultural milieu, partly through historical study.  This process will not be an uncritical one.  We cannot know precisely what was in the mind of any artist when he painted, even those who worked within a clearly defined tradition. So part of this process will be one of discovery, for pupils and teachers alike.  The important point is to learn to associate the art of the past with its purpose: a purpose external to the self.

It is my conviction that it is only when this habit of the subjugation to the patterns of tradition is ingrained in the soul that there can be confidence that the artist could achieve an expression of the true self: that authentic individualism in which God is able to work through the person to achieve something genuinely original.  This process of discipline before freedom will allow the originality of each artist to shine through without being forced.  As the prayer of St Francis of Assisi puts it: “In self-forgetfulness we find our true selves.”

I would hope that in this way, the authentic individuality of the artist would emerge quite naturally, without being forced for its own sake.  For some this will mean the creation of new and previously unimagined styles, and for others it will mean working within existing traditions, including the sacred, in their own unique way.  Whatever form their work takes, artists cannot help but reflect the age they live in.  This is as true for the most devout cloistered monk as it is for those who are fully integrated with society.  As a consequence a distinctive look, one that characterizes our time, will eventually emerge.

As far as sacred art is concerned, special attention would be paid in our school to the Byzantine tradition of Iconography, which has maintained clear guidelines and standards over a considerable period of time, and has a particular value in terms of the evident integration it achieves between form, content and function.  The school’s repertoire could also include secular art, however (the portraits of Rembrandt, the land- and seascapes of Turner, etc.), and art from other cultures (Chinese or Japanese watercolours, Mughal and Russian miniatures, etc.).

It should go without saying that Christian art is not the only kind that is beautiful or good.  Any art is beautiful to the degree that it incorporates the timeless principles that comprise beauty.  Various attempts have been made to isolate and list these principles, but the academic study of these would not necessarily greatly help an artist in his painting.  It is more important, in the end, that the artist should gain through experience an intuitive sense of those common principles.  The careful study of natural forms would facilitate this – landscape, still life, and especially the human figure and portraiture, and their expression with the acquired skills appropriate to a given medium.  These are an essential part of the education of the artist, even one intending to work in the field of sacred art.

Spiritual Formation

The modern world has seen a development of “art for art’s sake”.  This phrase is usually applied to art that is intended for display in galleries and so is seen by some as having no purpose beyond its own creation.  However, whether such art is intended as decoration or education, or merely as entertainment, it still has a purpose and so is not created as an end in itself in the mind of the artist.  The question is not whether the work is intended to fulfil an aim, but whether that aim is a worthy or noble one.

Now the artist is a man or woman like any other.  Morality and spirituality must be taken into account.  But it is important also to remember that moral rectitude or piety is no guarantee of artistic quality.  Furthermore God can inspire whomsoever he pleases: there is no accounting for inspiration or those who will respond to it.  (This was the message of Amadeus.)  How do we balance these considerations?  It seems clear that a person will be more inclined to submit his creative skills to the will of God if he is habitually turning to God in the other areas of his life.  For this reason there should be time spent in the school on the study of religion, philosophy and theology, all of which, in combination with spiritual guidance, can contribute to the growth of the individual.  Another way of putting this is that an art school of the kind I am envisaging should aim to support its students in their spiritual journey, and guide them sensitively towards sources of wisdom.

Catholics in particular should receive an education in the iconographic content of sacred Catholic art as well as a full liturgical education – the context into which their art would be placed.  This might include an account of the meaning of the different parts of the Mass and other rites; an exploration of ideas of sacred space and time and the meaning of the sacraments; an explanation of how the Church year is linked to the principal mysteries of the life of Christ and the lives of the saints; an introduction to the history of the liturgy and its development.

Criteria of Admission

It is not assumed, however, that only practising Catholics will be admitted to a school that provides such an education.  Provided that the principle of objective truth is not compromised, people of any background, even avowed atheists, could be admitted without necessarily undermining the ethos necessary for the study of art – if not sacred art.  Only relativism is excluded, for relativism is incompatible with the search for truth.  Relativism is driven instead by an intolerance of disagreement.  Rather than saying, “Let’s agree to disagree,” it says, “Disagreement is agreement.”  This is a contradiction that cannot be reconciled with truth, and cannot be accommodated in the ethos of the proposed school.

There is a practical point to consider also.  In the US there is a large Catholic population that could provide pupils, teachers and patrons; and an established tradition of universities and colleges that have a religious affiliation.  In Britain, where I live, none of these conditions exist.  What I can foresee happening in Britain, however, is the establishment of school of sacred art in which, after their foundation training, students will be free to specialize in or take their inspiration from any artistic tradition or religion.

This would be no bad thing if, again, the principle of devotion to objective truth is retained along with a spirit of tolerance.  It would create an environment in which there will be disagreement, but at the same time respect for the fact that others can be genuinely involved a search for truth even if they reach different conclusions. Such a school would attract many people who would not wish to come to a “Catholic School of Art” – perhaps initially simply by the chance to get a decent training in currently neglected skills such as drawing and painting.  Once admitted, these students would receive an exposure to Christian sacred art in the foundation years of study that they might not otherwise have had.  Provided that such a school does not compromise in offering the Catholics who do attend exactly what they need, then we stand to lose nothing, and to gain much.  (I would, of course, value the comments of readers on this point.)

In the light of this I suggest the following principles as a list that could define the teaching ethos for, what for the moment I will call the Academy of Visual Arts:

  1. Artists should aspire to be good artists. Good artists create good works of art.  Good works of art possess or reflect both objective truth and beauty.
  2. Artists can be educated to grow in their love of goodness, beauty and truth.  Such an education will enhance their ability to manifest these transcendental, objective qualities in their work.
  3. Artists have a responsibility to provide a social and spiritual service to mankind. Good art, whether sacred or secular in subject or context, uplifts, enlarges and inspires the hearts of those who see it to a deeper love for the Creator and his Creation. This is manifested in a deeper love for mankind and increasing compassion for human suffering.
  4. Artists need to acquire a deep understanding of their craft, and a sufficiently high level of skill to enable them to work effectively to commission with an almost unconscious fluency.
  5. Artists are called to creativity, in the likeness of their own Creator.  Authentic originality in a work of art is not absolute: it derives from the artist’s submission to objective values beyond the individual self.
  6. Artists belong to a tradition, which is the handing-on of the knowledge and positive experience of the past.  Respect for tradition is concretely expressed by apprenticeship to the great artists of the past (“masters”), in order, through humility and training, to achieve mastery in turn.  For some this will mean continuing to work in their own unique way within established and prescribed sacred forms; for others it will lead to the creation of new and previously unimagined styles.
  7. Provided they share a belief in the objectivity of truth, goodness and beauty, and are well disposed to the above principles, our Academy will admit students of any religious faith or none.  Since we hold that the good artist must look beyond the individual self for inspiration, we will encourage them to develop a living relationship with the Source of life.  We will support our students in their religious search as well as their artistic training.

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