Unbroken Beauty and Hope

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Perhaps the fear is that we should retreat towards some Hellenic thinking, that by focusing upon the perfect Forms, or Ideals, we may think we can reach perfection, a la Aristotle’s Magnanimous Man.[xxxii] But then we need merely recall what our Ideal is, who our Ideal is, and that we can never reach it but also that someday, that towards which we aspire will ripen completely in us. We see our Logos, yes through a glass darkly, but we get to enjoy it, in small doses, this side of eternity.  We revel not in our failings, our corruption, our sin; we rejoice in the tastes of perfection occasionally given but always sought after.  To let slip on this is to court disaster.  To give an inch on the Ideal is to reduce God as Being.  To reduce God as Being is to replace Him with the only other option, God as becoming.  Once God is removed as Being, reduced to becoming, the inevitable outcome is an immanent theology and self-deification.  That is the tragic story of the West.  We must engage our part in its redemption.



[i] One of the more disturbing trends Dalrymple notes is the inability of his patients, and indeed intellectuals, to even grasp there are alternatives.  Bloom notices this too and with similar urgency: “…the crisis of liberal education is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning, an incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world, an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization.  But perhaps it would be true to say that the crisis consists not so much in this incoherence but in our incapacity to discuss or even recognize it.”  Allan Bloom.  The Closing of the American Mind  (New York: Touchstone, 1987) 346.

[ii] Theodore Dalrymple.  Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses  (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005) 243.

[iii] Dalrymple 147.

[iv] An example of this, besides wretched contemporary architecture, and as we will see below with some art criticism, is the thinking of something called the Emergent Church.  See D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) for a critique of the movement.  Although one can never be quite sure what he is saying, Rob Bell seems to be adding to the problem when he writes about the Bible: “[The statements in New Testament letters] aren’t first and foremost timeless truths.”  See, Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) 62.  John Sanders, one of the voices in the Open Theism movement, when asked if God is Absolute Being replied, “no.”  Personal conversation with John Sanders, September 2009.

[v] Li Shiqiao.  Power and Virtue: Architecture and Intellectual Change in England 1660-1730  (London: Routledge, 2007)  9.

[vi] Michael Aeschliman.  The Restitution of Man: CS Lewis and the Case against Scientism  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983) 74.

[vii] Thomas Molnar.  The Future of Education.  (New York: Fleet Publishing, 1961) 86.  Of course, the problem is much worse as Molnar notes: “It is often claimed today in the name of “science” and “scientific objectivity” that education should remain neutral in regard to philosophic and moral issues.  But if such a condition is permitted to exist, then the young men and women who do not live in a vacuum will not elaborate their own philosophy of life but absorb a crude and simplified concoction derived from the prevailing mood around them.  In other words, if the schools (and the parents) do not assume this responsibility, other social forces will.”

[viii] Anthony Kronman.  Education’s End: Why our colleges and universities have given up on the meaning of life  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)  81.

[ix] Richard M. Weaver.  Ideas Have Consequences  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948) 3.

[x] Weaver, 3.

[xi] Hugh Morrison.  Early American Architecture: From the First Colonial Settlements to the National Period (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952) 256. Quoted from The Young Man in Architecture, 1900.

[xii] Jackson Pollock.  “Interview with William Wright.” Art in Theory: 1900-1990.  Harrison and Wood, eds. (Oxford: Blackwells, 1998)  575.

[xiii][xiii] Wilhelm Worringer.  “Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style.”  Blackwell Anthologies in Art History: Post-Impressionism to World War II.  Debbie Lewer, ed.  (Oxford: Blackwells, 2006) 79. “Modern aesthetics, which has taken the decisive step from aesthetic objectivism to aesthetic subjectivism, i.e. which no longer takes the aesthetic as the starting point of its investigations, but proceeds from the behavior of the contemplating subject, culminates in a doctrine that may be characterized by the broad general name of the theory of empathy.”

[xiv] Gertrude Himmelfarb.  Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians.  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986) 31.  Himmelfarb is quoting from J. K. Johnstone, The Bloomsbury Group, 1954.

[xv] Barnett Newman.  “The Sublime is Now.”  Art in Theory: 1900-1990.  Harrison and Wood, eds. (Oxford: Blackwells, 1998) 573.  He continues: “The impulse of modern art was this desire to destroy beauty.”

[xvi] See the conclusion in Kronman, Educations End (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

[xvii] See the conclusion in Kuspit, The End of Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 2005.

[xviii] See Jed Perl.  Eyewittness: Reports from an Art World in Crisis (New York: Basic Books, 2000) 4.

[xix] Fred Ross.  “Pulling Back the Curtain.” Address to the American Society of Portrait Artists at the MET, 2001. http://www.artrenewal.org/articles/Philosophy/PullingBacktheCurtain/pullingbackthecurtain.php

[xx] Daniel Siedell.  God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008)  11.  Paul writes in Acts 17: “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said.”  It seems reasonable to assume that God worked through these words.  It is odd to think that because Paul quoted them that somehow baptized this pagan poetry, as Siedell claims.

[xxi] Siedell 11.

[xxii] Siedell 47.

[xxiii] The building itself was designed by Philip Johnson, one of the first promoters of Modern architecture in America, and situated in front of the chapel is an abstract sculpture, Broken Obelisk, by Barnett Newman. Originally conceived as the chapel of a Catholic university the connection with the university was dropped soon after opening.  It “was dedicated in 1971 as an intimate sanctuary available to people of every belief.”  www.rothkochapel.org. Perhaps one struggles in referring to this structure as a chapel, but it is a religious building indeed, one dedicated to the worship of anything but a transcendent God.

[xxiv] Siedell 49.  Donald Kuspit is a widely published critic and Robert Ryman is an artist and writer on art.

[xxv] Siedell 48.

[xxvi] Siedell 48.  There is, of course, much more to be said in regards to Rothko.  “Now, it is to bring about this uncertainty, as well as to preserve it from, or to prevent it from degenerating into, a mere oscillation of perception, which could, if I am right, be highly inimical to Rothko’s expressive purpose, that he uses the surface as he does.  For the use of the surface, or the way it manifests itself to us, simultaneously suggests forms within the painting and imposes unity across the painting.  It suggests light falling upon objects and light shinning through a translucent plane.  Wherever a definitive reading begins to form itself, the assertion of surface calls this in doubt.”  How can we value an unintelligible work of art?  If there is no definitive reading then what is left other than aesthetic response and our own reading.  For the Christian this is troubling.  Quote from, Richard Wollheim, “The Work of Art as Object.”  1970.  Republished in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood.  Art in Theory, 1900-1990 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992)  793.

[xxvii] Siedell 106.

[xxviii] Siedell 46.

[xxix] E. John Walford. “The Case for a Broken Beauty: An Art Historical Viewpoint.”  The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts.  Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin, eds.  (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Il, 2007)  100.

[xxx] Treier, Husbands, and Lundin 87.  Sometimes Walford and I seem to be in agreement: “Given the traumatic nature of modern experience and the widespread rejection both of Christian and humanistic thought, perhaps it is a little more surprising that a Christianized version of these Greek concepts has endured to the present…” What follows in his essay is not an explicit rejection of platonic (or aristotelian) thinking but his alternative model for broken beauty.  My argument is that an embrace of broken beauty is a rejection of ideal beauty.  You can’t have it both ways.

[xxxi] See Arthur Pontynen, For the Love of Beauty (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2006) and Arthur Pontynen and Rod Miller, Western Culture at the American Crossroads (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2011).  Both works argue for an platonic/augustinian understanding of beauty as a spectrum rising from the mundane physical towards the Ideal in the hopes of a glimpse of wisdom.

[xxxii] This appears to be the position of painter Bruce Hermann. In his essay, “Wounds and Beauty”, Hermann finds troubling the seeking out of nostalgia, for a “golden age” that never existed, for the sort of a world he finds portrayed in paintings by Thomas Kinkade.  But he also seems to miss out on how to understand the Ideal, associating it with Victorian Romanticism.  See Bruce Hermann, “Wounds and Beauty. ” The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts. pp 110-120.