The Post-Modern Rebellion Against Beauty: Part 2

In my last post, I spoke about the reasons for postmodernity’s rejection of beauty and its declaration that beauty is an illusion in the midst of the ugliness of reality. In this post, I speak about why beauty is in fact real, and how the ugliness that does exist in our world does not overcome true beauty.


In his desecration of beauty, postmodern man declares that it is nothing more than an illusion, that the truth of reality is instead fundamentally ugly. If artistic beauty has any value, it is only in the fact that we can use it to cushion ourselves from the absurd and ugly world which we inhabit. As the precursor of postmodernity, Nietzsche, put it, “we have art in order not to die from truth.”

We need not look far to see the influence of this view on contemporary art and literature. In fact, it is one of the underlying messages of Donna Tartt’s recent bestseller The Goldfinch. The protagonist, Theodore Decker, having tragically lost his beloved mother and, later on, his father, struggles to make sense of his troubled existence and the absurd hand that life has dealt him. He turns to drugs to escape from the cruel reality of his life, and, interestingly enough, he also turns to beautiful art, symbolized by the painting from which the novel takes its name. For him, “beauty alters the grain of reality”; it makes the world more bearable and life more livable.  Truth is an illusion and reality is undesirable, but, “where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, and where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists…”

For Theodore Decker, beauty is a happy dream while reality is a living nightmare. The best that one can do in such an absurdly cruel world is “wade straight through it, right through the cesspool.” Through her character, Tartt articulates well how beauty fits into the postmodern worldview: it is nothing more than an anomalous parenthesis in the fundamentally meaningless and ugly reality of our existence.

While Tartt’s realist fiction does mirror Dostoevsky’s, there is nevertheless a big difference: where Tartt sees only meaningless suffering and illusion, Dostoevsky sees meaningful suffering and salvific beauty. Although his literature is painfully unrelenting in its realistic depiction of human depravity and anguish, glimmers of hope nevertheless shine through. The Idiot is perhaps one of the clearest examples. Prince Myshkin is the center of a high society circle in 19th-century St. Petersburg whose members are complicated characters with complex, selfish, and often downright evil motives. The Prince, by contrast, is characterized by incredible goodness and innocence. His only motive is the well-being of others, and he pursues this to his own detriment. While his love and goodness are attractive (although perplexing) to some, others take advantage of him and cause him great emotional and physical suffering.

Prince Myshkin is clearly a literary icon of Christ, the suffering servant, and we find insight into his character in Hans Holbein’s Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, which is mentioned twice in the novel. Holbein’s painting shows an emaciated cadaver in the early stages of putrefaction. His eyes are slightly open and his skeletal hand is reaching out, giving the body a disturbing semblance of life that makes it seem as if Christ’s suffering continues. The body is shown without the onlookers who are usually present in such artistic renditions of Christ’s Passion, thus intensifying the isolation of death.

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein
“The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” by Hans Holbein

Holbein’s painting, like Dostoevsky’s Idiot, are works of art that do not shy away from showing human suffering in all of its ugliness. Nevertheless, their art simultaneously points to a beauty that goes beyond appearance; it points to the beauty of love.

In the suffering of Jesus Christ, the undeniable ugliness of evil has been subsumed into a greater beauty – “the beauty of love that goes until ‘the very end,’” as Pope Benedict described it.  This is the beauty that will ultimately be our salvation; this is the beauty to which Dostoevsky refers in the same novel when he says that beauty will save the world. When the world asserts that reality is actually ugly, we can point to the Face of him who was “crushed for our sins” to show that there is a deeper beauty behind the ugliness of evil, an unvanquished beauty that offers us hope and meaning in a world full of despair.

The Post-Modern Rebellion Against Beauty: Part 1

 Our insatiable longing for ever greater beauty and for union with it is itself evidence that we were made for something more, for something greater; it is an indicator that we are destined for a final end.  C.S. Lewis puts it excellently:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

Our unsatisfied desire for beauty here on Earth is proof that we are made for Beauty that can only be found in another world. Beauty and our irresistible insatiable attraction to it are evidence of an objective final end, of Something that attracts us in a way that is beyond our control. To admit this transcendent end is to admit that it determines what we ought to do, because to accept a certain end automatically implies limiting oneself to the actions that lead towards it and denying oneself all those that lead away from it.

But this is unacceptable for the postmodern man who believes himself to be an ontologically autonomous “creator” of his own reality in which he is the sole determiner of the good and, ultimately, of the beautiful. The postmodern glorification of the self-determining individual allows room for nothing that challenges his absolute freedom, not even beauty. To admit that something is objectively beautiful regardless of his self-determining perception is to admit that there is an objective order that in some way conditions how he ought to think and act. Admission of beauty thus requires humility and deference. As Roger Scruton in his excellent book on the subject, “beauty makes a claim on us: it is a call to renounce our narcissism and look with reverence on the world.”

This claim of beauty challenges postmodern man’s absolute freedom and provokes him to reassert his autonomy by defying it. We find ourselves in a world that rebels against beauty and is rife with artistic ugliness. To quote Scruton again: “There is a desire to spoil beauty, in acts of aesthetic iconoclasm. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, the desire to pre-empt its appeal can intervene, ensuring that its still small voice will not be heard behind the scenes of desecration.”

In his desecration of beauty, postmodern man declares that it is nothing more than an illusion, that the truth of reality is instead fundamentally ugly. If artistic beauty has any value, it is only in the fact that we can use it to cushion ourselves from the absurd and ugly world which we inhabit. As the great precursor of postmodernity, Nietzsche, put it, “we have art in order not to die from truth.”

In next week’s post, I will discuss how to respond to the postmodern claim that beauty is nothing more than an illusion.

Beauty that Draws Us to the Creator

The beauty of this world is evidence of a Great Intellect who orders all things to himself. An example taken from art can help us see this. We look at beautiful artwork in one of two ways: either in itself (horizontally), or in relation to its artist (vertically). To look horizontally at Nicolas Poussin’s Israelites Gathering Manna is to appreciate the balance of its composition, the harmony of its colors, the depth of its meaning, and the perfection of its mathematical proportions. However, we look at it vertically when we seek to understand what the work tells us about Poussin. Looking at the painting alone and knowing nothing else about the artist, we can nevertheless deduce that the creative intellect behind it was incredibly rational, methodical, and precise, which was indeed the case with that Baroque genius.

"Israelites Gathering Manna" - Nicolas Poussin
“Israelites Gathering Manna” – Nicolas Poussin

The same goes for the beauty of Earth, which is a complex and amazingly fine-tuned reality. As Eric Metaxas points out in his recent book Miracles, the very fact that our planet can support life is itself a sort of miracle given the incredible amount of necessary conditions and the infinitesimal margin of error allowed for each. If Earth were just slightly larger and had just slightly more gravity, toxic gases such as methane and ammonia would remain too close to the surface for life to be possible. If Earth were just slightly smaller, water vapor would dissipate leaving a virtually waterless planet. If it rotated just slightly slower, our nights would be too cold and our days would be too hot. If it rotated just a little more quickly, winds would reach insupportable velocities. Metaxas mentions many more requirements and only just scratches the surface.

The Earth and all that it contains overflows with so much perfection, harmony, and splendor that a vast number of sciences are dedicated to studying it. Through geology, meteorology, ecology, zoology, and so many other disciplines, we grow in our knowledge of the Earth’s beauty and come to appreciate it horizontally. However, marveling at the amazingly precise calibration of this beautiful planet, it is almost impossible not to ask why and how it is so perfect; it is almost impossible not to consider it vertically. If Earth is so fine-tuned, there has to be a Fine-Tuner. Just as the perfection of Israelites Gathering Manna points to the creative genius of Poussin, so the super-abundant perfection of Earth points to the super-abundant creative genius of its Maker. To say that Earth came together randomly would be like saying that Poussin’s masterpiece came about from a random spilling of paint. The beauty of Earth points to the Great Artist who is behind it.

And through the beauty of his creation, this Great Artist draws us towards himself, who is Perfect Beauty. The natural beauty of this Earth and the artistic beauty of its human inhabitants, although truly wonderful, never seem to be enough. We all know that unsatisfied feeling when the curtain goes down and the lights go on; when the sun sets and it’s time to go home; when the movie finishes and the credits roll – we can never get enough of beauty, and the precious times when we have it leave us aching for more. C.S. Lewis describes well this universal yearning: “We do not merely want to see beauty…We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty that we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become a part of it…”