Tag Archives: artistic beauty

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.

The Power of Beauty

imageOver the years, I have lived in and near many different cities, but none of them can boast of the artistic beauty that fills Rome. After living here three years, I finally had the chance to join a bus tour of the city, which allowed to me appreciate even more its density of history and artwork. Most of the time, I get around Rome on foot or in bus, so, until yesterday, my trips limited me to one part of the city at a time.

The bus started in the south, near St. Paul Outside the Walls, and then worked its way around the city in a roughly counter-clockwise fashion passing Circus Maximus, the Palatine Hill,  Campidoglio,  the Colosseum, Piazza della Repubblica, Villa Borghese, the Milvian Bridge, Castel Sant’Angelo, and finally St. Peter’s Basilica. Throughout the entire trip, it was impossible to look out the window without seeing something of historic or artistic significance. We passed churches that are homes to Caravaggios and Berninis, and palazzos packed with art collections that are the envy of many a museum.

During our circumnavigation of the Eternal City, I began thinkingmichelangelo_-_creation_of_adam-29p8ptc about something that has frequently been on my mind of late: the power of Beauty. The other day, a good friend of mine who works at the Vatican Museums said something that sparked this reflection: “No one argues with the Church in the Sistine Chapel.” It’s so true! I give lots of tours of the Sistine Chapel to all sorts of people, and I have noticed that surrounded by the grandeur Michelangelo’s frescos, even the most hardened atheist is disarmed. You can’t argue with Beauty.

We live in a highly secular world that has paradoxically come to an all-time low of irrationality, despite our amazing scientific progress. What I mean is that while we have certainly advanced in science, we have lost a lot of ground in true wisdom. A good number of us are extremely knowledgeable in science and other areas, but fewer and fewer of us are open to the Truth that transcends all knowledge: the supernatural Truth of God.

imageIn our world, all truth (except for what can be proven through scientific experiments) has become relative, a matter of personal choice. As a result, lacking a true framework upon which to base our decisions, our emotions have become the driving force behind what we decide to do and believe. For example, there are people with whom I could sit down and walk through Thomas Aquinas’s five extremely logical proofs of the existence of God, and yet at the end they would still tell me, “That may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” There is not much more that you can say to such people who are so blinded to the truth by their emotions. As Thomas Paine put it, “To argue with someone who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.” Unfortunately, much of our world is tainted to one degree or another by emotional irrationality.

However, there is still hope. As Dostoevsky wrote in a one of his novels, “Beauty will save the world”: in the post-modern world, this is truer than ever. People may obstinately argue against Truth, but no one can argue with Beauty. Presented with the truth of rational proofs of God’s existence, someone may be able to say “That is false”, but presented with the beauty of the Sistine Chapel or a symphony by Beethoven, no sane human being will say “That’s ugly.” Our recognition of Truth can be confused, but our appreciation of Beauty is so deeply ingrained in human nature that it is inseparable.

The good news is that Beauty and Truth are intimately connected, so once you touch someone with the former, it is just a matter of time before you can bring him to accept the latter, and I attest to that personally.

Beauty touches our hearts and awakens in us our inborn desire for God, who is Beauty Itself. As C.S. Lewis once wrote:

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…

This longing will only be fully satisfied when we finally behold God in all of His Beauty and Truth.

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I strive to lead a beauty-oriented life, recognizing and appreciating the beauty of the world that I live in and the men and women who fill it. I have dedicated myself to bring as many people as possible to experience the Beauty of God and at the same time recognize their own supernatural beauty. My goal with this blog is to share with you how Beauty has touched and continues to touch my life, with the hope that it may resonate with and touch you as well.

Let’s marvel at Beauty together!