Volume 8, Issue 2: Verbatim
Quotations on Arts and Aesthetics
Various Saints and Observers
The Lord has anointed Me to preach
good tidings to the poor; . . . To give them beauty for ashes.
Whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of
good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy; meditate
on these things.
That an artist might have more fun if he were lawless is obvious; so might anybody
Many modern novels, poems, and pictures which we are brow-beaten into appreciating
are not good work because they are not work at all. They are mere puddles of
spilled sensibility or reflection. When an artist is in the strict sense working,
he of course takes into account the existing taste, interests, and capacity of
his audience. These, no less than the language, the marble, or the paint, are
part of his raw material; to be used, tamed, subliminated, not ignored nor defied.
Haughty indifference to them is not genius nor integrity; it is laziness and
If God is and remains Sovereign, then art can work no enchantment except in keeping
with the ordinances which God ordained for the beautiful, when He, as the Supreme
Artist, called this world into existence. And further, if God is and remains
Sovereign, then He also imparts these artistic gifts to whom He will, first even
to Cain's, and not to Abel's posterity; not as if art were Cainitic, but in order
that he who has sinned away the highest gifts, should at least, as Calvin so
beautifully says, in the lesser gifts of art have some testimony of the Divine
I can paint my Heaven but it looks like Hell.
To interest is the first duty of art; no other excellences will even begin to
compensate for failure in this, and very serious faults will be covered by this,
as by charity.
Our excuse for our aesthetic failure has often been that we must be about the
Lord's business, the assumption being that the Lord's business is never aesthetic.
However, you're my man, you've seen the world
The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colors, lights and shades,
Changes, surprisesand God made it all!
For what? Do you feel thankful, ay or no . . .?
Biblical aesthetics in music are difficult to pinpoint, until the larger issues
of purity and excellence are addressed. Mere enjoyment is not enough. Doctrine
alone is not sufficient. Sincerity does not excuse shoddy workmanship, nor does
high art excuse borderline idolatry. Adjectives like distinctive , heartfelt,
true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, reputable, excellent, praiseworthy these
are the Bible's ideal for music.
The Lord told Bezalel, the artist of the Tabernacle, to make the garments of
the high priest, with their dazzling gems and elaborate design, "for glory and
for beauty" (Exodus 28:2 KJV). God's purpose for these particular works of Bezalel
suggests a purpose for all of the artsto glorify God and to manifest beauty.
The point is that beauty is seen not only as a pleasant diversion, but as one
of the ways God reveals Himself in His creation. This is not to say (as the Romantics
did) that the artist is a prophet, or that what he reveals should in any way
overshadow specific revelation, but beauty cannot come from anyone other than
God Himself, and it is a window into heaven for those who have ears and eyes
to see and hear. If this is the case, then what Christians call beautiful says
a great deal to the watching world about who we call beautiful.
In my heterodox heart there is yearly growing up the strangest, crabbed, one-sided
persuasion, that art is but a reminiscence now; that for us in these days prophecy
(well understood), not poetry, is the thing wanted. How can we sing and paint
when we do not yet believe and see ?
To draw attention to these individual cultural embarrassmentsto these exposures,
if you willis also to describe the fundamental deficiency (and the fatal weakness)
of an entire class of self-proclaimed artists and thinkers . . . They were artistic
and philosophical xenophobes without intellectual definition or social purpose,
even in their own mindsfuzzy minds devoid of soul, pretentious craftsmen devoid
of discipline . . .The progeny of resentment had embraced their cultural isolation
(and its attendant ignorance) as a matter of artistic principle; and because
they knew so little of the purposes or the history of life, they knew even less
of art. Inevitably, they had tried to divorce the art from the lifeto make a
closed shop of the human psychology and spiritand in so doing they had signed
their own cultural death warrants.
The willingness to differentiate between the purely artistic dimension of a poem
or song or painting and its subject matter may, in fact, have been something
that Christianity contributed to aesthetics. John Milton, in a famous autobiographical
passage in which he outlines the history of his own literary development, writes
that the Roman elegiac poets exerted an early literary influence on him. Milton
gradually came to deplore the ethical viewpoint of these pagan authors, but he
notes that "their art I still applauded."
Literature exists to teach what is useful, to honour what deserves honour, to
appreciate what is delightful. The useful, honourable, and delightful things
are superior to it: it exists for their sake; its own use, honour, or delightfulness
is derivative from theirs.
The artists themselves didn't seem to have the faintest notion of how primary
Theory was becoming. I wonder if the theorists themselves did. All of them, artists
and theorists, were talking as if their conscious aim was to create a totally
immediate art, lucid, stripped of all the dreadful baggage of history, an art
fully revealed, honest, as honest as the flat-out integral picture plane. "Aesthetics
is for the artists as ornithology is for the birds," said Barnett Newman in a
much-repeated mot . And yet Newman himself happened to be one of the most incessant
theoreticians on Eighth Street, and his work showed it. He spent the last twenty-two
years of his life studying the problems (if any) of dealing with big areas of
color divided by stripes . . . on a flat picture plane.
If I am walking in an art gallery and see a beautiful painting, it may be good
to praise the Lord, and to thank Him for that great gift. The thing is beautiful,
and therefore a joy and spiritually rich . . . But more than likely it will not
even occur to us, for we place the arts out of the context of life, making them
something autonomous; or say that the gift is just 'natural,' so opposing nature
to grace, forgetting that there is no 'nature' that is out of God's creation. No:
let us give praise to God for every manifestation of His gifts.
The Church anathematized the pseudo-Romantic heresies; there could be no superiority
except in morals, in labour, in love. See, understand, enjoy , said the Gnostic;
repent, believe, love, said the Church, and if you see anything by the way,
The Vandal aesthetic may be coming back in the anti-intellectualism of the mass
culture and in the Postmodern nihilism of the high culture. Christians may be
the last readers.
I will go so far as to maintain that the extraordinary confusion of our minds
about the nature and function of Art is principally due to the fact that for
nearly 2,000 years we have been trying to reconcile a pagan, or at any rate a
Unitarian, aesthetic with a Christianthat is, a Trinitarian and Incarnationaltheology.
It is worth noting that the same difference of attitude is displayed about the
other arts and about natural beauty. Many people enjoy popular music in a way
which is compatible with humming the tune, stamping in time, talking, and eating.
And when the popular tune has once gone out of fashion they enjoy it no more.
Those who enjoy Bach react quite differently. Some buy pictures because the walls
"look so bare without them"; and after the pictures have been in the house for
a week they become practically invisible to them. But there are a few who feed
on a great picture for years.
Has the Lord adorned flowers with all the beauty which spontaneously presents
itself to the eye, and the sweet odor which delights the sense of smell, and
shall it be unlawful for us to enjoy that beauty and this odor? What? Has He
not so distinguished colors as to make some more agreeable than others? . . .
In short, has He not given many things a value without having any necessary use?
Back to top
Back to Table of Contents
Copyright © 2012 Credenda/Agenda. All rights reserved.