Apprehending Beauty

In a comment to “Aesthetics & American Idol,” Reader Mason Ian perfectly describes the “arduous” process of perceiving the greatest beauty:

Learning to subjectively like what is objectively good at first bounced off of my 3am quick-read blog-scan. But then I realized that this exact thing happened to me and I shall anecdote-ize it thus:

When first I approached Milton’s Paradise Lost I knew that I “should” treasure it as a sublime and beautiful epic of written art. But i could only (at first) force myself to appreciate it from the outside, like looking at an utterly alien thing that all others considered beautiful. You look at it sideways, squint a bit, trying to see what they see… but it is unutterably alien. Perhaps you see an angle here or there that has a symmetrical form that is pleasing, a curve here, a line there… but the whole is so beyond your current vantage point that the beauty is lost by your own unelevated perspective.

Then, after forcing yourself to merely “mentally ascribe” the designation of beauty to the form, you slowly achieve the ability to connect the slivers of recognizable traits of beauty that you CAN see from your current state.

This is achieved in literature by reading more. The more you read, the more you read. Sounds like very droll truism, but by it I mean the process by which reading one book end us turing you on to several other books, other authors, different ideas and concepts and styles. I read Samuel Taylor Coleridge and find a dozen more obscure authors through his quotes and references, which in turn leads me to more reading. Then, after ten years I come back to Milton and find that Paradise Lost IS beautiful to me in a very different way than the alien beauty I had firs admired as an outsider.

So at first I liked it for reasons outside of myself (others regarded it as the pinnacle of English poetry, etc, etc) then I learned to love it myself, through my own tastes and my own reflection.

We go from being outsiders to being insiders.

However, as it was pointed out, hollywood goes another way. The simple and quick way. the way of the lowest common denominator. Grasping beauty and goodness is a slow art that requires years of honing and exercise. Who has time? Pare down the representation of love to three lines of cheesy dialogue and a wet kissing scene and the audience is satisfied right?

Hardly. Here’s to those who take the time to find and create what is beautiful. It is a long and arduous journey but one which holds the most epic of rewards.

See, Milton and Shakespeare don’t make concessions to our impoverished vocabularies. You may have to read them with a dictionary at first. And they don’t pause every twelve minutes for a word from their sponsors. They go their own way and we have to catch up. But it is worth it when we do. The very subjective pleasure, if you want to reduce everything to this, is so much greater and deeper and more intense with these writers than with the lesser entertainment we content ourselves with (for one thing because we don’t always want to involve ourselves so much or work so hard–which is fine sometimes, as long as we don’t reduce our aesthetic standards to our own lazy pleasures and exclude what is really objectively good).

He saved others; He cannot save Himself

Grunewald's Crucifixion

Grunewald’s “Crucifixion”

(Note how the same artist of this utterly dead Jesus renders Him at Easter, below. You may want to save that view, as well as the other posts on the Resurrection, for Easter day.)

Aesthetics & American Idol

OK, OK, I know I was bad-mouthing “American Idol” this season when it first started, but nevertheless I have been watching and it has gotten interesting. The certain winner will be David Archuleta, who has all of the teeny-bopper votes of last season’s Sanjaya with the added advantage that he can actually sing well. The two best singers, however, in my opinion, are the Irish waitress with the unfortunate tattoos Carly Smithson and the rocker with Tulsa connections David Cook.

That doesn’t mean I LIKE them the best. In this ongoing seminar on aesthetics that we have been conducting, it is important to realize that there is a huge difference between saying “that is good” and “I like that.” The former is an objective statement. The latter is a subjective response. Most confusions about aesthetic matters come from mixing up the two kinds of judgments. Indeed, ignoring the first one, considering the objective merits, and thinking that LIKING something is that same as recognizing its beauty. We can LIKE all kinds of things–things that make us feel gooey inside, nostalgic associations, easy jolts of hedonism, things we agree with, appeals to our sinful nature (which is why Hollywood goes the way it does)–whereas discerning beauty requires knowledge of the art form and careful attention and reflection. Growing in taste involves learning to subjectively “like” what is objectively “good.”

Anyway, the two performers on Idol that I LIKE, though I’m not saying they are necessarily as good as the others, are Brook White, who sends forth such a positive and joyful vibe, and Michael Johns, the bloke from Australia, who sings with soul but who does not overdo the special effects like the others tend to.

Remember the aesthetic lesson of the day: DON’T GO BY WHAT YOU LIKE. GO BY WHAT IS GOOD.

Why seek ye the living among the dead?

Grunewald's Resurrection

Grunewald’s “Resurrection”

(By the same artist who painted the Crucifixion, above. From the deadest Jesus to the most alive Jesus.)

Another Christian artist

We’ve been bragging about Lucas Cranach as an artist, but what about a contemporary artist from our very own Cranach community, Sarah Hempel Irani, a.k.a. Sarah from Maryland? She too is a very gifted artist who expresses her faith in her vocation. Check out her website, which includes information on how you or your church could have or even commission some of her portraits or sacred art:

Consider this example of her work, a sculpture of Mary at the Annunciation. Note how expressive Sarah has made this block of marble!

Sarah from Maryland's sculpture of Mary

Princess Sybille

Thanks–again–to Paul McCain at Cyberbrethren for keeping up with the Lucas Cranach boom. This achingly lovely portrait of Princess Sybille of Cleves is on sale for $4-$6 million.

Princess Sybille, by Cranach

And Paul quotes from the catalog description. Here is just a sampling of what it says about this young woman, a true saint of the Reformation:

This portrait of Princess Sybille of Cleves (1512-1554) was painted when she was fourteen years old and newly betrothed to Johann Friedrich I (1503-1554), the future Elector of Saxony. The oldest daughter of Johann III, Duke of Cleves, and Maria of Jülich-Berg, Sybille grew up at court in Düsseldorf with her sister Anne, one of the future wives of Henry VIII. Her marriage into the House of Saxony placed Sybille in the middle of the greatest ideological struggle of the sixteenth century, a reformation not only of the church but also of the state. A committed friend and supporter of Martin Luther, Johann Friedrich was actively engaged in the Reformation and took dramatic political and military risks to protect the reformatory movement. Sybille conducted a correspondence of her own with Martin Luther and actively supported her husband’s many campaigns, defending Wittenberg in his absence during Emperor Charles V’s siege of the city in 1546.

The Emperor’s siege of Wittenberg after Luther’s death was a huge conflict. Luther’s son Hans is said to have fought on the walls. That this woman led the defense is incredible. The Emperor eventually won, thinking he crushed the Reformation. Little did he know.

Anyway, that Cranach’s art speaks so strongly to people today should be an opening for us to explain the faith and the worldview that underlies his greatness.

Consider the range of his work and notice how free Cranach is. Notice how he appreciates individual human beings. Notice how he appreciates the beauty of nature and of ordinary life. Notice his edge in ridiculing vice and condemning corruption in both individuals and in the church. Notice how he experiences no contradiction between creativity and order, Biblical reality and his own reality. Notice his sense of vocation, of loving and serving his neighbor through his God-given gifts as an artist, a businessman, the mayor of Wittenberg, a lay leader in his congregation. How can we get this Christian sensibility back in our own times?