The Beauty Dialogues, Part 7

Today philosopher Santiago Ramos steps in with the last word (we think) of “The Beauty Dialogues,” a periodic exchange between Image contributor Morgan Meis and Image founder Gregory Wolfe.

For a while now I have borne the fearful hunch that sooner or later, Image would have to confront Immanuel Kant. A journal whose reason for existing rests on the idea that beauty is a source for personal redemption and cultural renewal—in other words, the idea that “beauty will save the world”—would have to eventually come to terms with the aesthetic theory that has provided the framework for Western thinking about beauty in the last three centuries.

For this reason, I was happy to read that Morgan Meis had at long last set the stage for this confrontation in his most recent installment of his ongoing dialogue with Greg Wolfe about beauty. However, I don’t agree with his take on how Kant’s theory poses a challenge to the idea that beauty has a “salvific” power.

Meis argues that Kant’s theory poses such a challenge because it disentangles aesthetic judgment from all other types of judgement; beauty must become its own category. This disentangling has radical effects for the history of beauty: “Kant’s argument basically collapses both poles of the Christian/Greek approach to beauty,” because while the Christian links beauty judgments with spiritual ennoblement, the Greek approach links it to sensuous pleasure or (in Plato’s special case) to the intuition of the divine forms.

Post-Kant, we must contend with an aesthetic realm that is completely autonomous. [Read more…]

The Beauty Dialogues, Part 6

Today Gregory Wolfe continues his periodic exchanges on the nature of beauty with Image contributor Morgan Meis. 

Dear Morgan,

Well, yesterday you took your swing all right. I just can’t tell if you’ve decked me or…whiffed. In either case, I’m certainly dazed! I told you last time that I have no formal philosophical training, so in one sense I’m helpless to answer you in kind. If only you’d challenged me to a close reading of Finnegans Wake….

Now that you’ve played the Kant card (!), I think this offers us a good opportunity to complete this set of exchanges.

The simplest way I can summarize your argument is that you hold a “disruptive” theory of cultural history. You say that Kant destroyed any notion that Jerusalem and Athens can co-exist and, furthermore, that Kant’s subjectivist theory of beauty puts an end to any attempt to ground beauty in classical metaphysics. What we need now, you conclude, is “to look for spiritual principles in art in completely new and different ways.”

My gut reaction to this contention is the same as my reaction to new religions that claim that we’ve been completely mistaken about God or the Bible for a couple millennia and that we need to follow the brand new approach of some guru who has been vouchsafed the true, ultimate revelation.

The problem here is hubris: the notion that we must discard the past and start over is tantamount to saying that we must now create a new system of understanding virtually ex nihilo. [Read more…]

The Beauty Dialogues, Part 5

image of a theater scene painted by Python, Greek potteryToday Morgan Meis continues his periodic exchanges on the nature of beauty with Image founder Gregory Wolfe.

Dear Greg,

In your last letter, you asked me not to hesitate in taking a “real swing” at you, philosophically speaking. (Or were you suggesting that this tête-à-tête must inevitably culminate in the back of an alley somewhere?) I’ve been setting up the foundation for doing so over the last couple of letters. But maybe it is time to draw the threads together and take my little “swing.”

Basically, we are going to have to wrangle with Kant, which is never easy and rarely pleasant.

We have to wrangle with Kant because I think he, along with the aesthetic Modernists who came after him, dealt a kind of deathblow to the uneasy civilizational alliance between Athens and Jerusalem that we talked about in the last exchange of letters. You have characterized the conflict between Athens and Jerusalem, following Jaroslav Pelikan, as one of “synthesis,” a synthesis of “tension and complementarity.”

Sounds nice. [Read more…]

The Beauty Dialogues, Part 4

Painting of Socrates standing in the center of a nondescript area, with his arm raised. He is lecturing to a crowd of men who are gathered around him, some lounging, others standing, but all looking towards Socrates in the center of the circle. They are wearing togas. The following is a response to Morgan Meis’s letter posted yesterday.

Dear Morgan:

I’m enjoying this conversation but at times I worry that you’re playing Glaucon to my Socrates. In other words, just egging the “master” on. I want to be sure you’re not just tossing up softballs for me to take a swing at. You’re a professionally trained philosopher; I’ve never taken a philosophy class in my life. So don’t hesitate to take a real swing…at me!

Now I don’t want to bog the conversation down in quibbles but I worry that semantic differences and definitions may be getting in the way. You’re getting at this when you accuse me of doing a “bait and switch” in defining beauty—messing with the “registers.”

My point about Donatello’s Mary Magdalene was that the work of art can take what is ugly—a ragged, gaunt, old woman—and transform that ugliness into a form of beauty—a simultaneous perception of spiritual beauty inhering in outward brokenness. [Read more…]

The Beauty Dialogues, Part 3

Image of Donatello's Mary Magdalene sculpture. Mary is standing slightly to her left side, with her hands clasped together. She is looking off towards the right of the frame, slightly, and looks haggard, and is wearing a ragged dress.Today Morgan Meis continues his periodic exchanges with Image founder Gregory Wolfe.

Dear Greg,

Thanks for your response to my latest “challenge,” as you put it, on the question of beauty. I love all the things you have to say and find myself both moved and convinced by the nuanced, complicated version of beauty you’ve put forward.

Or I should say…almost convinced. Alas, there are still a couple of sticking points for me. But what did you expect?

I’m extremely glad you brought up the Donatello statue. I had the chance to see the Penitent Magdalene on a trip to Florence some years ago. Like many a great work of art, there’s nothing like being in its physical presence. Pictures don’t do it justice.

You describe Donatello’s Magdalene as “a hollow-eyed, ragged figure.” That she is. I would go even further and say that she is downright ugly. [Read more…]