Last week, a conference and exhibition (actually, the exhibition is still running) took place which I had the privilege to help organise. We chose for our theme the Hebrew phrase ‘Tikkun Olam’ – to mend the world – and invited artists and theologians to converse together about the following questions: Can there be repair? Can art and can theology tell the truth of the world’s woundedness and still speak of hope?
One of the themes to arise from the conversations concerned the Church’s long and deep indebtment to the three-fold notion of the good, the beautiful and the true, a notion articulated in Plato and given significant mileage through Thomas Aquinas in whom it reaches something of a dead end because in the final analysis Thomas’s articulation – like Kant’s after him – is too divorced from the particular form that God’s life actually takes in the world. For God’s beauty is not, as some suggest, the infinite serenity of God’s life. Rather, God’s beauty is the infinite drama of God’s life, a drama which, as Jonathan Edwards so wonderfully articulated, draws attention to God’s intrinsic plurality – God is beautiful precisely because God is Triune.
And so it is perhaps not too odd that the twentieth century which witnessed something of a renaissance of interest in the doctrine of the Trinity also witnessed a widescale broadening of the notion of beauty in the discourse of aesthetics. Beauty was no longer understood in the narrow terms outlined by Kant and others, and it became rightly recognised as having to do, in John de Gruchy’s words, with ‘the experience and perception of reality that we associate with the imagination and creativity, with metaphor and symbol, with games, playfulness, and friendship. The arts, whether fine or popular in all their manifold forms are central to aesthetics because they embody and express this dimension of experience, they evoke memories and suggest possibilities, thereby enabling us to see reality differently’.
Where beauty has been banished from contemporary aesthetic discourse, it has largely been in ‘reaction to the aestheticism of those who pursued beauty for its own sake, a Romantic escapism oblivious to the ugly realities of a world gripped by oppression’. But movements birthed by reaction alone are doomed to fail; and anyway, any account of aesthetics which claims the name ‘Christian’ will have to deal with the fact that the very centre of divine unveiling recalls that the beautiful and the ugly are not so easy to disentangle as we might first expect. Indeed, a Christian account of beauty can neither ignore nor offer easy escape from evil.
It is not, therefore, improper – indeed, it may be incumbent upon Christian theologians and artists – to approach the question of beauty through a consideration of its opposite, namely ugliness. Indeed, it is sometimes the case, as Theodor Adorno observes, that ‘art has to make use of the ugly in order to denounce the world which creates and recreates ugliness in its own image’. John de Gruchy suggests that ‘it is precisely this protest against unjust ugliness that reinforces the value and significance of beauty as something potentially redemptive. Indeed, if aesthetics were just about the beautiful we would never really understand “the dynamic life inherent in the concept of beauty”’. If ugliness has the capacity to destroy life, then Dostoevsky’s claim that ‘beauty will save the world’ invites us to not only (as PT Forsyth put it) ‘distrust the easy optimism of the merely happy creeds’, but also to see the invitation towards theological aesthetics as about faith seeking to understand reality – in its ugly forms too – from the vista of the beauty of God revealed primarily in the bloodied wounds of the cross where all that is ugly is transfigured by a profundity of beauty. Such beauty, as Karl Barth insists, ‘embraces death as well as life, fear as well as joy, what we might call the ugly as well as what we might call the beautiful’. To speak of beauty in its deepest reality is, in other words, to speak not just of any beauty, but rather of a very specific beauty. Indeed, it is beauty so specific that it goes by a particular name – Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ – who he is and what God does in him – is the very beauty of God.