A new monthly column on theology and the arts.

By Ben Lima

After having studied the arts for many years from within a more or less mainstream academic framework that entirely ignores the question of transcendent value, and thus is neither quite satisfying nor entirely able to account for why works of art seem to have the value and the power that they do, I was brought up short and deeply affected by the comments made by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his 2002 address “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty.” I’d like to quote this passage in full, since I see it as an unsurpassable summary of art’s importance and value, noting in passing the potential apologetic and evangelistic value of expressing truth in the form of beauty:

The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this knows that the faith is true.” The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration. Isn’t the same thing evident when we allow ourselves to be moved by the icon of the Trinity of Rublëv? In the art of the icons, as in the great Western paintings of the Romanesque and Gothic period, the experience described by Cabasilas, starting with interiority, is visibly portrayed and can be shared.

A quite similar story can be heard from those who see a Gothic cathedral for the first time. Taking one example from among many, the American Emma Willard wrote, upon encountering Rouen Cathedral in 1834: “my mind was smitten with a feeling of sublimity almost too intense for mortality. I stood and gazed, and as the light increased, and my observation became more minute, a new creation seemed rising to my view.”


Such accounts of beauty resonate with that provided in the masterful recent book by Thomas Pfau, Incomprehensible Certainty: Metaphysics and Hermeneutics of the Image. Before tracing an arc that runs from Plato and Byzantium all the way through to Goethe, Ruskin, Humboldt, Hopkins, Cézanne and Rilke, Pfau sets out a framework for understanding what an image is, and how to account for its mysterious power:

First, an image is generated in response to an encounter with Being whose richness and fullness are limitless but can still be perceived, understood, and communicated analogically (as opposed to being generated purely voluntarily and arbitrarily from the mind of the artist, disconnected from any more basic or profound level of existence). Second, a patient phenomenological attention is capable of drawing out the image in its fullness (as opposed to the results of analytical and positivistic critical theories whose murderous dissection yields in the end only a pile of disconnected fragments). Third, a process of hermeneutics can engage with the image through the order of language and reason, articulating its logic in verbal testimony that can be intersubjectively communicated, shared and understood (as opposed to confining the encounter with art to a purely private, incommunicable, arbitrary and meaningless experience with no significance beyond the isolated self).

Although Pfau’s book is concerned with the visual image, the same logic applies to any art that partakes in the splendor of form: a symphony plays with the music of the spheres, a church building is an icon of the heavenly Jerusalem, and poetry echoes the meter memory of the heavens.

Such experiences of art — of which the Bach concert and Gothic cathedral are prime examples — are rarer than they should be, and not just because a Bach doesn’t come along every day. Rather, when a reader, listener, or viewer encounters a work of art that is unnecessarily ugly, stupid, boring, or tedious — something that happens far more often than it should — it is because individual artists, as well as the artistic cultures from which they emerge, and the art institutions through which creative works are channeled and nurtured, have lost sight of the story, and lost faith that a work of art can ever really be more than a dreary artifact of amoral power relations, or a monument to narcissistic self-absorption, status-seeking, meaninglessness, sensationalistic thrill-seeking, and/or despair.

Scandalously, after a few such experiences, innocent members of the public may conclude that they “just don’t like” painting, poetry, or orchestral music, wrongly but understandably concluding that the tedious banality of the works they have encountered is inherent to art as such, rather than merely the symptom of a disordered artistic culture. Choosing then to ignore the arts, they then cut themselves off from one very important means of participating fully in creation and becoming fully human.

The good news is that today there are countless artists in all fields (as well as curators, publishers, and scholars) who reject the counsel of despair, and who make work that actively stimulates its audience toward a love of goodness, truth, and beauty, and that, thanks to the internet and social media, it is in principle easier to discover these artists and their work than it previously would have been.

But you have to know where to look. Back again briefly to the bad news: to discover these artists is more difficult than it ought to be, since so few mainstream institutions can be relied upon to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the vast infinity of the online world makes it hard to know where to begin. Thus, many artists find a smaller audience than they otherwise might: one confined perhaps to fellow poets or painters, rather than embracing a broad public that is hungry for beauty.

This column — the first installment of which will be published tomorrow — is therefore a modest effort to highlight and publicize art that draws its public toward beauty, whether in the form of painting, architecture, music, poetry, fiction, or otherwise. The focus is on Christian art. Since one of the sad aspects of today’s situation is a certain estrangement between artists and the church, I’ll highlight those who are working against that estrangement. In addition to the apologetic value to which Ratzinger alludes in his remarks, beautiful art also has an ecumenical value: Christians of all stripes are happy to endorse the work of Bach and Mozart, Giotto and Fra Angelico, George Herbert and John Donne, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky, as offering something that everyone can appreciate, without ignoring the differences that divide them.

This column is dedicated to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Anglican poet-philosopher who, facing the deadening chill of Enlightenment modernity, and knowing a full measure of sin, suffering, and death, still presented the reality of enchantment, imagination, and the human personality, in a way that even modern people can understand and appreciate. Next time, and in the future, I’ll offer a continuing series of brief reports on current developments in painting, music, poetry, fiction, film, architecture, and otherwise, in a Coleridgean spirit of edification and encouragement.

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