Beauty Goes Underground
Imagine you’re on your way to work. It’s the rush of early morning traffic at the metro and you’re squished in a crowd of commuters. You travel up the escalator, coffee and donut in hand, bleary-eyed and body-tired to catch the 7:05 into the city.
An otherworldly sound begins to rise above the din surrounding you. It rises above the scuffs and squeaks of shoes, above the hurried and insistent voices, above the coughs and sneezes, above the white noise of ubiquitous machinery, above the tinny crackle of loudspeakers announcing imminent arrivals and departures. What is that sound? A high straining sound, like an ache; a sound that seems familiar but it’s the familiarity of a half-remembered dream. Another moment and you recognize it—a violin—but where is it coming from?
As the thin river of the escalator empties out to the ocean of the main terminal, you try to source the sound. Through the blur of passerby, you make out a man in a baseball cap and blue jeans standing next to a trash basket, an open violin case at his feet. Just another bum looking for a handout. You’re about to move on, but a strange force holds you in place.
He’s playing the instrument with masterful artistry — his phrasing is nuanced, expert, perfect, and his feeling is something special. You remember those few misguided violin lessons you had to endure in middle school and realize this guy is good. Better than good. He throws himself into the music with passion and physicality as if the instrument was an extension of his body, his body an extension of his soul, and the music at once cerebral and filled with pathos. The heartbreaking notes of Schubert’s "Ave Maria" echo and reverberate throughout the marbled space.
You stop for a moment to listen. You can only think of one word to describe what you’re hearing: beautiful.
Then a passerby shoulders you and the hot splash of coffee on your wrist elicits a muffled curse. The spell is broken and you suddenly hear a boarding call for the 7:05 train. You check your watch, hoping it will contradict the announcement and allow you another few minutes to listen to the violinist. No such luck. Another curse and you dash off into the crowd with the sweet ache of the violin slowly fading behind you.
Susan Sontag claimed that “the capacity to be overwhelmed by the beautiful is astonishingly sturdy and survives amidst the harshest distractions.” The Washington Post put that claim to the test by orchestrating a fascinating sociological experiment on January 12th of last year. They convinced Joshua Bell — one of the world’s most famous virtuoso violinists — to play an impromptu "concert" during the morning rush of traffic in Washington DC’s L’Enfant Plaza Station. The question was simply this: "In a banal setting, at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?"
Apparently not. Bell, who plays a Stradivarius worth $3.5 million and commands something close to $1,000 a minute to perform before sold-out crowds the world over, managed to rake in about thirty bucks in a little less than an hour. In other words, composers like Bach and Beethoven were roundly beaten in that ongoing battle between Beauty and the Banal. Most commuters, many muttering into their cell phones or with ears plugged up by those little white iPod buds, passed Bell by with nary a pause nor glance.
A nice irony of the set-up was that Bell’s spot was next to a lottery ticket kiosk. Those who paid a couple bucks to buy lottery tickets didn’t know they were standing next to a world-famous musician whom the cultural cognoscenti pay upwards of $100 to watch in concert. And there he was, no more than a few feet away, playing with nimble, acrobatic passion. I wonder what the odds were of those lottery-ticket buyers ending up standing next to Joshua Bell playing his Stradivarius in a DC metro. Probably longer than the odds of winning the lottery.
About a thousand commuters rushed by Bell during the forty-five minutes he played. Only seven stopped to listen, even fewer stopped to listen for more than a minute. No crowd ever assembled and Bell’s earnings amounted to $30 bucks donated by a total of twenty-seven sympathetic passerby. Even Bell, a charming, down-to-earth chap, admitted to the Post writers that it was “a strange feeling that people were actually, ah…ignoring me.”
That’s an understatement coming from someone who Interview magazine claimed “does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.”
How then can one plausibly explain the fact that suit-clad automatons rushing to work were unable to recognize beauty when it was literally right in front of them? Or did they not care? Is it their fault or the fault of a culture that has essentially done away with beauty?
A telling observation from the Post article was that children were invariably drawn to Bell. They stopped to listen to him with innocent pleasure and curiosity until time-conscious parents ushered them along to make the next train. Poet laureate Billy Collins was convinced that beauty is instilled in the womb; a mother’s heart beats in iambic pentameter, the poetical rhythm most associated with Shakespeare’s blank verse. To quote from the article: “Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.” In other words, a child’s sense of beauty may be innate, but society systematically snuffs it out.
The Post article is both highly amusing (Bell’s willingness to participate in such a scheme testifies to his populist, accessible sensibilities—not to mention healthy sense-of-humor) and a little bit depressing. Ours is a beauty starved culture and here’s more evidence of it. How many of us are willing to stop and soak in beauty when given half a chance? A perhaps more salient question: would we even recognize beauty if it was right in front of us, disguised as a subway station busker?
Two relevant yet contradictory quotes come to mind:
“All art is quite useless.” – Oscar Wilde
“Beauty will save the world.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky
If we accept that Art and Beauty are bedfellows—a concession not all are willing to make —then which is it? Will beauty save the world or will art, beauty’s primary mode of human expression, ultimately prove useless? We’ve all had so-called “transcendent moments,” whether via the transporting power of a sunset, the elegant figures traced along a Grecian Urn, the sublime impact of a Beethoven symphony, the awe-inspiring spectacle of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, or Joshua Bell playing Schubert in a subway station. Yet if the capacity for transcendence exists then how do those fleeting moments fuse with the humdrum reality of everyday life? Standing before the Apollo Belvedere torso, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke concluded, “You must change your life.” Was that just a poetical device? Does beauty have any efficacy or is it ever only an aesthetic—that is to say, decorative? Is it even necessary?
Of the three eternal verities of the Catholic faith—truth, goodness, and beauty—it seems to me that beauty is the least understood. Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete has formulated the relationship this way: without beauty, truth becomes legalism and goodness becomes moralism. Beauty is how we find pleasure in truth and goodness, but its workings are mysterious. Truth and goodness can be defined in binary terms. Truth is not Falsehood. Good is not Evil. What is the opposite of Beauty? Ugliness? What is ugly? As most modern art can attest, from the crude black swathes of Franz Kline’s paintings to the atonal non-melodies of John Cage’s accidental music, “ugliness” is no longer anathema to art production. It is intrinsic. For a contemporary art critic to describe a painting as “beautiful” is not nearly so complimentary as to call it “interesting” or better yet, “provocative,” or best: “subversive.”
Open an introductory textbook on the history of Western art and the story inevitably begins with the cave paintings of Lascaux, produced some thirty thousand years ago by furry hobbit-like critters, our genetic forefathers. The same textbook will likely end somewhere around the time of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a fuzzy photograph of a crucifix dipped in a jar of urine. How provocative! Some see this as progress. The reason in that case can only be ideological and not aesthetic. The Lascaux cave paintings are actually quite striking and ocular proof of dear old Sister Wendy’s observation, “Art changes, but doesn’t get better.”
But does it get worse? There were legitimate reasons for modern art’s rebellion against beauty. Co-opted to a certain degree by the establishment art academies in the 19th century, beauty became derivative, decorative and superficial (not dissimilar to our current culture’s superficial obsession with youth and beauty). Yet the necessary reaction to this one-dimensional understanding of beauty was a dramatic pendulum swing in the opposite direction—Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, for example, deconstructed the human figure into a series of jagged, shuttering planes, prompting one critic to describe the painting as “an explosion in a shingles factory.” Duchamp was also the fellow who painted a moustache on the Mona Lisa, a nice symbol for the adolescent rebellion against the tradition of Western art that many contemporary artists base their entire careers on.
The abuse heaped on the Mona Lisa—Duchamp’s moustache and a cover spot on the Dan Brown’s execrable Da Vinci Code—represents the single aim of so-called “high culture” and “low culture”: to do away with the past and to champion anything bright, shiny, and new. John Paul II’s question to modern-day France could be asked of Western society in general: “What have you done with your baptism?”
Perhaps part of the reason so few folks stopped to listen to Joshua Bell’s impromptu concert is that we are not conditioned to appreciate, or even recognize, true beauty when we see it. Beauty is simply not a part of our daily lives.
Let’s define our term first, since “beauty” is one of those words like “love” that has been bandied about and bumped into banality, a bright jewel dulled through overuse (like that metaphor). The French novelist Stendhal called beauty “the promise of happiness.” Of course, that opens up the question of what constitutes happiness, a question with no foreseeable answer. More useful is John Paul II’s insight that “Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savor life and to dream of the future…It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God which a lover of beauty like St Augustine could express in incomparable terms: ‘Late have I loved you, O beauty ever ancient, ever new: late have I loved you!’”
Beauty as a mysterious, transcendent force is conspicuous by its absence in American culture. If we divide culture into high and low, or intellectual and popular, then we are forced to admit that pop culture has no authentic beauty and high culture has divorced whatever beauty remains from truth and goodness.
Pop culture’s assault on beauty is too wide-ranging to elucidate here. “Pop” may be “popular” abbreviated, but it also calls to mind brands like Coke and Pepsi—producers of something fizzy, sweet, briefly stimulating, and rotten in the long-term. Pop culture is junk culture. Its invitation is not to “savor life” but rather to exploit it for the sake of instant gratification. It is designed, manufactured and marketed to be consumed and thrown away.
When it comes to American pop culture, Beauty faces an uphill battle. If you’re addicted to crack it’s difficult to appreciate a bottle of vintage Bordeaux. Moral ugliness is given a surface-level spit-and-polish and the results include: The Da Vinci Code, soap operas, E! television, daytime television, crass commercials, American Idol, infomercials, Sex and the City (okay, with a few exceptions let’s say “TV” in general and have done), mass-market paperbacks, shallow self-help books, glossy magazines lining checkout counters with covers featuring either airbrushed supermodels or Photoshopped aliens (who can tell the difference?), summer movies with big explosions, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and their paparazzi photo-ops, cookie-cutter sequels, lowest-common-denominator plot formulas, on and on ad infinitum. In the superficial realm of popular culture, “beauty” is a concept co-opted by Cosmopolitan to sell more magazines. In the prophetic words of Hans Urs von Balthasar, pop culture makes of beauty “a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it.”
Pop culture is a target too big and easy to take seriously. What about highbrow culture, produced and promoted by people who would disdain to ever read Danielle Steele or who would rather be caught dead than at a Justin Timberlake concert? Not much beauty to be found there, either. Oscar Wilde called fashion “a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” Avant-garde art, by definition, is passé as soon as you look at it a second time. Consider for example a painting—I’ll generously call it that—I saw at the museum of Modern Art in Naples, Italy. Its title, White Room, conveyed something of the subject matter—absolutely nothing. It was a blank canvas stuck on the wall. The aural equivalent would be John Cage’s famous song—I’ll generously call it that—entitled 4:33, featuring four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. How provocative!
I am reminded of a brief exchange in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited between Cordelia Flyte and Charles Ryder, a painter.
“Charles,” said Cordelia, “Modern Art is all bosh, isn’t it?”
The Catholic Church, perceived by many as the bulwark of conservative, outmoded, antiquated values, will only survive by being counter-cultural. We are no longer part of an epoch that produced Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael as a matter of state and Church policy. As soon as the Church kowtows to pop culture in the guise of groovy services or to high culture in the guise of ghastly-looking modern churches then there is trouble in paradise.
When I attend evening mass on Sunday, the music is often a watered-down version of folk rock. It’s John Denver 1ite, which wouldn’t seem possible but there it is. Pastors and youth ministers, understandably eager to entice teenagers to church, pander to what they perceive as the “taste” of the younger generation. For the most part, the results inspire toe-curling embarrassment; flavorless imitations of rock bands of questionable talent to begin with, like an amateur oil painter clumsily attempting a Thomas Kinkade study.
The folksy liturgy is supposed to appeal to the younger generation. It’s supposed to make the mass “more accessible.” This is condescending to kids who know better. Recall that the only people who stopped to listen to Joshua Bell play classical music were under the age of ten, and then ask yourself who has the more sophisticated taste. Going to church must offer us something that we do not get from the wider culture or else what’s the point? It’s the sacred liturgy. Treating it as a diluted rock concert is silly, for the simple reason that somewhere else in town (or even at home on a pair of headphones) any kid can experience a better rock concert.
The mass is intrinsically true and good and would be so under any conditions, but the faithful ignore beauty at their own peril. As humans, we are attracted to beauty. Or as Aquinas put it, “Grace builds on Nature.” We experience life through our senses. Beauty, therefore, can make a more effective tool of evangelization than an appeal to the intellect (truth) or an appeal to the conscience (goodness), both of which are innate in Catholic teaching and will inevitably follow the initial encounter. A perfect example is St. Augustine, whose conversion was prompted by the music of the sacred liturgy: “How I wept, deeply moved by your hymns, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears, distilling the truth in my heart.” Would St. Augustine ever have experienced his conversion sitting in a pew being subjected to an off-key rendering of “On Eagle’s Wings”?
Another example is the Romantic writer, Chateaubriand, who longed for a Catholic renewal in France after the revolution’s stripping of the altars. Sitting in a bare Protestant church, Chateaubriand dreamed of “chants, pictures, ornaments, silk veils, draperies, laces, gold, silver, lamps, flowers, and incense of the altars.” That may seem like a litany of artificiality, but it speaks to a profound truth—the Catholic mass satisfies a fundamental human longing for beauty, a beauty that indexes the greater, more powerful beauty of God.
Artists throughout the ages have been inspired by their faith to produce works of abiding, enduring beauty. A catalogue of Christianity’s contribution to cultural beauty could fill the Alexandrian library. Even dyed-in-the-wool atheist Christopher Hitchens (author of the subtly-titled tract, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) has admitted that he cannot do without the poetry of George Herbert and John Donne, or Gothic architecture. The cultural tradition of Christianity includes the music of Palestrina, Bach, and Henryk Górecki; the cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame; the philosophies of the Church Fathers; the narratives of Chaucer and Dante; the sculpture of Donatello, Michelangelo, and Bernini; frescoes by Giotto and Fra Angelico; the paintings of Caravaggio, Titian, Rubens, and Goya; the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and WH Auden; the prose of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Flannery O’Connor; the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Carl Dreyer. And of course the lives of saints as diverse as Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross, Therese of Lisieux, and Catherine of Siena – living works of art, beautiful prayers to God.
The roll call of artists need not read like a list of fallen soldiers from a lost war. The battle for beauty continues, and its champions should feel emboldened, not disheartened, because the broader culture does not support them. (We all prefer David to Goliath, don’t we?) Of course, contemporary artists will not create works of lasting value by trying to imitate the past. Innovation, experimentation, and originality—qualities attributed to modernism—have always been hallmarks of great art, whether on the wall of a Lascaux cave or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Yet originality for its own sake, detached from truth or goodness, can lead to decadence, defined as morally degenerative self-indulgence. Serrano’s Piss Christ, for instance, cannibalizes canonical Christian images for its shock value. As Chesterton put it, “If there were no God, there would be no atheists.”
There is a mistaken assumption that faith is limiting, a pre-established frame that artists must squeeze their work into. Flannery O’Connor wrote in her essay collection, Mystery and Manners, “When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist.’” Why? Because the creative act echoes the initial act of creation: God bringing the world into being, much as a painter labors over his canvas or a composer her symphony. God loves what He created, and Christ’s Passion proves His willingness to die for His work of art. Christ’s death on the Cross was a revelation in artistic as well as salvific terms—the powerful, haunting beauty of suffering even unto death when love is the motivating force.
The fact of Original Sin makes ignoring humanity’s fallen state impossible for the artist, which is why the Christian mode of beauty can have a sublime terror or despair, as in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment or Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. With reference to the unblinking naturalism of O’Connor’s prose, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote, “The tightrope that the Catholic writer must walk is to forget or ignore nothing of the visually, morally, humanly sordid world, making nothing easy for the reader, while doing so in the name of a radical conviction that depends on that world being interrupted and transfigured by revelation.” Thus, Christian faith does not limit but rather expands an artist’s sensibility for the simple reason that Christianity is all-inclusive of joy and suffering, hope and despair, sin and redemption. As JRR Tolkien put it, “there is no story without the fall.”
By becoming “subcreators” with God of authentically beautiful art that is both of its time and suffused with perennial truth, artists can participate in a new kind of evangelization. In the words of Image journal editor Gregory Wolfe, “Beauty is making a comeback.” (His own journal testifies to this). Ron Hansen’s slim, haunting novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, published in 1992, belongs on a shortlist of the great Catholic novels. Another recent example was the remarkable success of The Passion of the Christ, with its Caravaggio-inspired visual scheme. More telling, perhaps, is the spate of secular art that taps into the deep vein of Christian philosophy—the bruising beauty and life-affirming message of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, the sophisticated albums of singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, the near-biblical pitch of Cormac McCarthy’s prose, or the Christ-infused finale of the Harry Potter series. The experience of great art, whether religious or secular, nearly always has a spiritual dimension—an interstice in daily life where the luminous eternal breaks through.
The luminous eternal is truth, goodness, and beauty. Of the three, beauty may be the best proselytizing force because we respond to it willingly, happily. Whether the object of our attention is a striking painting, a lyrical prose passage, or a glorious piece of music, humans are hardwired to delight in beautiful things. To adopt Oscar Wilde’s formula, Beauty is higher than Genius because it needs no explanation. It simply is. That is why modern art relies so much on theory.
Beauty is not just icing on the cake; beauty is substantial, essential. In his introduction to the Glory of the Lord, the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar addressed the mystery of beauty and its utter necessity. I leave him with the final, eloquent word:
“Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”