F. Gerald Downing of Manchester has an intriguing paper on “Aesthetic Behavior in the Jewish Scriptures” in the December 2003 issue of the JSOT . Among the points he makes are these:

1) There has been remarkably little attention to Hebrew conceptions of beauty. This is due in part to a modern aesthetic bias in which “functionlessness” is a key component of art. A beautiful object that is designed for a particular function is demoted to “craft.” To deal fairly with Hebrew aesthetic conceptions, then, we have to decide “what counts as aesthetics.” Downing’s phrase “aesthetic behavior” comes from Wittgenstein, who uses it to broaden out the scope of aesthetics to include not only creation or evaluation of a painting, but any activity done with a certain kind of attention and attitude, including “appraising a suit of clothes or a door or some food or, for that matter, an explanation in philosophy.” Downing’s question then is “What sorts of things and activities may seem, plausibly, to us to have evoked aesthetic behaviour, and assessed by what criteria, among our canonical and perhaps deutero-canonical authors and their succeeding audiences.”

2) Downing claims that aesthetic response is evoked normally by “some sort of abundance or intensification: not a normal sufficiency, but plenitude,” the criterion of which is “a surplus of good over what is necessary.” A good harvest provides an example: Villagers would be delighted that they had more than enough to survive; others more fortunate would still find delight in the sight of fruitful fields, but their response would be less intense; the king, seeing with satisfaction that his kingdom is prospering, sings Psalm 65: “You care for the earth and make it fruitful; you enrich it greatly filling its great channels with rain” (v. 9). The experience varies but in every case there is an aesthetic response to abundance, surprising plenty. As Downing points out, beauty of this sort is strongly tied to utility, and to politics and ethics. There is no separable “aesthetic” zone, but there is an aesthetic dimension to the economic and political realities, a dimension that evokes the aesthetic behavior of composing and singing poetry. Much else is going on in the Song of Songs, but there is at least this: A beautiful body is abundant not anorexic.

3) Downing also points out the intimate connection in the Bible between beauty and use. Vivid colors, fine wood, beaten gold and intricately woven fabric are all valued for their beauty but are put to use, albeit mainly to ritual use: “Craftsmanship may make a spade better to dig with or a sword better to kill with, and while shape or decoration that might make them art-objects for us . . . such decoration, I am suggesting, rarely if ever detract from use.”

4) He finds the same unity of aesthetic and utility in Hebrew poetry and prose.

In sum, “In all of this we would seem to have a similar appreciation of plenitude, abundance, the enhancement or intensification of what is generally approved, and no refinement of taste is needed to share in the delight. What is in fact commonly needed is good, and excess of it is beautiful. That, quite simply, is what stimulates aesthetic appreciation in the canonical and deutero-canonical texts, and prompts aesthetic behaviour of kinds we ourselves can readily recognize. And there is no disjunction of aesthetics, ethics and matters of fact.”

On this last point, I think Downing gets things exactly right. The problem with most discussions of Christian aesthetics is that they are discussions of aesthetics, and seem to assume a process of boiling down reality until only the beautiful remains for analysis. This seems part and parcel of modernity’s balkanization of life, and needs to be cut off from the root. (David Hart’s work takes similar directions, though in a more philosophical register.)

More on: Art

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

Loading...