It was an introductory art lecture for undergrads at an evangelical college, and I was in the audience. The aim was fairly straightforward: to connect faith and the academy, specifically the link between Christianity and the arts.
The key takeaway was that true art is not sentimental. Thomas Kinkade’s paintings got singled out for special treatment. The American painter’s idyllic pictures, the professor intoned, are not beautiful. Beauty and sentimentality are two different things. Truly beautiful art depicts life as it is—warts and all.
I was slightly embarrassed, because I kind of liked the Kinkade pictures she put on her PowerPoint (and I secretly wondered what her thoughts were on Picasso as compared to Kinkade). But prudence prevailed, and I decided that my tastebuds probably needed education.
No, this article is not an apologia pro Kincadi—or, more broadly, on behalf of sentimentality in art. Sentimentality may often get a one-sidedly bad rap (as does its cousin, nostalgia), but it does have a shadow side.
Still, the lecture’s lack of proportionality, an important aspect of beauty, troubles me now. Clearly, the talk primarily aimed at deconstructing conservative evangelical students—a rather too common pastime among Christian college professors.
Philosophers speak of three transcendentals: truth, goodness, and beauty. Whatever we mean by “transcendentals,” the term obviously dignifies them. If we call a statement true, an activity good, or an appearance beautiful, we give it high praise. We don’t need to puzzle here about the relationship between truth and true statements, goodness and good acts, or beauty and beautiful appearances. (Though for the sake of full disclosure: I’m a Christian Platonist, and I think that in each case, the latter participates in the former.) The point is: Words aspire to truth, acts to goodness, and appearances to beauty. Put differently, truth itself does not include falsehood; goodness does not include evil; beauty does not include ugliness.
Or does it? Hans Urs von Balthasar takes the cross as the starting point for his theology of beauty. He suggests that Christ’s self-sacrificial love makes the cross the central moment of divine self-revelation and hence of beauty itself. Precisely in the ugliness of the cross, then, we see the beauty of God.
Flannery O’Connor’s enchanting novels and short stories make extensive use of the grotesque, routinely upsetting our desire for harmony or proportionality. Michael Bruner’s A Subversive Gospel makes clear that O’Connor deliberately subverts the traditional transcendentals by portraying them as “terrible beauty, violent goodness, and foolish truth.” Indeed, it has become commonplace to describe the notion of beauty “itself and by itself” as merely “conventional,” and thereby to consign it to the scrapheap of history.
Balthasar was a great theologian, and O’Connor an amazing writer. But I am less than convinced that the cross subverts classical notions of beauty. We should not too quickly dismiss the desire for resolution. Nor should we suggest that beauty itself includes its opposite. We should especially avoid the notion that God’s own beauty would contain its opposite.
Art should include the grotesque, violence, and foolishness. Art, after all, cannot depict salvation without its miserable backdrop. Contrast with the grotesque makes beauty stand out, just as the felix culpa of original sin makes us marvel at God’s grace. Despite being related, therefore, art and beauty are not one and the same. Art legitimately includes things that are ugly.
It’s not wrong, then, for O’Connor to include in her writing a chicken “with one green eye and one orange or with overlong necks and crooked combs.” It’s just that such a chicken is not beautiful. It’s ugly. Heaven does not contain ugly chickens. And the Christian artist does well to remember that resolutions in art anticipate the resolution of history. The cross secures the eschatological future of creation in divine beauty itself.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
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