On Beauty II

It was a bad week. My last living aunt had passed away. Her name was Liz, and she was a hoot. If you’re old enough to remember Phyllis Diller or Carol Channing you’ll have a general idea of how much fun she was. I’ll miss her so. Then the next day I had lunch with a friend whose wife had just filed for divorce. My friend has a drinking problem, and his wife decided she couldn’t take it anymore. After lunch I spent time with another hurting friend whose only child was down to one last hope—an experimental therapy—to beat his cancer.

Meanwhile, I had to write 1,000 good words that day, and do it again the next day, and every other day until September if I was going to meet the deadline on my next novel.

The word count wasn’t the real problem. I’ve been at this writing game a long time. I’ve written amidst the distractions of airports, coffee shops and shopping malls. Even with all of this emotional turmoil I could probably still deliver 5,000 or even 10,000 readable words a day. But good words . . . aye, to quote the Bard, there’s the rub.

It’s tempting to lose focus and begin to wonder why I bother. In a world like this, excellence in the arts can seem like such a trivial pursuit. Indeed, never mind excellence, the reason art matters at all is sometimes questioned. With grief, loneliness, addiction, pain and fear all around us, what’s the point of literature? Why paint? Why sculpt? Why dance, or act, or sing? Why not devote oneself to something practical instead?

Near the end of the book of Job, after that unfortunate man has lost his children, his fortune and his health, after he has suffered the interminable counsel of well-meaning friends who insist he somehow brought disaster on himself, after he has come perilously close to blasphemy while demanding an accounting from his creator, after all of that, Job finally encounters God. Strangely, when God appears it is not with explanations. Job learns nothing of the reason for his suffering. He gets no answer to Rabbi Kushner’s famous question, ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ Even so, in the end Job is satisfied. God appears, and Job says, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” God appears, and his appearing is enough for Job.
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My friend Brad, a professor at a well-known college of fine art, tells me it’s been fashionable for many years in the art community to question the existence of beauty. Not to question beauty’s definition or value, understand, but to question its very existence. One person finds Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon lovely, while another person thinks it’s ugly. In the world of art theory this divergence of opinion has sometimes been taken to mean beauty is nothing but a social construct.

It is an old idea. It is the lament of Ecclesiastes. Everything is meaningless under the sun. Yet not everything, for Job saw God and that was enough.

Once I suffered from severe depression. Like Job I cursed the day of my birth. I was saved from the temptation of suicide by snowcapped mountains, golden birches, and the sparkling Milky Way. I was saved by reflections of God’s beauty.

I don’t mean to say God is beautiful. No mere adjective applies to him. St. John tells us “God is love.” God is beautiful in exactly the same way. Like love, beauty is God’s essence. Beauty does not describe God; it is the fact of God. It is his glory, his weight, the very thing the prophet Moses begged to see on Sinai.

The gospels tell a story of a woman who poured very expensive perfume on Jesus. His disciples were indignant. "Why this waste?" they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor."

And what was Jesus’ reply?

"Why are you bothering this woman?” he asked. “She has done a beautiful thing . . .”

Beauty exists because God exists. To reveal beauty is to reveal God. Therefore, if our art is beautiful, if we struggle to write good words instead of merely readable ones, then sometimes, just for an instant, God appears and God’s appearing is enough. In a world of grief, loneliness, addiction, pain and fear, no act of man could be more practical than that.

The original version of this essay was first published May 20, 2010 at Novel Journey

Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:54 AM  

8 comments:

Buckley Wheatish said... June 23, 2010 at 10:27 AM  

I am so sorry for this personal loss, Athol. Prayers.

I grit my mental and spiritual teeth when I perceive an oncoming cascade of depressing circumstances begining to occur to or around me. Unfortunately, I also get a similar reaction regarding the confusion, frustration and depression which set in during seasons (such as now) when I too, have to question the whole purpose and direction life has taken or is taking me.

I hope your aunt recognized and appreciated the wonderful, ripple effects her life had on you and likely, others.

Gary (Dallas)

Kay Day said... June 23, 2010 at 3:50 PM  

Is art without beauty art? I guess. I think some of it is pretty ugly. But I wouldn't want it in my home.

I agree that beauty reveals God and what better thing can we hope for than for our work in some small way to reveal God?

Glad you're posting again!

Jennifer said... June 25, 2010 at 6:01 AM  

Another thought provoking article on beauty. I saw on the loop that there is three articles. What is the link to the third? Maybe I'm mistaken...

Jennifer Hallmark

Athol said... June 25, 2010 at 6:18 AM  

Thanks for your prayers, Gary.

Jennifer, I'm glad this post got you thinking. The third installment of the series on beauty will be here next week.

Kay, I do think ugly art is possible, but when it comes to human creativity, what's "ugly" to me might be beautiful to you. Cultural conditioning plays a powerful role in our response to architecture, music, literature and the visual arts. On the other hand, the appeal of natural beauty is more universal. Everybody loves a sunset. I'll get into that a little more next week.

Thanks for reading, everyone!

cindyhan111 said... June 26, 2010 at 7:40 PM  

A friend referred me here for this post...

Respecting your aunt, condolences to you... her beauty was not lost in this.

However, I sheepishly admit what you've posted here, made ME feel beautiful, for the first time in a while. Interesting, this tool we call language, has the power to change our perspectives in a moment.

thank you.

Athol Dickson said... June 27, 2010 at 8:59 AM  

You feel beautiful because you ARE beautiful, Cindy. You are the crowning glory of the created universe, so precious to the Creator and so deeply loved that he was willing to descend into the humiliation of a life of poverty and the suffering of a criminal's death to prove how beautiful you really are.

computers used said... October 6, 2010 at 5:53 AM  

I am so sorry for this personal loss, Athol. Prayers. I grit my mental and spiritual teeth when I perceive an oncoming cascade of depressing circumstances begining to occur to or around me. Unfortunately, I also get a similar reaction regarding the confusion, frustration and depression which set in during seasons (such as now) when I too, have to question the whole purpose and direction life has taken or is taking me. I hope your aunt recognized and appreciated the wonderful, ripple effects her life had on you and likely, others.Gary (Dallas)

Anonymous said... October 6, 2010 at 12:34 PM  

Athol,
FYI: The above, "computers used" reissuance of my posting from June did not come from me.
Blessings,
Gary

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