On the second day of a trek into the Sawtooth Wilderness, in Idaho, we were all invited to spend twenty-four hours by ourselves…very soon, although the day was bright and unthreatening, I was cowering in my tent. Apparently, all it took for me to become aware of the emptiness of life and the horror of existence was to be deprived of human company for a few hours…What enabled me to stick it out – and to feel, moreover, that I could have stayed alone for longer than a day – was writing.

Jonathan Franzen. “Farther Away”. The New Yorker: 18 April 2011, p. 83.

Franzen, and his friend David Foster Wallace, shared the belief that the novel (writing) is a response and antidote to loneliness. In this essay, he asserts that he was able to enter community more easily after having responded to his loneliness by writing. Franzen ends by going back to a community of sorts, after his retreat into the wilderness, with a gained understanding of his friend’s despair.

Put that next to Wallace’s most recently (post-humously) published story in the New Yorker, in which a young boy begins a years-long quest to kiss every single inch of his own body – where the boy retreats further and further away from the community into this absolute solitude. 

Question: What does this say about art? Tolstoy, an influence on Franzen, maintains that Art is a primary “means of intercourse between man and man” – that the “capacity of a man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself” is the basis of art. So for Franzen, to write (make art) is to respond to and overcome loneliness, and to experience community with man. Whereas, for Wallace, art became a way to indulge in loneliness; be utterly alone (which may speak to his intentional inaccessibility; impossible vocabulary, etc. although I’m unqualified to make a real claim there).

Andy Crouch makes the observation, in his contribution to “For the Beauty of the Church”, that God created man and culture for each other, and after the Fall, mankind exploits and perverts culture by covering himself/herself with fig leaves. “[Culture] becomes a defensive measure, an instrumental use of the world to ward off the world’s greatest threat – the threat, suddenly a threat, of being known, of trusting one’s fellow creatures and one’s Creator.” Culture can be used as an attempt to reach back to the community of Eden – pointing toward the Gospel; or culture can be exploited in order to keep from being known – a fig leaf smokescreen.

For further reading, David O. Taylor has an interesting article on the development of artists in community here.

9.5 Theses on Beauty

By W. David O. Taylor Here then are 9.5 theses, a tenth of Luther’s number, in no particular order and by no means comprehensive. And a good cheer for not giving up on beauty altogether, because the world would be much poorer without it, theologically as well as actually.

9.5 Theses about beauty

1. Every discussion about beauty is necessarily a contextual discussion. There is no purely objective or abstract or general way to talk about it. The kinds of contexts, or traditions, that come into considerable play include:

a. The metaphysical tradition, whether in Orthodox or Catholic circles
b. The Continental philosophical tradition (Kant, Hegel, et al)
c. The Dutch Calvinist tradition
d. The contemporary (“high”) art tradition
e. The popular art tradition

2. Because a human person is a complex being, he or she can be simultaneously beautiful in one faculty (say, the intellectual) but ugly in another (say, in his or her relational or speech habits). That’s how physically unremarkable saints can be described as uncommonly beautiful or how Hollywood actors can be gorgeous but morally debauched. Here I am using beauty in one of its “classical” senses, as harmoniously unified, richly complex and attractively splendid. This also, by the way, brings to light the kind of complicated issues that come up in an aesthetically excellent but morally repugnant work of art.

3. While beauty began as a conceptual sub-category (e.g. to mathematics: Pythagoreans; political theory: Plato; practical reason: Aristotle; rhetoric: Horace), it eventually became a supra-category (with comprehensive, all-encompassing powers of explanation), and then receded to become a sub-category or even sub-par-category (for 20th/21st century contemporary artists and critics).

4. If you ever stand up in public to speak about beauty, you should do three things:
a. Define what you mean by beauty.
b. Define the context you have in mind.
c. Define why exactly you think it’s important.

5. Because beauty in the contemporary world is often regarded as equivalent with standards of taste or mere appearance, it is rightly rejected as shallow, as “mere form,” and rightly found to be “a bit of a bore” (Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale).

6. Your average Christian assumes that art and beauty self-evidentially go together, much like he or she assumes that God is self-evidentially beautiful. This is a problem, because the meaning of neither of these is self-evident.

7. Your average American believes that beauty putatively designates “feminine” qualities, which is why in common practice we feel more comfortable calling a woman beautiful than a man.

8. When beauty is separated from goodness and truth, it suffers. While it matters how we construe these “transcendentals,” the axiom stands regardless of our construals. The point is a dynamical one, that is, how they are interrelated, not a static one.

9. Five contexts are significant for discussions of beauty, to the extent that each in its own way normatively determines the meaning of the term, and when these contexts are not kept clearly distinguished, discussions of beauty quickly become muddled :
a. God/the divine
b. Creation/nature
c. Art/aesthetics
d. Culture/marketplace
e. Piety/church

9.5 Discussions of beauty have been accompanied by a litany of bifurcations. Some of the more common ones include:
a. Art vs. craft
b. “Fine” art vs. the “people’s” art
c. Formal vs. expressive
d. Taste vs. vulgarity
e. Disinterested vs. interested
f. “art of glory” vs. “art of the cross”
g. Aestheticism vs. moralism
h. Invisible vs. visible or Infinite vs. finite

9.5 Theses on Beauty