RECENTLY I WROTE ABOUT literature being capable of conveying, and even discovering, truth, which can be called “poetic knowledge.” Both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas upheld a similar view, Aristotle by demonstrating that poetry is “more philosophical” (i.e., more capable of demonstrating truth) than history, and St. Thomas acknowledging poetry as a kind of “science” (scientia) or knowledge, albeit a lower form of knowledge than philosophy because it relies more on imagination than intellect. Today I’d like to consider the value of beauty, an abstract value but one that we often associate with poetry, as well as music and the fine arts.
Beauty Lifts Us Up
My thoughts are prompted by an interesting feature article from the National Catholic Register, “True Beauty Satisfies the Human Heart,” Trent Beattie’s interview of psychologist Margaret Laracy, who identifies beauty as a kind of knowledge. Laracy studies the healing effects of beauty on those suffering from mental illness. Being one of the few scholars to study the effects of beauty, she first had to arrive at a satisfactory definition of “beauty” before she could study it; as a starting point, she turned to St. Thomas Aquinas, the great definer of abstract truths.
Thomas identified three essential qualities of beauty:
- clarity, the luminosity or illumination communicated by the object being perceived,
- harmony, the right ordering of the parts of the object, and
- integrity, the wholeness of the object’s luminosity and harmony which, in synthesis, elicit repose and contemplation.
Through its integrity, beauty calls us to contemplation, and thereby leads us beyond the beautiful object to the greater beauty of which it is but one instance. (This reminds me of something C. S. Lewis said about “good books”—that they enlarge us.) Dr. Laracy does not cite St. Augustine in her discussion of beauty, but she well might; what Augustine said of natural beauty would, I believe, apply equally to manmade beauty, particularly when it imitates nature: namely, that in contemplating the creature (beautiful created thing) one is drawn to the Creator (God). In this way, I suggest, beauty can provide not merely mental but also spiritual healing.
When Art Violates Beauty
Thinking about Thomas’s three essential marks of beauty, I was reminded of an experience I once had in an art museum. Many years ago, I was in the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, probably more out of curiosity than for pleasure. In those days (and still) I found most of what is classified as “modern” art to be incomprehensible and repugnant, sometimes even laughable. On that visit, I found that the “artworks” being exhibited failed on almost every one of St. Thomas’s criteria for beauty.
For instance, a pile of nondescript stones on the floor of the gallery:
- did not communicate anything in particular;
- no inherent harmony, as patrons were invited to rearrange them however they liked;
- the implication was that the “artwork” was always unfinished (although patrons were exhorted not to take any of the stones away), so there certainly was no integrity to the work.
- The only thing it led me to contemplate was why on Earth the museum would present such dreck as “art.”
A Visceral Reaction
On another occasion at the Modern (or perhaps the very same day), I wandered into an open gallery containing a sculpture that immediately arrested my attention. There were a number of pieces displayed there, but I remember only one. It was fairly large, perhaps about the size of a large man sitting with his knees drawn up, and seemed to chrome-plated. Abstract in form, it was a twisted, highly reflective mass suggesting nothing so much as a tangle of car bumpers after a bad automobile accident. I found it mesmerizing and repellent. I would stare at it for a few moments and then rush out of the room to get away from it, but come back a few minutes later to peer at it in horrid fascination from a different angle. I felt an incoherent but insistent impulse to find a curator and demand that the sculpture be taken away. Eventually, I left the museum feeling inexplicably distressed and nauseated.
I remember asking myself what it was about the sculpture that provoked such a strongly negative response and the best I could do was that, as I looked at the sculpture, I thought, “It’s just wrong! It’s a lie!” Had I been foolhardy enough to say such a thing to a curator, I probably would have been told that there is no “right” or “wrong” about art, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and what I found repellent someone else would find enchanting. If anyone had suggested as much, I would have replied, “Then anyone who likes that thing has something seriously wrong with him.”
Vitality and Exuberance in Battered Marble
I can’t remember any other work of art that elicited such a vivid sense of repulsion as those mangled car bumpers (or whatever the sculpture was called), but I have had at least one other encounter with sculpture that provoked an equally viscerally, but completely opposite, reaction. I was visiting the Louvre Museum in Paris and, after spending two or three hours perusing the paintings on the ground floor, realized that the museum would be closing in less than an hour and I hadn’t yet gone upstairs. I was rushing toward the large double staircase that led to the upper floor when I stopped as suddenly as if I had run into an invisible wall. Dazed, I looked around to see what had arrested me and found myself gazing at a sculpture that I had seen many times in photographs: the famous Nike, Winged Victory of Samothrace.
You’re probably familiar with the image: a female torso that seems to be striding forward, wearing those formless drapey garments often found on Greek figures, with large, backswept wings sprouting from the shoulder blades. The statue has been badly battered, and both the arms (probably once outswept like the wings) and the head are completely missing. Nonetheless, it was, quite literally, breathtaking, in a way that no photograph had prepared me for.
As I looked at it, I felt indescribably exhilarated: I could feel the wind rushing against Nike’s glorious form, sweeping back her gown and unfurling her great wings; I even imagined I could see her hair blowing back, her eyes gleaming, her triumphant smile dazzling—although the statue’s head has never been found. I doubt I even noticed that she was standing on the prow of a ship, yet I could feel the rush of air against her body, lifting her wings. She seemed to me to be alive and in vigorous motion, and yet she was only a broken lump of stone carved by some anonymous craftsman two thousand years ago.
Beauty and Truth
These two sculptures—the deliberately twisted, highly polished metal one at the Fort Worth Modern and the badly battered hunk of marble at the Louvre in Paris—both evinced from me strong, visceral reactions that I can’t fully explain. The former, modern work was undoubtedly beautifully crafted according to the sculptor’s intent, but it struck me as horrifically false and wrong, highly-polished but somehow ugly and obscene. If we judge that sculpture according to St Thomas’s “essential” criteria of beauty, it has none:
- Although it does possess a certain clarity or luminosity (at least, it is very shiny and smooth), yet it is so disharmonious as to suggest a car crash.
- The deliberate disharmony of the twisted mass so opposes its clarity (if we can call its smooth shininess that) that the work does not seem to possess integrity.
- Indeed its clarity seems to mask its essential disharmony, making it seem false and wrong, therefore evoking a feeling of dis-ease rather than repose.
What a contrast to the effect of Winged Victory! The mutilated form of the Rhodian sculpture might make its maker weep with frustration if he could see it today, yet it remains incredibly beautiful, radiating life, movement, and exultant emotion in a way that can, quite literally, stop a person in her tracks. Its clarity is such that the sculpture almost seems to be lit from within, not with actual light but with life itself; even though many portions of the sculpture are broken off and lost, what remains is unified by a profound harmony, despite its broken state; the clarity and harmony of the object imbue it with an pervasive integrity that make the viewer feel as if somehow the essence of Life itself has been given exuberant form.
BY ST. THOMAS’S STANDARDS, THEN, the modern metal sculpture lacks any of the essential criteria of beauty, and my negative reaction to it suggests that, for all its careful craftsmanship and smoothly polished surfaces, I was not wrong to find it quite the opposite of beautiful. The Winged Victory of Samothrace, however, seems to possess all the hallmarks of beauty in a high degree, and it certainly left me feeling “enlarged,” enriched for having seen it. (Even today, more than thirty years later, I feel exhilarated as I remember seeing the Winged Victory.) Its beauty did not depend on “integrity” in the most literal sense, since many parts of the original are missing, which just goes to show that integrity itself is something more than material and literal completeness; yet, its beauty does somehow seem to depend on direct experience, as no photograph of it that I have seen before or since was able to do more than hint at the great vitality of the sculpture.
All of this serves to show that, despite what so much modern “culture” insists, there does seem to be a strong identification between beauty and truth. However, it also seems to be true that our faculties for perceiving and recognizing both beauty and truth must be honed, so that we are not led astray by, for example, smooth shiny objects that appeal to our senses without illuminating our souls. And, if we can recognize the identification between beauty and truth, it is not difficult to see (as Dr. Laracy’s study of beauty and mental health suggests) that regular exposure to beauty can also help us to be whole and healthy—perhaps even to be good. This in turn suggests that we should, on principle, avoid spending our time on ugliness, just as we should avoid lies and wickedness.