Tuesday 13 March 2012

Beauty, Where Art Thou?

By Artur Suski, S.J.

When I was pondering about what to write for my next blog entry, I happened to be listening to Mozart’s Symphony no. 41 in C major (“Jupiter”). There I was, listening to the first movement, with its interplay of upbeat rhythms led by a choir of violins, amidst the slow and lofty themes; all that kept coming to my mind was “what beauty!” I often do not have such reactions – surely a sign that I should listen to more Mozart – which made me reflect upon why this was so. Is it because I don’t intentionally seek out the beautiful? Or is it because today’s human-made world has lost its splendour and beauty? After all, how often do we hear people complementing anything today as ‘beautiful’? Perhaps I am out of touch with today’s culture of pop music, but I haven’t heard anyone describe any recent hits as 'beautiful'.

Take architecture as another example. Are there any contemporary buildings that can be described as 'beautiful'? ‘Interesting’ would be a better word. A friend of mine recently took a course on aesthetics, and the professor asked the students what they thought of the new design of the Royal Ontario Museum (the ROM). For those of you who have walked down Bloor Street in downtown Toronto, you may have noticed a somewhat older building with recently-added glass protrusions…what does it look like? Can one describe it as beautiful? (Un)surprisingly, no one in the class was able to describe the edifice as such.

I may be completely wrong about this – as I await your comments – but it seems to me that today our contemporary culture has abandoned the 'beautiful' and embraced the practical or that which looks provocative; that is, what attracts attention to itself. Others say that they go for the symbolic: their creations ‘transcend’ beauty in order to express something more, an idea, or a message. It is assumed that they need to make their oeuvre stand out in some way; otherwise beauty is simply looked upon and quickly passed by, without being given another thought.

It would be helpful to ask ourselves: why is beauty important? And what exactly is beauty? Perhaps it is as they say: the beautiful is ‘old style’, ‘boring’, only to be quickly dismissed. It may be because we have lost the ability to truly see the beautiful. To illustrate my point: someone who’s been listening to death metal for his whole life will not likely find Mozart’s Symphony no. 41 beautiful. His sense for the beautiful has been literally deafened.

I imagine that there is a certain disposition needed to see the beautiful; for as many a philosopher has pointed out, the beautiful is a transcendental, something that goes beyond the mere material. The beautiful, being a transcendental, goes hand-in-hand with the true and the good. These also go beyond mere matter and somehow touch our very souls.

To take it even a step further, the beautiful, the true, and the good are of God: the radiance of God shining through His Creation, a foretaste of pure bliss that is God Himself. God makes Himself felt in His creation, through the beautiful, the true, and the good; and as anything spiritual, a spiritual ‘sense’ is needed to pick it up. But in a society that has mostly opted for the material senses – and do we ever delight in these, for better and for worse – how can its members notice a spiritual reality such as beauty? Can a non-believer discern the beautiful? Surely there are atheists that marvel at the beauty of nature, the arts, and especially Mozart’s 41st symphony?

Even if they do not believe in God and the spiritual sense, if they have an interior freedom and openness to an ‘interior life’, a place within themselves where silence reigns and where there is space for reflecting upon and pondering about the mysterious, there God is waiting for them, to touch them, to awe them. Dare I say that even these moments somehow lead them into contact with God, though they may not be aware of it yet.

The Lord of all glory and splendour does indeed show Himself to us today; all we have to do is recognize His Presence pouring forth through all creation. May His awesome beauty inspire in us a deep sense of gratitude.

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