A combination of readings has given me food for thought over the past couple of months. David Hart’s essay “On Butterflies and Being” preceded an epiphanic moment reading Timothy Gallagher’s Spiritual Consolation: An Ignatian Guide for Greater Discernment of Spirits, to which I referred in a previous post, and this has been further rounded out by Vol. I of Balthasar’s “Theo-Logic” entitled, Truth of the World.
Recalling the occasion of a spiritual exercitant’s experience of God’s overwhelming love while contemplating scripture, Gallagher remarks that “He is aware of the disproportion between his own efforts in prayer and the magnitude of this deeply spiritual consolation.” I will leave aside the refutation this implies for the suspiciously ubiquitous “centering prayer” which amounts more or less to a direct proportion between one’s efforts in prayer and the effects generated by the method. What struck me like a thunderclap was the similarity between this spiritual consolation and the experience of beauty; namely that the event of beauty is precisely that experience of the disproportion between the apperception or act of contemplating some object and the resultant experience of being overwhelmingly grasped by the same object, which is to say the subjective experience of simultaneous intimacy and distance in the state of reverential awe. It is the perceived act of the infinite unveiled in the finite (Being in beings), as David Hart elegantly states:
“No object, however striking, is beautiful as a sheer sensuous effect (that is nothing but a neurological agitation), nor even as an object of intellectual comprehension; it is beautiful because, in addition to these things, there is the mysterious surprisingness of its existence, by which it discloses to us being in its advent, or being as event.
The surfeit of the beautiful over the necessary is a revelation of the surfeit of being over beings. It is an enigma written as plainly upon the surface of a twig or a brick as upon the wing of a butterfly; but only the greatest artist or saint has the ability to see it with equal ease in all circumstances.”
If Beauty is the disclosure of Being in its mysterious advent, or Being as event, perhaps Goodness might then indicate Being as teleological or ordered, while Truth might correspond to the self-evidential witness of Being, or as Balthasar puts it, simultaneous unveiledness and trustworthiness. Such are interesting points to consider.
It is also interesting to note that in Hart’s statement cited above, both the artist and the saint are here put on equal footing as perceivers of beauty– one seemingly innately or through natural gifts, the other through grace (leaving aside the obvious contention that it is usually impossible to distinguish at what point “nature” leaves off and “grace” begins in such matters). The task or vocation of the artist is in bearing specific witness to God via the transcendental Beauty. The artist accomplishes this through the work of art, drawing attention to or amplifying God’s grandeur in creation, manifesting what has become imperceptible to the masses due to vincible or invincible blindness– rendering being transparent to Being where it seems opaque, thus rending the veil between the finite and the infinite. It is the daunting task of writing large what the Creator has in some cases writ small or mysteriously left space for, which is why the greatest works of art appear to us like miracles and their origins no less divine. In the cases of many great artists, their gift and their inspiration bears on all of their faculties and energies in such a demanding way that the form of their life cannot help but bear striking similarity to that of a religious vocation. Similarly, the saint bears witness to God’s beauty, but as a recipient of that grace-filled form given by God, becoming like a work of art itself that is painted or sculpted, and thus fashioned, is able to perceive the brush strokes and hammer blows of that creative Spirit that has formed him every bit as much as the world around him. Both saint and artist thus are able to perceive the beauty of being everywhere, and respond to this gift with their respective acts of gratitude
In this sense, the ancient maxim that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is both true in one way and false in another. It is true insofar as Beauty is a transcendental property of Being, and thus all beings witness to it. However, it is false insofar as the inability to perceive beauty suggests beauty’s absence. Beauty as a transcendental is present regardless of our ability to perceive it. These points require further qualification and exploration, but for brevity, suffice to allow two points.
The first point is that there is both an objective and a subjective quality to Beauty by its nature. In the objective sense, all Being, insofar as it “is”, is beautiful, regardless of apperception. The presence of an objective beauty is what allows us to perceive beauty subjectively. We cannot experience what is not present. Thus, in the subjective sense, beauty is something experienced, meaning it is perceived or beheld, and any number of factors can determine or shape the experience of beauty, either its apparent presence or absence. The space between the objective and the subjective qualities of Beauty accounts for the multiplicity of opinions concerning what is beautiful in the world, because beauty can truly be found everywhere, and yet it is not. We know by simple experience that the same object experienced on two separate occasions can result in profoundly different experiences of beauty, from a piece of music to a sculpture to a painting.
The second point is that to pronounce something as beautiful is most controversial and most in need of qualification within the context of man-made beauty. Man-made beauty, due to its source in an act of freedom from a finite nature, has the particular character of being either more or less transparent to Being, which is to say Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Plants and animals can’t be other than they are, and thus it is not within their capacity to be more or less open to Being and the transcendentals. However, it is within man’s freedom and capacity to limit the luminosity of the transcendentals in a work of art, just as it is possible for him to limit these transcendentals within himself (living according to vice rather than virtue, selfishness rather than charity). This accounts for the the presence of ugliness in the world, for nothing in nature is truly ugly…true ugliness is always the result of a free choice to present a disfigured, ungrateful view of reality, similar to the way sin manifests the perversion of free will.
Thus, what we seem to mean when we declare a certain piece of art or music as beautiful, is to say that it reveals Being in a way that is particularly luminous, not opaque and unintelligible; in a way that manifests gratitude for creation, not its rejection or perversion; in a way that points beyond the simple fact of the material composition, and into the depths of Being itself. Bringing us full circle to the beginning of this essay, we become aware of Beauty’s presence (as distinct from Truth and Goodness) when we experience that disproportion between the apperception or act of contemplating some object and the resultant experience of being overwhelmingly grasped by the same object. Beauty is precisely a “being grasped”, not a grasping, and thus has a distinct character of vulnerability required for its perception, and is further why we speak of experience of beauty as a “woundedness”. The relative merit of a work of art thus resides in the degree to which it is able to create simultaneous intimacy and distance in a proper balance, which is ultimately manifest by the state of what we would call reverential awe.