Seeing God in Aesthetic Beauty

9 02 2009

This past Thursday night a small group of us gathered to discuss the topic of how aesthetics fits in with our understanding of the world. Aesthetics is the study, reflection, and critique of art and culture. I have recently been reading a couple of books that are well known reflections on these fields. The first book, The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom, a University of Chicago professor, was written over 20 years ago; yet, it is still very pertinent to the cultural situation today. Bloom talks about how we have moved from a culture based in objective morality to a culture of subjective values; from a culture based in truth to a culture based on the self as the center of reality. Bloom shows how these moves have left the modern university in disarray and education in chaos.

The second book is becoming my new favorite non-fiction book. Prior to reading this book, my favorite had been The God Who is There by Francis Schaeffer. So, who could top Schaeffer on my list? Only Francis Schaeffer himself with his book How Should We Then Live? Schaeffer follows the historical development of thought through philosophy, the arts in their various modes of expression, and into religion. Schaeffer explains how man moved from explaining the world from God (the universal) to how we live our lives (the particulars), and then transitioned to trying to explain life from the particulars in order to reach a universal explanation (without God). I know that this may not make sense, but you will have to read the book to understand it, and when you do I believe it will be revolutionary to your thinking and the way you understand the world in which we live.

Schaeffer explains how artists tried to express a universal understanding of the world through their art, music, and literature, and in so doing blurred the particulars more and more in order to reach that universal. This is why we see art go through the phases of expression, where the paintings moved farther away from realism and eventually into modern art, where expressions of man were lost altogether in the painting. Marcel Duchamp expresses this in one of his famous paintings (see if you can find the person descending the stairs in this painting).

Later, artists moved away from the optimism of trying to find meaning and to express the universal through their art and moved into despair and the loss of that hope. This type of art was expressed by people like Jackson Pollock who would suspend paint cans above the canvas to create paintings “by chance” (both the title and the method of creating this work.) Because we live in a world where people believe that we are the product of chance, it is not unusual that these people would create works by chance. This idea carried into a school known as the Dadaists, the name was chosen by randomly opening a French dictionary to a page and randomly pointing to a word on that page; it is the art and form of the absurd (btw, the word dada means rocking horse.) Others, including John Cage in the field of music, tried to create works of randomness as well. Later, artists tried to make the “leap of faith” to the universal from the particulars by using other methods including meditation and drugs, which is what led to the drug culture of the sixties and its impact in the field of music.

So, in the discussion on Thursday we had an interesting time. One member of our group, is an artist and I asked him to speak first from his perspective. He, surprisingly, believed that man could truly know aesthetics through experiences with art. This person is not an evolutionist, which is why he holds this view. From a hardcore evolutionary position, aesthetics, like truth do not make sense. Evolution, as Schaeffer would say, makes man out to be a machine. Man is determined by his DNA and so understanding things like truth and beauty, or even love, don’t fit into the model – man must make a leap of faith to believe that these exist and could have meaning. That was the gist of our discussion on Thursday and most, if not all in the room understood the implications. However, I don’t know that anyone in the room was a hardcore atheist or evolutionist, so that wasn’t a hard conclusion to which to come. However, it is further evidence pointing to God.




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