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Beauty is about truth, not just nice appreciation

21 August 2015

Aesthetic experiences should connect people with God — and with human tragedy and hope, says Hugh Rayment-Pickard

THE think tank ResPublica, whose director Phillip Blond is a distinguished theologian, has recently argued that every community should be given "a right to beauty", and that planners should be required to consult every local community about creating beautiful living environments.

Before I read its report, A Community Right to Beauty, I was excited: the words "a right to beauty" promise something bold and uplifting. We do not often talk about the impact that experiences of beauty can have on our lives.

The vision of beauty imagined here, however, is rather unexciting, more concerned with civic tidiness and access to facilities than with the kind of beauty that transforms, amazes, and inspires. When asked in a poll by ResPublica/Ipsos MORI what "beauty" meant, respondents had the functional view that a beautiful environment has less litter, reduced crime, and fewer vacant properties. How a "right to beauty" would have a positive impact in these areas is not clear.

The think tank also makes much of the economic utility of beautiful spaces. Nice streets and parks are apparently connected with mental-health benefits and healthy lifestyles; and good office design is said to boost profitability.

I am sure that there is some truth in this, but I think of experiences of beauty as episodes that move and inspire me rather than activities that are financially productive. When we experience music or art, we hope to find relief from the suffocating public discourses about "utility", "value for money", and "return on investment".

Standing before a beautiful landscape, for example, often induces a welcome shift in spiritual perspective, and a moment of moral reappraisal. Experiences of beauty jolt us into a refreshing new consciousness. We reflect on our priorities: whether we are working too hard, whether this is a good time to forgive past wrongs. We feel more complete, more "connected" — closer to the vision of St Irenaeus that the glory of God is a human being fully alive.


IN THE mid-1980s, I worked at a church project for homeless people. Each day, we saw hundreds of homeless individuals struggling to survive against "external" forces, such as unemployment, and "internal" challenges, such as substance-abuse and mental illness.

An inspired project-manager arranged for artists to exhibit at the centre, and we took our "clients" to the opera, often to the pinched noses of well-heeled music enthusiasts. Of course, the project also catered for the beneficiaries’ utilitarian needs — but the underlying vision was that living a full human life requires food, clothing, shelter, love, and experiences of beauty.

We also had an artist-in-residence painting portraits of homeless people. This had a profound effect, showing people that they were beautiful and according them the dignity of being the subject of an artwork. When you are living on the streets, one of the things you can lose is a sense of honour.


CHRISTIAN aesthetics invites us to a more complicated and challenging engagement than to be connoisseurs who simply "appreciate" beauty. The 20th-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who has led modern thinking in theological aesthetics, argued that beauty is the most important and fundamental of theological concepts, because it is through the experience of beauty that we connect with God.

Paradoxically, the most challenging but transformative aesthetic experience is the crucifixion, which is simultaneously a hideous act of torture and execution and also most beautiful event in history, because, despite its horror, the beauty of God’s self-giving love is revealed.

In the twisted limbs of the crucified Jesus, Balthasar offers an audacious alternative to the classical theological idea of beauty as a pleasing balance of proportioned components. What Balthasar called the Christ-form points us towards a more "sublime" aesthetics that can see beauty even in the midst of terror.

Although repelled by what we witness happening on the cross, we instinctively sense that the aesthetic vision of the cross is truthful, because it engages with the tragedy and hope of the human condition. An ultimate revelation of beauty radiates through the "sublime" struggle to redeem the catastrophe of the human condition.


BALTHASAR is not denying the power of uncomplicated moments of beauty such as a stunning sunset or the stars on a clear night: these are also direct encounters with the glory of God. But these experiences are elevated by our awareness that, all over the world, in the lives of countless people, and in our own lives, too, the timeless drama of human existence is being enacted and re-enacted.

Once seen through the lens of aesthetics, the world appears as a theatre in which each human life is a dramatic artwork, a story that is told by being lived. Beauty in this context is so much more than "audience" or armchair aesthetics, in which we merely take in various objects and experiences. Balthasar raises the stakes in aesthetics, making beauty a category that deals not only with the ultimate questions of human purpose and meaning, but also with the identity of the divine.

Of course, people benefit from parks, nice offices, and litter-free streets, but the beauty that we really need — the beauty that we should have a right to — is the knotted but sublime beauty that shines through the universal human drama to exist and flourish. The question for the Church is how to give people access to this beauty.


The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is the author of 50 Key Concepts in Theology (DLT, 2007), and other books.


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