Should Christians bother with aesthetics?
There’s a line from Pixar’s 2008 film WALL·E that pesters me every time I hear it. The line happens in the scene where WALL·E first sees the inhabitants of the Axiom, zipping around in their hoverchairs. As he tried to dodge out of their way, WALL·E overhears snatches of several conversations: “they can play scree—” “—I’m jealous ’cause—” “—it doesn’t sound—” “look, I’m tired of” “so we’ll chat next week, and—” “if you can’t fold the straw” “the episode isn’t any good.”
In the middle of a scene depicting the horrifyingly mundane, pointless lives of the remnants of humanity, one detail pops out: part of their mindless chatter is involved with aesthetic evaluation. Is the discussion of the merits of TV shows to be considered a symptom of a wasted and worthless life? If so, I stand for the opposite view.
The case against aesthetics can be a strong one sometimes; when the word “aesthetics” comes up, we might imagine some sort of hipster, listening to a vinyl of the latest indie-band-you’ve-never-heard-of while discussing European avant-garde cinema and sipping a drip-brew artisanal coffee. Or maybe we think of someone like Beau Brummel, passionately concerned about the fine points of dress but not involved in anything of benefit to anyone. Didn’t Oscar Wilde, the aesthete par excellence, say that “all art is useless”?1 Should Christians really concern themselves with useless pursuits? There are real problems in the world, confound it—and we have no business wasting our time on trivialities such as which Star Trek series was best. Or do we?
So, what is the point of studying aesthetics anyway? The dictionary says that aesthetics is “the branch of philosophy that deals with the principles of beauty and artistic taste.” That’s fine—but surely aesthetics isn’t limited to just talking about why we like things, or why some art is better than others. If so, it would be a very personalized, subjective discipline, and since “there’s no accounting for taste,” all the time spent talking about it would be mere venting of opinions. There’s got to be something more to aesthetics than that.
Someone once said that “politics is downstream from culture.” In its original context the quote was meant to tell people that if we want to change the politics, we should first change the culture. Well and good—but what a small goal! Politics ought not to eat the world, though it does seem to be trying to do so these days. Our goal should not be to change the culture for the sole purpose of changing the politics.
But if politics is downstream from culture, art is upstream. How much of our everyday cultural experience is mediated by art? Art is there, in the background, permeating everything. Movie quotes, song lyrics, characters, metaphors and references to art of all kinds, surround us. Art is culture. Art gives culture its form; Art gives us the ideas that tell us how to act, how to express ourselves, how to dream, what to reach for.
Art is communication. And if artists are, as Percy Shelley said, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,”2 it behooves us to make an attempt to understand what they are communicating, and how they are doing it.
The study of aesthetics is the study of how artists communicate. When we look at a painting, or listen to music, or watch a film, we are experiencing the record of numerous decisions made by the artists. Why did they make those decisions? How do those decisions affect the final message? It is simply the respectful thing to listen closely to what people are saying, and how they are saying it.
But even more so than that, if Christians believe they have a message that should be heard by the world, they could not do better than to say it through artistic means. The medieval church knew and accepted the power of art; the cathedrals of Europe, with their statues of saints and their stained-glass windows, were artistic statements, designed to convey visually the history and doctrines of the faith. If we have a message to the culture, we ought to be interested in how that message is conveyed.
Art is the most effective tool we have. The study of aesthetics will help us see how that tool can be used. Let’s learn to use it well.
With all that in mind . . . here are some paintings portraying the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, which was celebrated on the liturgical calendar on May 26. Certainly there are stylistic differences between these paintings; they were created in very different epochs, and the painters were sensitive to the aesthetics of their period. But what nuances are communicated by the differences between these pictures? They all are showing the same historical moment; are they showing it any differently?3
The first picture seems to emphasize the reaction of Jesus’ disciples as their leader rises up into the sky; Jesus’ feet are still visible but only to indicate what the picture is about. Our attention is drawn to the faces of the disciples—some are puzzled, but some seem to already understand the meaning of the event they are witnessing. In the second picture the unusual angle focuses our attention on the heavens into which Jesus is ascending, and the stereotypically-rendered angels are further reminders of that heaven. Dalí’s painting emphasizes the bizarre character of Jesus’ ascent; in this painting the event is shrouded in strange mystery, as it would have been to the disciples, who were still expecting Jesus to proclaim some sort of earthly kingdom. The picture reminds me of the climax of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, in which Hugh Jackman’s character rises up into the sun. (I don’t know why Dalí’s wife, Gala, is in there; she pops up in several of his late paintings—here she is involved in Columbus’ first landfall, and here she is watching a battle in the clouds.)
If you would like to read more, your own personal subscription is just a click away.
In the introduction to The Picture of Dorian Gray.
In A Defence of Poetry.