Tag Archives: beauty

Art and Obscenity

July 2017 Pulse

Two planned performances in the recently-concluded M1 Singapore Fringe Festival ran into difficulties with the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) due to “excessive nudity”. In ‘Naked Ladies’, burlesque dancer Thea Fitz-James strips and performs an indecent act, and in ‘Undressing Room’, dancer Ming Poon challenges a participant to undress him even as he undresses her.

Both performances were cut from the festival.

In London, Japanese photographer and artist Nobuyoshi Araki achieved both fame and notoriety for his work called kinbaku (or erotic bondage), which features photos of naked or partially-naked Japanese women bound in different poses.

That these works are described as “art” forces one to question if any work can be so “christened”, so long as it has the blessings of the high priests of the art world.

Take for example, Fountain, a 1917 work by Marcel Duchamp that is widely seen as the icon of the 20th century. Art specialists have described the dislodged urinal as the quintessential example of what Duchamp called “ready-made”, a manufactured object into which the artist imbues some mysterious meaning simply by calling it art.

This state of affairs suggests that modern art has lost its way. Art is simply surrendered to the currents of moral and cultural relativism, even as the objective standards by which it was once judged become irrelevant or are simply abandoned.

When this happens, trash can become art, when the official channels of patronage support it. And pornography (like kinbaku) is considered as art if it hangs in the museum or gallery, as if sanctified by its hallowed halls.

As Jonathan Jones has put it so pointedly: “Sell a nude photograph in a gallery shop and you are disseminating art. Move the place of exchange to a grubby north-eastern drinking den… on a dead Sunday afternoon… it all becomes much muckier – ‘pornography’, even.”

This has led Roger Scruton, one of the most astute philosophers of our day, who still cares about those immutable qualities that would distinguish a piece of work as art, to write: “The world of art… is full of fakes. Fake originality, fake emotion and the fake expertise of the critics – these are all around us and in such abundance that we hardly know where to look for the real thing.”

That art is now obsessed with sex and the sexual act – given our post-Kinsey culture – is clearly seen when works of banal obscenity are reverenced as art.

An example of such philistinism in art is the series of prints and statuettes by American artist Jeff Koons that depict couples copulating. Their creator hopes to turn pornography into art and give it spiritual significance and depth.

One of the many reasons why art has degenerated in this way is that our culture, having tried so strenuously to abolish shame, can no longer recognise it or understand its importance.

The revulsion that society once had for the obscene has all but disappeared. The fig leaves – in language, behaviour and thought – have been removed by a culture that is now shame-less.

Another reason is that we have now come to look at sex very differently from the past, having acquired, according to Scruton, “a habit of describing sex in demeaning and depersonalising terms”.

Most importantly, our culture seems increasingly incapable of appreciating beauty – no thanks to the modern iconoclasts for whom beauty is denigrated as a bourgeois concept, too superficial and old-fashioned to be taken seriously by artists.

But in despising Beauty, we will also fail to recognise Truth and Goodness. We will fail to see that good art – true art – can be an epiphany of these transcendentals, without which human life would be meaningless.

True beauty is transformative in that it draws us away from ourselves. As Scruton has once again put it so well: “Beauty tells you to stop thinking about yourself, and to wake up to the world of others.”

We see such beauty in a Michelangelo or a Rembrandt. We see it also in Bach’s Mass and in Mozart’s Requiem.

When art puts us in touch with the true, the good and the beautiful, it becomes in some important ways redemptive. It shows us that despite the ubiquity of sorrow and suffering in our world, life is still meaningful.

Such art can be the conduit of God’s grace.


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Art and Meaning

August 2016 Pulse

In his profound study on symbols and the sacred, the Catholic religious philosopher Louis Dupré observes that for the longest stretch of human history art and religion are inseparable. Changes in cultural sensibilities, however, have caused the two to drift apart.

‘A heightened sense of transcendence and an increasing secularization separated the two to a point where art could be without being sacred and where religion developed some of its symbols outside the range of aesthetics’, writes Dupré.

That art and religion are so closely related to one another should not surprise us. Cultural anthropologists have long noticed that art and religion seem to have the same roots. And even though aesthetic and religious symbols are in some important sense different, they enjoy such close affinity that they affect each other, often in creative and surprising ways.

From the standpoint of theology, the basis and the possibility of human art is the creation, fashioned lovingly and purposefully by its Creator. As The Hispanic theologian Alejandro García-Rivera explains: ‘Art’s theological dimension has its origin in God’s own art, the natural beauty of Creation’.

Creation’s beauty reflects the beauty of its Creator, for as theologians like von Balthasar have pointed out God’s glory is his beauty. The beauty of the world, through which the beauty of God is revealed, is a creaturely beauty that transforms the beholder – it is a beauty that in some real sense demands a decision, a conversion.

Furthermore, it is important to note that human beings are themselves part of God’s art. Thus as García-Rivera has perceptively pointed out, in contemplating the beauty of the world, ‘the human creature catches an intriguing and wondrous glimpse of itself.’

Perhaps the distance that modernity has created between art and religion can be attributed to its lost of the sense of true beauty. This has two adverse results: the inability to recognize beauty’s intrinsic value and a morbid preference for the banal. This is the constant lament of the British philosopher Roger Scruton in his thoughtful book, Beauty.

Insofar as beauty – together with truth and goodness – is a transcendental, the secularization of art in modern and post-modern culture may be characterized as the lost of the sense of those universal qualities that belong to the very essence of being itself.

This eclipse of the transcendentals has caused modern art to lose touch with reality itself, plunging it into the barrenness of what some have called an ‘aesthetic nominalism’, where art becomes merely a celebration of the individuality of the artist. We see this in the baneful iconoclasms of Duchamp and Picasso.

Such ‘art’, in fact, spells the end of art. The great art critic, Ernst Gombrich is therefore quite right to characterise the modern predicament thus: ‘There is no such thing as “art”. There are only individual artists’.

It is only when beauty is returned to art – or to put it the other way around, it is only when art begins to take the transcendentals seriously – will art begin once again to be in touch with reality. And when art does that, it will in different ways attempt to give form to the transcendental mystery.

Only such art may achieve ‘an evocation of the sense of the absolutely unknowable’, writes Joseph Campbell. This is especially true for religious art; but it can also be the case for any form of art, as long as it is good art (in the way that we have sought to defined it here).

Art that seeks to penetrate and interpret the real can therefore be a kind of prophetic word – speaking a visible word and with an articulate image – raising its image-voice against some of the ills of our society. And as Karen Stone has put it so eloquently, such art has the ability to cause us to ‘imagine and form an alternative to the ruling order within ourselves and in our world’.

The evocative nature of art can sensitize the viewer to the needs of others, even alerting him to the plight of the people whom he has never met. Art can help us to come to grips with the irrationality of human atrocities and the depths of human suffering.

For example, in Backs Magdelena Abakanowicz, who lived through the horrors of World War II, portrays the prisoners in the concentration camps in World War II, depicting both the atrocities they suffer and the endurance of the human spirit in a way that is truly compelling. Such art in some sense transcends the particularities of culture and history and speaks to the human soul.

Of course, not every piece of art – even good art – does this. But insofar as art is truly in touch with the real – in both its revelation and hiddenness – it has the potential to do so.

And when it does, art acquires that sacramental quality – it becomes the means by which God’s grace is able to make present (to disclose) profound truths about our human condition and about the world in which we have created for ourselves.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 

 

The Wonders of Creation

In the opening chapters of the Bible, the mystery of creation is presented in beautiful poetic language (Genesis 1 and 2). The passages speak of how God brought about this splendidly diverse universe by simply speaking the word of command: God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. These passages point to the almightiness of the Creator who is not dependent on any pre-existing material to fashion the creation, but created it ‘out of nothing’ (ex nihilo), as early theologians of the Church pointed out. But Genesis is not the only book in the Bible that speaks of God’s marvellous creation. The Psalms contain some of the most eloquent statements about the Creator.

Psalm 19 speaks most beautifully of how the splendours of God’s creation reflect and point to the Creator. The psalm opens with this marvellous declaration: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge’. The psalmist celebrates the majesty, glory and honour of God the Creator as he contemplates His handiwork.

Christian theologians and poets throughout the centuries have insisted that it is possible to get something of a glimpse of the glory and magnificence of the Creator by prayerfully contemplating the created order. The poem of the great 19th century English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins entitled, ‘God’s Grandeur’ immediately comes to mind: ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed …’ Together with the ancient psalmist, these Christian writers see the vestiges of the glory of God in the beauty of the creation.

But the ability to discern the Creator in the structures of the material world is not confined only to poets, theologians and mystics. Modern physicists and cosmologists are beginning to see that the universe we inhabit has an order that is profoundly, remarkably and delicately balanced. For example, in order for life to exist there must be an abundant supply of carbon, which is formed by the combination of three helium nuclei. But the combination must be so exact that if there is a variation of slightly more than one percent either way, the universe could no longer sustain life. Or take the distance between the sun and the earth. A modification of only two percent of the current distance, scientists say, would result in the total annihilation of life. If the earth is too near to the sun, water would evaporate and the earth will be too barren to sustain life. However, if the earth is too far from the sun, temperatures would plunge to the point that life is no longer possible.

Another important observation that scientists have made has to do with gravity and the amount of matter – i.e., galaxies, diffuse gas, ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ – in the universe. Again, the balance must be just right. This has led some scientists to conclude that there must be an extraordinary imposition of constraints on the initial cosmic energy density in order for a universe like ours to come into being. As British cosmologist and astrophysicist Baron Martin Rees put it: ‘If this ratio were too high relative to a particular “critical” value, the universe would have collapsed long ago; had it been too low, no galaxies or stars would have formed. The initial expansion speed seems to have been finely tuned’. Rees alludes to the anthropic principle, which is made popular by John Barrow and Frank Tipler’s landmark book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle published in 1986. The anthropic principle simply points to the remarkable and extraordinary combination of factors necessary to bring about the universe that we inhabit. Barrow maintains that this remarkable confluence of factors, which he calls ‘nice laws’, would be very difficult to explain without reference to God.

It would be too much to argue that the anthropic principle or the fact that our universe is so magnificently ‘fine-tuned’ serves as proof for the existence of God. There is a sense in which one can never prove (in the way scientists broadly understand the word) or disprove the existence of God. But it would not be outrageous (and here is the apologetic value of this discovery) to say that these scientific observations about the universe suggest that it is not unreasonable to postulate the existence of the Creator. In fact, as some philosophers and theologians have rightly pointed it, to suggest the existence of a Creator is arguably more credible than to suggest speculative theories like the multiverse. But for the believer, these scientific discoveries testify to the wonders of the creation and the ever-greater wonder of its Creator. They enable him to join the psalmist in declaring: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands’.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today (March 2013).

Beauty Eclipsed

March 2015 Pulse

Christian mystic and philosopher Simone Weil wrote in her famous work Waiting for God, published posthumously more than 60 years ago: “Today one might think that the white races had almost lost all feeling for the beauty of the world, and that they had taken upon themselves the task of making it disappear from all the continents where they have penetrated with their armies, their trade, and their religion.”

Had Weil lived to witness the savage iconoclasms of this period we have nebulously tagged as ‘postmodern’, she would have been truly appalled. For in this so-called ‘postmodern turn’, where cultural narcissism, a plurality of psychological identities, and radical relativism dominates and corrodes human society, beauty (together with the true and the good) is slowly being eclipsed and forgotten.

This is seen supremely, although not exclusively, in art. The American art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto, observing the erosion of beauty, wrote in The Abuse of Beauty that “Beauty …disappeared not only from the advanced art of the 1960s, but from advanced philosophy of art of that decade as well… [It] rarely came up in art periodicals from the 1960s without the deconstructionist snicker.”

The eclipse of beauty is also seen in the church, especially in its worship, music, architecture and art. This is both alarming and sad because beauty has always occupied such a central place in the Christian heritage. In music, for instance, we have such marvellous epiphanies of created beauty in the haunting monody of Gregorian chant, the uncommon splendour of the choral motets of Palestrina, and the majestic cantatas of Handel and Bach.

Beauty so profoundly pervades the Christian tradition simply because the God that Christians worship is beautiful. The glory of God may refer to many things, but it points most significantly to his majestic beauty. Reflecting on the implications of this truth, Richard Viladesu writes in his captivating book, Theology and the Arts: “To say that God is beauty is to affirm God as the horizon of every human experience of the beautiful, in all aspects: intellectual, moral, interpersonal and aesthetic.”

The world that God created is beautiful because it reflects the divine beauty. There is therefore that profound analogy between earthly or created beauty and the beauty of God, its Creator. “The world”, writes the great 19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” Thus, while the divine beauty transcends all its visible manifestations, God is their source and final cause.

If God is Beauty, then, his self- disclosure must also be beautiful. And if, as Scripture has taught us, God has revealed himself universally in the created order, every experience of beauty is in some sense an encounter of the revelation of God. In all its imperfections, earthly beauty affords us a glimpse – however slight – of the glory of God.

But the beauty of God is seen most supremely in the fullness of his revelation in Jesus Christ. For the incarnate Son is the icon, the image and the form of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). Looking at the eternal Son clothed in humanity in the incarnation, John could testify: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) And since Christ is the definitive self-disclosure of God, to see the glory of the Son is to behold the glory of the Father (John 14:8-9).

In addition, there is in every human being an innate sense of beauty, and therefore also an ineffable longing for God. A Christian view of man cannot but affirm this, its great doctrines concerning human fallenness and rebellion notwithstanding. Augustine saw this very clearly when he spoke of the restless human heart that can find its ultimate repose only in God. Pascal also recognised it in his marvellous metaphor of the God-shaped vacuum in every human heart.

Perhaps this is why despite the philistinism of the postmodern culture, beauty has not totally disappeared and still survives in some strands of culture. And perhaps this is also why despite the onslaught of secularism and atheism, more than a third of the global population still believe in the God of the Bible.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.