By In Culture

The Transcendent Source of Beauty and Art

“But if you confess that the world was once beautiful, but by the curse has become undone, and by a final catastrophe is to pass to its full state of glory, excelling even the beauty of paradise, then art has the mystical task of reminding us in its production of the beauty that was lost and of anticipating its perfect coming luster.” -Abraham Kuyper

In his book True Paradox, David Skeel makes the point that beauty—especially that beauty which is seen in art—is the result of tension, of one kind or another. Obviously, the kind of tension that typically comes to mind is that between good and bad, right and wrong. Christianity gives a full throated voice to this tension. While the world was created good, it is fallen—which is to say it’s both broken and rebellious—but Christ has come to restore and redeem creation. In other words, Christ has come to resolve this tension.

This story of creation, fall, and redemption permeates the Scriptures, and because the Scriptures tell the true story of this world, it permeates our experience as well. Thus, for art to be affirmed by the Christian worldview, it of course can—and must—touch on these themes. Granted, each and every piece of art won’t include each and every theme each and every time. A work which reflects the pain and depravity of creation is no less true than the work which points to the world’s inherent dignity and goodness, or a work which alludes to the balm and remedy brought by Christ, for that matter.

The fact that beauty is a result of tension—and the tension between good and evil is resolvable—poses an interesting and important question vis-à-vis the Christian aesthetic; namely, “is beauty eternal?” The answer to this question is more complex than one might first expect. To begin with, the tension between “good” and “bad” is contingent upon evil—which is finite. Obviously, before the fall and after the second coming of Christ, there is no such tension. This tension has a beginning (Gen 3) and an end (Rev 21).

Now, at least the three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) agree on this point: evil is not eternal—it has a beginning and an end. This tension, most of us agree, will be resolved. However, the Christian faith has a unique claim on beauty specifically. Before the fall, indeed before creation, God lived in perfect love, peace, joy, and relationship. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit were one yet three. Were God only one—were He a mono-personal being—there would be no tension in eternity past, let alone in the perfect world to come.

However, as we know, God is not such a being. While we can, without reservation, affirm the “oneness” of God’s essence, we can also, without reservation, affirm the various personalities of the Trinity. This tension—between Father, Son, and Spirit—is irresolvable. It is the governing reality of the cosmos. Of course, this reality is why we can say that love is eternal. There has always been “love,” a “lover,” and a “beloved.” However, this is also why Christians can say beauty is eternal. Before the creation of the world, God was not stagnant. He was in a complex and textured relationship with His Trinitarian Self.  Tension is eternal, in other words, because of the eternality of the Trinity.

As Trinitarians, Skeel argues, we can heartily acknowledge that there are more tensions in the world than those between “good” and “bad.” As a result, when we look at a truly beautiful painting, we appreciate the tension; not only between right and wrong, but also between colors, shades, fabrics, etc. These tensions—those which exist apart from sin—allude to the complexity found in the Godhead. Perhaps this is why a given piece of art can have such a transcendent effect on the viewer. In viewing beauty—as with experiencing love—the viewer is coming in contact with something that lacks a beginning and an end. At its best, this is what art does. Art makes us worship—not the object, but the reality which lies beyond the object, the Triune God of the universe.

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4 Responses to The Transcendent Source of Beauty and Art

  1. Heather says:

    Isn’t it the case that tension in a work of art can also produce a work of ugliness? And this ugliness is not necessarily the tension between good and evil. An ugly animal (creation is a work of art, afteral) is ugly due to tensions between size and expectation, or colors, or textures. An ugly painting relies also on the tensions between light and dark, opposing and contrasting colors, etc., so it would seem tension results in the opposite of beauty just as easily as beauty.

  2. That’s a great point, Heather! It’s important to note that the claim “beauty is a result of tension” is not the same thing as saying “all tension will produce beauty.” Just like the claim “every Messer likes Bob Dylan” does not equal “everyone who likes Bob Dylan is a Messer.” Thanks for reading/interacting! That’s a helpful clarification.

  3. Heather says:

    It just seems that the argument for tension as a cause of beauty in the Trinity, can also be the same argument for the ugliness of the Trinity. In which case, I’d take issue with the cause and effect argument, even if it is not posed in the universal All A is B :: All B is A

    I’m not convinced that “tension” is an adequate way to discuss the Beauty that is the Triune God. Beauty is not just an attribute in God, just as Goodness is not, nor is Truth. So any argument which could result in the conclusion coming to God is False, as well as God is Ugly, would be inadequate, no?

  4. I think you’re reading me as saying “beauty is exclusively tension, and all tension is beautiful.” My argument is more modest than that. I’m not saying that beauty is exclusively tension, only that tension is always present in beauty. To disprove that, you’d need to give an example of beauty which lacks tension. Also, I’m not looking to tension to find out whether or not God is eternal. Rather, I’m looking to God to see if tension is eternal. To disprove the claim that tension is eternal, you’d need to show that there’s no tension in the Trinity. Again, thanks for interacting, Heather!

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