Beauty is Truth
a sermon given on 24 February 2008 by Reverend Gail Seavey of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, Tennessee.
“The entire qualification one must have for understanding art is responsiveness.”
– Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form: A theory of Art Developed from Philosophy in a New Key
“Where is our holy church?
Where race and class unite
As equal persons in the search
For beauty, truth and right.”
The words of this old hymn may sound out-of-date. They refer to the values of religious ancestors inspired by the Romanic poetry of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Keats, who wrote in Ode On A Grecian Urn:
“When old age shall his generation waste
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’, that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
In today’s complicated world, where race and class are still very far from united, we all need to know a lot more than looking at an old piece of crockery can show us. In today’s Unitarian Universalist (UU) churches, I have seen us searching for truth and right action, but I rarely see us unite in the search for beauty. At best, beauty does not interest us. At worst, we express an open hostility toward beauty, rationalizing our stance as politically correct or economically responsible. As we thumb through the newspaper and see full page ads displaying expensive clothes on women with airbrushed pores scattered amongst graphic news photos of poverty, war and ecological destruction, we can’t help but wonder what truth and right have to do with beauty.
The first UU church I joined did not have a flaming chalice. Since I was a sculptor at the time, I made their very first one out of clay. When I presented it to them, the elderly president stood in the back and muttering, “It’s a bit Popish.” I could imagine him marching with the men of Zurich in 1524, led by reformation minister, Zwingli, methodically stripping each and every city church of art. They smashed stone sculptures, burned wooden icons, whitewashed the walls and destroyed the organs. Protestants were the most enthusiastic and literal of iconoclasts, and our UU churches, of Protestant descent, still delight in smashing icons.
Zwingli smashed art because he knew well the power of beauty. He was aware that people were distracted from the words he preached by the visual and musical beauty around them. And the words were the essence of Protestant worship – as they are in most or our own churches today.
Yet we generally encourage one form of visual beauty: the appreciation of nature. Long before I read Emerson, Longfellow and Thoreau, who gave us permission to do so, my father taught me to look for beauty. Every summer when we were visiting my mother’s family in Vermont, he would point at some scenic vista saying with awe in his voice, “Look at that. Isn’t it beautiful?’ I looked out and felt the mountains reach in and touch me at the core of my being. What I felt was larger than myself, more expansive than the mountains. And with awe I thought, “Yes, this is beautiful.”
But I started to wonder about beauty even them. My Mom saw no beauty in those mountains. She was raised on them. To her they were but the backdrop of violence, poverty and backbreaking labor. My Dad was raised in the city. He had been taught by the art in museums and stereoscopes – by the culture around him – to look at landscapes and to admire what he saw: for what we see is never simply that which is out there.
When I studied the biology of sight, I learned that this is literally true. By the time our brain registers a visual image, in the very instant of perception, the message brought in from our eyes has already flowed through a complex network of interlocking loops connecting it to all our other senses, our emotions, and our interpretation of the environment, conditioned by survival and cultural needs. Each and every time we look out at the world, we are choosing where to look, what to focus on, what to notice and remember, and instantly interpret that information in terms of our present and past experiences.
What we SEE is literally an interaction of our inner world with the outside world. When we seek beauty in nature we are using our biologically innate function (what some would call our artistic imagination) to scan and interpret – to make sense of our environment. We find something beautiful when the forms we see reflect something we have felt – any thing we have felt. When my mother looked at the mountains she never saw her true feelings in them, so she did not see their beauty at all.
My mind’s eye was further educated in our culture’s idea of beauty when I attended art school. Since beauty is a function of feeling, my teachers unwittingly tried to teach me how to feel. There I was taught a hierarchy of beauty. At the top was Fine Art, made by educated European artists. Descending in order of worth were Folk Art, Primitive Art, craft and hobbies – made respectively by peasants, tribal people, workers, women and children with no training in the Western tradition of beauty. Fine Art, I was taught, was in conversation with the rest of Western culture and history; it referred always to itself.
With my fellow art students, I struggled to make art that referred to my world and feelings. Our pots were smashed, our watercolors washed away. Some responded to the brutal socialization with cynical humor. Our motto was: “Hey, I don’t know for art but I know what I like.” Others of us responded politically. Artists involved with the civil rights and the women’s movements came to understand that the first necessary right of any newly liberated people is the freedom to express them selves, to show the worth of their lives. We discovered that aesthetic judgments were used to silence whole cultures. Anything oppressed people made to communicate their own experience was called bad art. We developed a politics of aesthetics.
To understand the politics we have to first define art. As I already noted, beauty is expressive form. Beauty has as many forms as there are feelings. According philosopher Susanne Langer, art is the creation of forms symbolic of feeling – not just emotions, but all our feelings: the feelings of moving through space, the heart beating through time, the feelings of thinking, of cultural rhythms, of how it feels to live and how it feels to dream.
Not only do humans scan the natural world for expressive form, we make art to take the invisible rhythms of life and make them concrete for all to see. Good art is not about good feelings; good art it that which truly expresses any human feeling. Bad art is not about feeling bad; bad art is a false expression. It lies. Poor art is unsuccessful at making concrete the feelings of human experience, and if there is no intent or impulse to express feeling, then it is not art at all. Good art is always beautiful because it shows us the truths of human existence.
Zwingli stripped churches of images that showed the truth of the medieval ecclesiastical hierarchy. He hoped to create a new religious truth that did not systematically oppress the people of his culture. But even as he had a few gold-leafed inscriptions painted on the walls, art was being made in the service of a new hierarchy that has been tied to the systematic oppression of people in western culture ever since.
In Medieval Europe there were no separate categories for art, craft, folk art, or hobby. People made things. Some of those things showed the truth of human feeling at that time and place. Those things were called beautiful. During the Italian Renaissance a new economic class developed with the invention of banking. These first middle class professionals wanted to advertise their new power as individuals. They commissioned sculptures and paintings of themselves to be included in the religious art that they paid for. The aristocracy followed suit. Portrait art became an integral part of the power struggle between the emerging middle class and the fading royalty.
The middle class started to glorify the painting and sculpture craft guilds since they best suited their desires for individual status symbols. At the same time, they were developing the educational idea of liberal arts to train this new class of rulers. They rationalized the new status given to painting and sculpture by including them in with the liberal arts, which they defined as ideas generated from abstract thinking, separate and superior to working with mere materials, where all the other crafts were relegated.
It took me a while to see that this hierarchy of beauty was systematically tied to the same cultures’ hierarchy of oppression, but the clues were all around. For instance, an art book I read about the history of collage attributed its invention to Picasso and Braque. It mentioned incidentally that folk artists, women and children had cut and pasted paper for decorative purposes, since paper became available. Unspoken was the assumption that it was not until a white European male placed the technique into commercial culture that it was “invented.” The class of people who controlled the flow of money also controlled the definition of beauty – calling products “art” – only if the products’ makers were worthy of their respect. For 400 years only the feelings of the ruling class were declared to be true and beautiful.
The English words for art and craft reflect the success of uniting hierarchies of beauty with class. When the Renaissance reached England, the peasants were Anglo-Saxons and the rulers were Normans. To this day Norman words are considered ‘high-class’ or polite and Anglo-Saxon words are considered ‘low-class’ or rude. Pork, beef, feces, coitus and art are Norman words. Pig, cow, the s and f words (that are still considered too rude for me to say here), and craft are Anglo-Saxon words. Tying a hierarchy of art forms to class works. It works because it controls what we see, which shapes how we feel. We who are educated learned to see what those who identify with wealth and power wanted us to see.
When people insist that we look at their art as part of their liberation, they are doing a revolutionary thing; they are asking us to see in a new way. We are trained to see beauty created in the service of the moneyed classes: to sell products and to entertain. Our cynicism about beauty in the church is healthy, if beauty is only about hierarchy and wealth.
Yet as any of you who has ever had the urge to create knows, art CAN be more than that. Art is a basic expression of human communication and connection. Art can be created and received in the service of our own religious values.
We can simply start fresh like the reformers tried to do, by keeping our walls empty and our buildings stark. Or we can learn to see in new ways. Different cultures literally SEE the world differently. We find it difficult at first to see the beauty in the art of a culture unlike our own. When we look at something radically new, our brain’s interpretive lobes scream “run, this in not safe,” or “this does not compute.” Both reactions can illicit fear and anxiety. It is easy to project that anxiety onto the art piece itself.
Let me give you an example. When I was in art school I made sculptures of women that expressed feelings of enormous creative power trapped. They made my misogynistic teacher so anxious, he stopped coming into my studio. One day he sent the only woman teacher in the sculpture department, a grad student, to have a heart to heart with me. She explained that my work was primitive, that it had already been “done” and that it wasn’t art. Then she added an amazing story. When she was visiting Paris, she went to the Ethnographic Museum to see the primitive artifacts of non-European people. There was displayed the “Hottentot Venus”. My work reminded her of that.
So I went to the library to look up the “Hottentot Venus”. She was not an art work at all, but a real woman, Saartjie Baartman, born in 1789, a slave in South Africa. She was displayed like a freak in England and like an animal in France where she died in 1815. Her skeleton, preserved genitals and brain were then put on display at the museum. I felt sick hearing about the treatment of this trapped woman. But yes, I thought, Saartjie Baartman could have been the inspiration of my art.
When Europeans first saw African people and their art, they thought it was all ugly. They gathered their art into ethnographic museums out of scientific curiosity; but they didn’t call it art. Then creative lookers like Braque and Picasso gave the African artifacts a second and yet a third look that broke through their education and prejudices. They referred to the ‘African objects’ in their art works in the same way they referred to historical western art, inspiring others to take the time to look past their anxiety.
And because seeing is a relationship between the inner and outer worlds, and because the outer world has common points of reference familiar to all, and because our inner worlds are shaped by the same biology, there is the possibility of seeing the beauty in a another’s experience, no matter how different it is. As Western viewers contemplated the African objects they learned to see the shape of human feelings that were expressed. They started to understand that they were looking at the truth of human experience; indeed, they saw the beauty that was always there; they saw that they were looking at art. Much change and growth in the world of Western fine art for several hundred years has depended upon such creative interaction with cultures other than its own.
But it has not been only the art objects that have changed. Some viewers have also been changed. Some western observers of African art began to intuit that being human included truths beyond their own experience, that these “so called savages” had feelings too: that they too were human. Some observers were even moved to understand feelings within themselves that they had never before been aware of, new beauties within their old tired souls.
This interaction can be imperialism at its worse if we continue to stack people and their art into hierarchies of worth. But creative interchange between equals who value the inherent worth and dignity of each person can teach us to see in ever new ways that expands our religious ideals. Then the process of art can be a holy act. When we become part of the creative god-process – making our own true feelings – our beauty – visible to the world and seeing the beauty made visible by others – we enter into a profound communion that helps us transcend our limits a little, mutually expanding our visions of beauty, truth and right.
As long as our churches maintain the blank whitewashed walls of Zwigli’s church we will be slaves to the powerful attraction of beauty in our society’s most manipulative and commercial forms. With an understanding of beauty’s power to educate our feelings we can honor the power art has to expand our sense of value through the religious discipline of creative interchange and help create a church “where race and class unite as equal persons in the search for beauty, truth and right.”