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Beauty’s Difficulties: A Case of Mistaken Identity

This entry is part 14 of 17 in the series

"Doxology: A Theology of God's Beauty"

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The topic of beauty suffers not only because its definition is disputed, but because beauty is often a victim of misidentification. These wrong associations lead beauty’s critics to dismiss the topic out of hand. As I’ve said, I believe beauty refers to the deepest reality, and so it is no small matter when beauty is trivialised or mistaken for something else. Beauty is confused with at least four things, which compromise its true meaning.

1) Beauty is not prettiness. That is, beauty has little to do with the saccharine-sweet, the merely decorative, or the superficial niceness of appearance. While there may be instances of what is pretty, charming, or pleasing that possess beauty, beauty is far more, and far deeper than the surface appearance of an endearing garden, a memorable face, or a cute outfit.

2) Allied to this, beauty is not kitsch. Sentimental art evades or trivialises evil, presenting a fiction of an unfallen present world, and so allows its viewers to wallow in pleasant feelings. The sentimentalist is emotionally self-indulgent, loving, grieving, hating, pitying, not for the sake of another, but for the sake of enjoying love, grief, hate, and pity. Sentimental art denies the need for sacrifice in approaching beauty, but in so doing deprives feeling of depth and reality. Dorothy Sayers terms such art “amusement art” and notes that what people get from it “is the enjoyment of the emotions which usually accompany experience without us having had the experience”. Nothing in such an aesthetic experience reveals people to
themselves; it merely enhances and inflates an image of themselves as they fancy themselves to be. Sentimental art appeals to human vanity, self-centredness, and egotism. Kitsch is where humans go to indulge the love of self, and to escape into worlds of their own making. Kitsch trades in the familiar, the easy, the shallow, and the childish, because these appeal to what is most selfish in all. Sentimentalism is then worse than an aesthetic faux pas, it trades in falsehoods. It distorts the realities to which it claims to allude. It cannot generate action appropriate to what it claims to represent, for it falsifies the experience from the start, giving instead a placebo emotion.

For this reason, sentimentality and kitsch is a form of art hostile to what Christianity purports to teach: a denial of self, so as to worship the glory of Another. Bishop Harries goes as far as saying that “Kitsch, in whatever form, is an enemy of the Christian faith and must be exposed as such”. Kitsch is not only an aesthetic failure, but a moral and spiritual failure, too. Christ’s beauty is not a sentimental prettiness, and therefore sentimental art has the potential of leading into idolatry. Scruton similarly claims that kitsch is not primarily an artistic phenomenon, but a disease of faith.

3) Beauty is not pleasure. At least, while beauty evokes pleasure, and beautiful souls find pleasure in the beautiful, beauty is not identical to pleasure. When defined too narrowly as an aesthetic experience, beauty has no place for pain, discord, tragedy, and suffering. The kind of beauty that a Christian believes in must include the message of the Cross, with its ugliness, horror and pain.

4) Beauty is not a surrogate religion. Emil Brunner pointed out that the danger of this approach, at least in artistic matters, is “taking the reflection for the reality, or at any rate of resting content with it. Thus art becomes a substitute for faith, which is sought because it does not demand decision, as faith does, but merely the attitude of a spectator, or of one who is swayed hither and thither by the artistic influences around him; that is, it is not a real devotion, it is merely aesthetic.” Jacques Barzun wrote that “autonomous art has no unity, no eternity, no theology, no myth, no minister, its cult can only fall into a worship of the instrument—idolatry. And to say idolatry is to say failure, for what is wrong with idolatry is that it is a dead stop along the way to the transcendent.”

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David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

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