Will Beauty Save the World?

As we have been talking about beauty and aesthetics recently, here is an old Anglo-Catholic posting of mine. I reproduce it in full since I am the author. The article dates from March 20th 2010. There are some sympathetic comments attached to the old article.

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Dostoyevsky came out with an idea that few of us will ever understand – “Beauty will save the world”. I often wonder how this can be, as beautiful buildings, paintings, musical instruments and every form of human art are usually the first victims of war and man’s inhumanity to man. Has beauty ever saved us from anything?

There is something about art and beauty that cannot be disputed and softens the hardest people. Ideologies are always hollow, smooth talking and empty, whether they are philosophical ideas, plans for reorganising society or even the literalist understanding of the Gospel. Even here, my use of words only adds to the proliferation of clashing ideas, so my thought will only be of limited use. It would be better to produce a work of art!

However, the use of language can be in itself a form of art, when a writer has a talent for fine prose and poetry. The use of words is an important part of our liturgy, without which the actions, ceremonies and symbols would only at best have ambiguous meanings. I am a fervent believer in a world of ideas signposted by the triple transcendentals of goodness, truth and beauty. These are not my ideas, but those of Plato, Saint Augustine and many of the other Church Fathers and Saints.

Beauty, like Christ himself, suffers and dies to save the world – and even then, salvation or deification is situated at a level that escapes our materialistic understanding. Beauty has saved the world, and can do much to help us today.

The kind of Anglicanism we are bringing into communion with the Catholic Church [I was writing in March 2010 from a “Hepworthian” perspective] is a vision that was revived only in the nineteenth century. It is one of the central tenets of us Anglo Catholics that Catholicism survived in the English Church throughout the centuries, but it was comatose in the Age of Reason! The Catholic revival of the Romantic era was an aesthetic response to the doctrinal, canonical and spiritual work of the earlier post-Reformation divines. Like many movements, it was a reaction against the arid intellectualism and dry rationalism of the eighteenth century. It also broke free from the yoke and the bare sternness of Puritanism and the whited sepulchre that masqueraded as religion when Puritanism had decayed. The Oxford Movement was to a great extent inspired by Romanticism as was the French Catholic revival under Montalembert, Chateaubriand, Guéranger and Lacordaire at exactly the same time. It brought sensuality and sensitivity for beauty to the forefront. Man is not merely a rational and intellectual being, but is also emotional and capable of being moved by religion expressed as poetry and art.

The aesthetic movement sprang directly out of the Oxford (Tractarian) Movement. Though Newman sought to trace the continuity of doctrine from the Scriptures and Fathers, throughout the history of the Church, he was a man of his time and the emerging aspiration to transcend the collapsed classical world of the previous century that had been so abjectly ruined by the French Revolution. The former world had passed away, and the Romantics looked to a new world. Do we, in 2010, not recognise our own feelings as we left the twentieth century?

Romanticism sought to revive notions of the medieval era, without of course seeking to reproduce it in every aspect, the evil with the good. Men of the early nineteenth century were not interested in feudalism or corrupt bishops. Romantic mediaevalism was selective and took beauty, and pushed rationality to the background to give breathing space to the emotions and feelings. The Ritualists followed closely in the footsteps of the Oxford Movement, and sought to bring back aspects of the old pre-Reformation Church, especially through the Gothic revival in architecture and the arrangement of the sanctuary and the altar.

Many cringe at the idea of late nineteenth century aestheticism, and think of Oscar Wilde. We conservative Christians tend to react the way his judge and the establishment of that time reacted. We have enough problems in our own time with homosexuality and immorality against human life and the family. Yet, that extremely sensitive character was able to write In carcere et vinculis, the famous letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, which has moved many a reader to tears. That letter influenced many of may own ways of seeing the relationship between beauty and faith, and especially the purity of the heart and a visceral eschewing of bourgeois hypocrisy. Wilde, received into the Catholic Church in Paris shortly before his death in 1901, remains one of my favourite authors of that period.

Evelyn Waugh outlined the continuation of this eccentric aestheticism into the Roaring Twenties in his wartime novel Brideshead Revisited. I recommend the British television series of 1981 that can be seen on Youtube. This epic comes in 11 episodes. You have a choice of characters with which you can identify, for you will arrive at the end feeling that you know those characters intimately. Waugh himself was profoundly intrigued by the dying embers of aestheticism that were just about extinct by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the Depression and World War II. Quomodo sedet sola civitas, vanity of vanities!

What I might term as aesthetic Catholicism was a desire to present and receive Catholicism as an attraction to difference and otherness. It had to be distinguished by its beauty and a morality that stood out from hypocritical Victorian moralism. That aspiration to difference continued over a whole century before resurfacing in some of the extreme and morally unacceptable tendencies of modern Anglicanism. Everything in moderation!

Aestheticism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century English upper class was considered as wildly perverted by the Protestant gentry. Charles Kingsley found that Catholics and Tractarians in the Universities bore “an element of foppery even in dress and manner; a fastidious, maundering, die-away effeminacy, which is mistaken for purity and refinement“. Implicit in these accusations were thinly veiled charges of homosexuality, a serious crime in those days. One character in Waugh’s book warns an impressionable young Oxford undergraduate about the dangers of Anglo Catholics – They’re all sodomites with unpleasant accents. That is for the extreme decadence into which some elements of the Movement sank.

But, not all of it foundered. The aesthetic movement had its limits, but we should be careful about rejecting it because of the excesses committed by a few of the more flamboyant camp personalities. There was an objective foundation in goodness and beauty in a search for truth – this is what drives us today. I am sure most of the Ritualist priests were pious men, concerned for a vision of the Church involving beauty and a radical position in favour of the poor. And – they were ready to go to prison for their convictions!

This was another thing about English upper class aesthetes – their utter dismay over how the middle class was treating the little working people and poor souls living in the city slums. Priests of such a vision would never get preferment in the viscerally Protestant Establishment, and so they built the slum parishes in Holborn, Whitechapel, Hackney, London Docks and most of the seafaring towns of England’s south coast.

What of the future? There are many signs of hope in our days. One is having a Pope with aesthetic ideas, a musician and lover of beauty in the liturgy. Another is our arriving at the end of a modern era and young people looking for something different. A Romantic revival? History always repeats itself. An event occurs for the first time as a tragedy, the second time as a farce, as would be seen when comparing Julius Caesar with Mussolini or Frederick the Great with Hitler. A second gothic revival would be utter cynicism! However, there are certain aspects from which we can learn.

One hopeful sign I saw some years ago was Radical Orthodoxy, and there are many inspiring things in those books by Milbank, Pickstock and others. But, the Cambridge Movement (as some have called it) was too snottily snobbish and never caught on. I have a copy of Radical Orthodoxy (ISBN 0-415-19698-I) which I have found interesting to read in small doses. What has particularly excited me intellectually is what we find written about aesthetics, the problem of post-modern nihilism, friendship and generally a fairly neo-Platonic view of everything. But I have to warn you that it is difficult reading. Catherine Pickstock, a brilliant intellectual who writes so beautifully on the liturgy, is in favour of the ordination of women. The Oxford Movement had been brought to the pastoral level by the Ritualist slum priests in the cities of the 1860’s. Who will ‘apply’ Radical Orthodoxy?

The Goth subculture among some of the young post-modern people takes a certain amount of influence from nineteenth century aestheticism, but is far removed from Christianity, and is quite sinister in its undertones. Some priests have felt a calling to missionary work among Goths, but I have no idea about whether those efforts have met with significant success. I think those young people are misguided, but their reaction is as understandable as that of Shelley, Sir Walter Scott and Tennyson in their own time, that is without mentioning the taste for the macabre and the melancholy in Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula and Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein in that gloomy and cold summer of 1816.

In many ways, I see parallels between the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth with our own time. Reason and rationality are denigrated by post-modernism, as are ideas and ideology. Greater priority is given to feeling and experience, but in a way we modern fogies find most disconcerting.

Coming to the common ground of most ordinary people, we certainly need to give priority to beauty in our places of worship and our liturgy, giving the best of what we have. I certainly hope we will be able to have the use of old churches as much as possible in England, America, Australia and other places. When it comes to furnishing them, we really need to study the works of artists like William Morris who sought objective beauty in the early twentieth century, and become influenced by that current of thought and feeling. Too many churches, even where traditional liturgies are celebrated, are appointed in a tawdry and vulgar way. I would love to see a revival of the Arts and Crafts Movement. [Here is another Arts and Crafts link.]

Beautiful churches, beautiful music and beauty in the liturgy will do much to bring people back to the Church. Beauty will breed beauty as artists and writers begin to feel loved and appreciated, rather than spurned and marginalised like in the nineteenth century. We need a new Christian aesthetic movement, a liturgical movement, a Catholic movement in general.

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