Thursday, May 20, 2010


Beauty, if it is truly to be thought so, must be wedded to some truth. Beauty without truth will ultimately fail to satisfy. If you should be lost in the woods that is absolutely full of rabbits which you are able to catch and eat to your satisfaction, you will ultimately starve to death because rabbit meat is too lean to sustain life. If something is beautiful but reflects no truth, it may attract our eye but it will ultimately fail to feed our souls and nourish us and give us life.

The truth of the piece may not be immediately apparent. Sr. Wendy came to the Cleveland Museum of Art to produce an audio tour of her favorite pieces. One little amazing piece was a small, heavy, brass bear, not so much in the shape of an actual bear but looking much more like an infant’s plastic chew toy of a bear (though a very well done chew toy.) She described the piece as a weight used to hold down the corner of a mat on which an official would sit during official business (I forget both the year and the province.) First she reminded us of people’s natural affinity for bears. We do find them fascinating. On the one hand there is the sheer power and awesomeness of these beasts of the wild which strikes in us some amount of respect and fear. If we encounter a bear in the woods (or in our kitchen) the natural reaction would be to flee.

On the other hand they are so attractive. They look soft and their fur draws us in to want to touch them. As they lumber and eat berries our minds turn to the overstuffed plush toys that we had as children. At the zoo we watch them play in the water or snuggle with their young ones and are moved to say, “Look! Awwwwwwe!” Such is our attraction to bears. Respect and attraction. Fear and awe. Beauty and strength amidst a certain comfortable frumpiness.

Then there is the little brass bear at the edge of the mat of the government official who sits squat, enduring some presentation by someone with more breath than actual information burning away the precious minutes of life that God has given him. He looks down and sees the bear perhaps at his right knee. For a moment he is brought to mind of our affinity for bears and he reaches out his hand and places it on the bear’s head and for a moment is relieved if the pain of the meeting.

I did not do Sr. Wendy’s talk justice – not nearly. By the time she finished her telling of the story I was foolishly near tears so much truth and beauty came melding together. Beauty must take us somewhere. And that somewhere must be part of the truth of the universe – of God – of what it is to be human – or it is something else - a technique – or even ugliness.

A couple of people asked about faces and what attracts us to them. One scientific study says that balance and symmetry does it. Well, sure, that is what attracts us to a particular face. We are drawn in. But each of us have experienced meeting something who truly looks beautiful but once we start talking to the person or getting to know them deeply and finding some ugliness discover that the beauty of their face can no longer attract us – or if it does we keep looking for something good – some truth convinced that some beauty MUST be backed up with some substance. Or perhaps there is someone whose looks at first turned you off, but after getting to know the person find that they now appear beautiful to you. This is far different from the initial attraction.

That is the attraction or pornography. A person is attracted to the beauty of the bodies that they view. There is no learning more deeply about the person. The mind can fill in the perfect personality. So the person being viewed can be kept beautiful in the mind of the person but it is a false beauty. As John Paul said the problem with pornography is not that it reveals too much, it is that it reveals too little. True beauty desires to lead us somewhere. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” says John Keats.

True beauty is a finger that points beyond itself. If it does not, it may be attractive (and empty,) but should not be thought beautiful from the “ism” through which we wish to evaluate it. It may be that we have failed to see through it and our “ism” requires us to search more deeply. And finally, if it is to be truly beautiful it must lead us to something great.


Anonymous said...

".... Or perhaps there is someone whose looks at first turned you off, but after getting to know the person find that they now appear beautiful to you."

When I was in high school, I experienced this very phenomenon for the first time. Young men whose looks were, to me, "average" became much more attractive in my eyes if I got to know them and really liked their personalities.

An old movie (1945), The Enchanted Cottage (starring Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire), embodied this principle.

Matt W said...

So, is beauty without truth necessarily bad? Or can it by just amoral?

If I eat one rabbit in your hypothetical woods just because I like the taste (and rabbit is delicious, by the way, even if it's not nutritious; just look it up in NW Cookbook), it that okay? Say, for instance, my kids want to eat a sucker. There is no value to the candy, but boy it sure does taste good. As long as that "beauty" does not overshadow "truth" (say, a serving of carrots and peas), is it wrong to eat a sucker? Maybe this would be attractiveness and not beauty b/c it doesn't point to something greater.

Going back to art or to lit, can an attractive piece teach us about truth by means of negative example? We touched on this at the GK meeting, but we didn't develop that line of thought.

Much to think about.

Matt W said...

I'm not the only one thinking of rabbit:

Fr. V said...

Have to watch that movie!

M. - It is not that rabbit is not good for you - it is not good for you when abused. One matini can actually be good for you (in Oh so many ways) but as your complete diet it will not.

Is it wrong to eat a sucker? Sweats in moderation are not bad for us. But the abuse of even something beautiful (here we can talk about the difference between pornography and art in which the figures happen to be nude) can be ugly because it is truth distorted.

Does that make sense - of course we DID say that we would start each meeting bringing up things from the last meeting if there were any developments - but its hard to wait.