The other day a friend told me that the governor of Kansas was shutting down all arts programing for the entire state. You would have thought – from the tone of the statement – that the arts were dying or dead in the Jayhawk state. This kind of thing is not the only time I’ve heard of this happening – for the last four years since our “Great Recession” started in 2007 arts funding seems to have been a victim of scarce finances. I remember having discussions with some of my art friends at the start of the recession lamenting the fact that art programs would be the first to go. It appears we were right.

In 2005 I accompanied my friend, painter Makoto Fujimura to Washington DC to an event specifically designed to connect high income business people with artists in order to stimulate a culture of patronage. Simply put we were inviting the money holders to invest in beauty by supporting artists. During the day-long event, Mako was part of a panel discussion. At one point, a question was posed, “What would an artist do with $10,000 and what would they do with $1,000,000?” I will never forget his answer – to this day it still haunts me and I quote it often where appropriate. After a nervous laugh he said, “In many ways, for an artist $10,000 is too much, and $1,000,000 is not enough.” Frankly, I don’t remember anything else he said at the point and I certainly couldn’t come close to recalling what the other panel participants stated – nothing else needed to be said.

We have to remember at times that there is a difference between art and beauty, between the created thing and creativity itself. These pairs are tied very closely together, but they are not identical. We must remember that art and the created thing are not as important as beauty and creativity.

Our current economic climate is a case in point. All the governments of the world, every corporation and school district could decide tomorrow to defund their arts programs; every penny could be removed from artistic programs everywhere but beauty would not be touched – creativity would remain unmoved.

Why?

Beauty and creativity transcend the paltry functions of cultural structures. They are not dependent on the temporal or the fleeting. If they were, then all of us who are artists or involved in the arts ought to find a favorite seat in our nearest pubs and pickle our livers until we die.

Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica wrote that beauty must include three qualities: “…integrity or completeness – since things that lack something are thereby ugly; right proportion or harmony; and brightness – we call things bright in colour beautiful.[1] Many have used Thomas’ three characteristics not only as a way to think about beauty but also as a defense of the importance of beauty for a human being and society in general. Afterall, one doesn’t want to be an incomplete human being. A person wouldn’t want to be out of proportion in their personal life and in the warp and woof of existing cultural institutions. As for brightness – Robert Barron – in his book The Strangest Way – writes of how we need to escape our “taupe existence” – human beings need to avoid a dull life. But some have forgotten the context of Thomas’ characteristics of beauty.

Comeliness or beauty bears a resemblance to the properties of the Son. Beauty must include three qualities; integrity or completeness – since things that lack something are thereby ugly; right proportion or harmony; and brightness – we call things bright in colour beautiful. Integrity is like the Son’s property, because he is a Son who in himself has the Father’s nature truly and fully…Right proportion is consonant with what is proper to the Son inasmuch as he is the express Image of the Father; thus we notice that any image is called beautiful if it represents a thing, even an ugly thing, faithfully…Brightness coincides with what is proper to the Son as he is the Word, the light and splendour of the mind (my emphasis).[2]

Is it surprising that Thomas’ context was the carpenter from Nazareth, the Son of God, Jesus?

This analysis of beauty is why Mako can answer the money question the way he did. Monetary amounts matter little when beauty and creativity endure transcendently – and for him they are embodied in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Elaine Scarry once wrote, “What is beautiful is in league with what is true because truth abides in the immortal sphere.”[3] Therefore, according to Scarry’s logic, beauty is also immortal – it will last forever. In the Christian tradition, Jesus is now immortal after his resurrection from the dead – that is both true and beautiful.

You may not agree with me – that beauty and creativity are embodied and sourced in Jesus of Nazareth – you would not be alone in that belief, and I respect that. However, the issue still remains for you regarding the transcendence of beauty and creativity. Where does it reside for you? How you answer will affect how you respond to the increase or decrease of monetary resources in arts programs in national and local levels. If beauty and creativity are not transcendent, then the money would be the only thing that matters and losing $10,000 would be just as unsettling as gaining $1,000,000.

CS Lewis addressed a similar issue in his sermon on “Learning in Wartime”. At the time the issue was martial, not monetary. Should one even bother with learning and education when a war rages and people are dying? The defunding of arts programs falls far short of the death of a human being but the tension is the same. What is the point of pursuing beauty when no one seems to care – and their lack of regard is exhibited by the removal of money? Lewis opened his talk and summarized brilliantly:

A University is a society for the pursuit of learning. As students, you will be expected to make yourselves, or to start making yourselves, in to what the Middle Ages called clerks: into philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, or historians. And at first sight this seems to be an odd thing to do during a great war. What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we — indeed how can we — continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?[4]

We are in a similar situation, and we should learn from Lewis’ reasoning. Why should we still pursue good and beautiful things in times of difficulty? Lewis answers:

If you attempted, in either case, to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing…if you don’t read good books you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions.

Difficulty does not give society permission to pursue bad art or no art at all; in fact hard times demand more beauty – whether in life or art.

With the loss of financial support from public institutions we ought to approach these times as an opportunity to strive for beauty and it’s objects – poems, screenplays, sculptures, paintings, etc – to thrive in the hands of both gifted and (as most of us are) common creators. Whether we participate in this or not makes no difference. If we ceased creating due to hopelessness it would matter little. In this visible world our lives would diminish in beauty a bit but the unalterable transcendence of Beauty would remain and eventually rear its head like a phoenix from the ashes.

Von Balthasar described Beauty as being closely united to her two sisters Truth and Goodness. He warned that Beauty would not be long separated from her siblings. In fact, she in her exile would take both Truth and Goodness with her in an act of what he called “mysterious vengeance”. A world that scorns Beauty eventually does the same to the True and the Good. Von Balthasar later states that those who lose Beauty are not only unable to pray, but also unable to love.

If Beauty is dependent on an institution’s resources then it is easily lost. But if it is dependent on some transcendent principle, or as I argue here – God, then no amount of an institutions resources matter. They certainly can help – as we have seen over the last several decades – but they ultimately aren’t needed by an eternal Beauty because by definition an eternal Beauty is infinitely resourced.

So I say to you artists, and supporters of the arts to pursue Beauty. When they take away your money – paint! When they tell you it’s useless – sculpt! Use whatever is at hand to create beauty because it IS worth the effort.

As I wrote this essay I am reminded of that passage in the Christian Bible where Jesus in his last days was entering Jerusalem and greeted by throngs of admirers chanting his name and yelling “Glory to God in the Highest!!!” – everyone seemed to favor him. Yet there was a group of leaders there who reprimanded him for the ostentatious display of praise directed at him. It was too much, they said. They wanted the admiration taken away and they told him so.

His reply? “I’ll use rocks.”

Peace,
Kirk & Sarah


[1] Aquinas, Thomas. transl, O’Brien, T.C, Summa Theologiae, New York, NY, 1976, p133

[2] Aquinas, Thomas. transl, O’Brien, T.C, Summa Theologiae, New York, NY, 1976, p133

[3] In her book On Beauty and Being Just

[4] CS Lewis’ “Learning in Wartime” can be found in any copy The Weight of Glory.

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