2013-10-29

On beauty after becoming gods


"Napalm" by Banksy. Is even this art? Read the end of the essay.
I will take a stab at a theory of postmodern aesthetics, although I haven't read aesthetics intentionally nor can I name names. Nevertheless, I have thought about issues of meaning, power, ideology, semiotics, and representation from folks like Baudrillard and Zizek on the left, to Tolkien-esque mythopoetic folks on the right. And my job lends itself to dealing with aesthetics and "pop culture" on a regular basis as a sort of mediator between the worlds of the sacred and the mundane; Between the dimensions of the "real" (everyday human experience), the "hyper-real" (or virtual, or representational), and the "hypo-real" (the "ground of being", or founding Reality).

For me the contemporary aesthetic question can be summed up as: "What is beauty now that we are gods?"


In the modern age, humans have become gods, with the ability save or destroy the planet and each other. We have had this ability- or at least seen it coming- since the Industrial Age was in full swing.

Before we became gods, the gods of our myths and our religions gave us a ready made canon of the proper form(s) of beauty. It was the task of art to uncover or discover the true form of beauty that was already inherent in the world we dwell in. This canon of aesthetic form(s) is thus endlessly repeated and reconnected in different combinations by artists, who often consciously saw themselves as conduits of divine beauty, in service to the gods or the God or the muses or whatever transcendent aesthetic value was the master value.

But now that we are gods, we have no need for the ready made categories, forms, and patterns given to us by the Divine. Many of us no longer even have a need for, nor a sense of, the Divine as a "Big Other" assuring us of an orderly cosmos. Thus the forms are no longer a given. They are not even real. Even those of us who may epistemically hold to the reality of "beauty" as metaphysical form have a hard time actually living existentially as if this is true. We may believe it is true, but it does not feel true.

And lest you think I am condescending or condemning humanity for its adolescent hubris in thinking we have become gods, I am not. Yes, the claim that we have become gods can generate hubris. But it can also more rightfully generate a sense of the crushing burden and responsibility that we are now gods. Jesus himself quoted the Hebrew Bible that we are gods, made in the image of God to exercise our godlike potential in the universe, for good or for ill (cf. Psa 82.6; Isa 41.23; John 10.34).

To say that we have become gods- or more precisely in the overall evolution of the human race "teenage gods"- is simply to state objectively our status in the universe. We are technologically past our childhood. We have lost our innocence about the sincerity about our ideologies. We know how tenuous our "truth" claims really are. We have glimpsed the horror we can unleash on each other and our world. We are beginning to manifest the godlike power and intelligence we were created for. Whether we will generate the wisdom necessary to keep ourselves from species suicide is another matter.

In terms of aesthetics, there is no longer available to us a form of beauty to uncover or discover. We have to invent it afresh by an act of the will. We have to believe it is beautiful by an act of the will. Most of us live in an urban society untrammeled by the oppression of evident natural beauty. And unlike an encounter with pristine natural "beauty" in the outdoors, very few artifacts strike us as inherently beautiful in a predominantly urban landscape where everything is a product of human skill and engineering. Rather, in an urban landscape we often have to train ourselves (read: convince ourselves) to find things of "beauty".

Only those who hold the most fundamental of religious beliefs as a bulwark against this modern predicament can believe in a God who can assure a fixed canon of beautiful forms. And their aesthetic is largely irrelevant because this type of outlook does not produce art of any kind. They have no creative impulse. They only live to re-produce imitations of some imagined golden age of the past. One may even question if they actually believe in the religion that gives them comfort, or if they just convince themselves they believe it in order to be comforted.

And then there are those- like myself- who still believe in a God. But it is not a God who delivers to us a ready made canon of beauty (or truth, or goodness). Rather, it is a God who has abandoned us to our radical freedom, like a parent who has finally given us car keys to the universe. Yet, belief in a God of this sort does not deliver us from the postmodern aesthetic dilemma. For instead of giving us a ready made canon of aesthetic form, this sort of God turns the tables and says "So, what do YOU think?"

So our aesthetic dilemma becomes:

On one hand: Those who seem capable of believing in a God who can deliver a canon of aesthetic form, seem incapable of the creativity to do art due to the backwards-looking straight jacket of fundamentalist ideology.

On the other hand: Those who have the ideological freedom to truly do art, cannot agree on what form(s) constitute aesthetic beauty (if anything does!). They realize that God has abandoned us to the freedom of becoming gods, or they believe there is no God in the first place. Either way, we are effectively gods- or at least gods in training- and we must construct anew what beauty is.

So, now that we are gods, can we construct a shared sense of beauty without reference to a transcendent "Big Other" that mandates a certain canon of form? To me, this aesthetic task seems to have been short circuited in two major ways.

First of all, much art and art criticism seems to sink into a sea of subjectivism. Every ideology and criteria for judgment seems to be un-masked (often legitimately!) as a claim to legitimate control and oppression of "the other". As a result, every form of art, from high culture to low culture, from great technique to no technique, is lowered (or raised) to the same level. It's all subjective. It's all art. It's all in the eye of the beholder. And art criticism becomes the equivalent of a bunch of rednecks screaming at each other "Yew cain't judge me!"

Second of all, as many have noted: In the absence of a metaphysical source of value by which to judge art, we have devolved into a more tangible and quantifiable source of value. The dollar. Great art becomes whatever sells for the most. If art doesn't sell, it is not art worth commenting on, thinking about, or taking seriously. One of the little ironies is that even when we kill our gods, we invent more to take their place. And no culture has ever served their gods with more passion and human sacrifice than our culture does with its worship of the Market and economic value. And just as entire developing nations are sacrificed on the altar of the Almighty Market, so also art becomes enslaved to monetary value.

I suppose we could avoid the poison of subjectivism and the power of the dollar if we simply embrace the lure of fundamental religion, with its ready made canon of beauty and meaning. But I fear the cure is even worse than the disease, because backward looking fundamentalism robs us of the forward looking creativity that we were made by God for. I think the aesthetic task is rather more difficult than mere recovery and return to the past, if that was even possible.

But how do we reconstruct a shared sense of aesthetic value without lapsing into reactionary subjectivism, economic commoditization, or fundamentalist escapism?

I confess I don't have a full fledged answer to my own question. But I have a hunch. The third century theologian Irenaeus once said "The Glory of God is humanity fully alive". When humans live into their full potential- intellectually, aesthetically, physically, socially, creatively- we inherently reveal the image and glory of God in ourselves.

In this view, God is not a "Big Other" who guarantees a backward looking controlled order of aesthetic value, moral value, truth value, etc. God rather becomes a forward looking vision of Infinite Potential, beckoning us forward into an ever-unfolding actualization of the Divine potential latent within us. In this view, God is not a sort of guarantee, but an open invitation.

And although I am framing this vision in theistic terms, it also seems (at least to me) to be compatible with a more secular vision as well. This is because many who question or deny the Divine still envision a field of Infinite Potential standing before humanity, beckoning us to grow into it. And even those who do not believe in a god feel a sense of profound tragedy when humans squander our potential and destroy avenues for a fruitful future.

So we may disagree over what to label this concept of Infinite Potentiality and growth, and we may dispute about whether it is a Personal Entity to whom we can relate. Some of us may call it God, others the future, and yet others just the way things are. But I think there is a large swath of agreement on the idea that fulfillment of potential has inherent value, no matter how we explain what type of Entity this potential is.

It is this inherent value of fulfilling potential that opens the door for me to moral value (i.e. goodness) and aesthetic value (i.e. beauty). In terms of art, then, I begin to look for art that expresses the full potentiality of the artist, as it calls the viewer/recipient to fulfill their potentiality, and/or reject that which diminishes full human flourishing. These three factors, in fact, would constitute what I might label as "good art", namely art that: (a) Expresses excellence in technique and effort; (b) Performs a constructive function of eliciting fulfillment of human potential; and (c) Performs a critical (or deconstructive) function of protesting against the diminishment of human potential.

In addition to the criteria of above, I think good art often has the function of making one mindful of exactly where and what one is in the moment of encountering the art. Whereas "b" and "c" tend to be a function of the possible future- what could be, what potential might be fulfilled or diminished- what I am talking about here is being mindful of the existential state that one currently inhabits. This of course is often tied with potential. One cannot truly be called to a greater actualization of oneself without an accurate understanding of where one is now. And yet, being present in the moment, in the place of encounter, cannot simply be reduced possible future states. When art brings one a profound sense of the Reality we currently inhabit, it is an actualization of aesthetic value.

Now that I have stated this theory, it is at this point that the wheels come off for me. Because, on one hand, this theory of aesthetic value is easy to state and conceptualize. On the other hand, the application is tricky and permutations are nearly endless.

Take, for instance, the art of Andy Warhol (or even the contemporary artist Banksy). Does one of their screen printed, duplicated images express excellence in technique and effort? Well, if one is to judge it by the standards of Renaissance realist painters, then no. But is this type of painting what Warhol or Banksy are doing? Arguably not. For what they are doing- a sort of deconstructive protest art- does in fact present an excellence of technique and creative vision, within the constraints of their own genre.

Does their art perform "a constructive function of eliciting fulfillment of human potential"? If they do, I usually do not see it. But their art is genius at performing "a critical (or deconstructive) function of protesting against the diminishment of human potential". Warhol and Banksy form a creative mirror set before humanity that shows us the absurdity of our pop-culture's violent and commoditizing tendencies. And thus, the kind of "protest art" we often see in postmodernity can in fact be great art, even if at first glance it seems wholly different from the established canon of "The Greats".

I suppose another way of saying this is to say that great art performs the classic function of an Orthodox Icon: It is a window into the transcendent dimension of Infinite Potential that beckons us onward. Through great art we see the potential of what we could become, and by it we are warned of the tragedies we must avoid (or perhaps even the tragedy we are currently inhabiting!).

For instance, when we see the beauty of an Orthodox Icon of the Risen Christ, the aesthetics and sacred geometry invite us into the Divine realm, to share in the life of the Incarnate God. The "icon writer" has worked with meticulous precision to give to us a vision of Divine Light shining through the stylized portrait of our Lord. Why? Because the Divine fellowship enabled by the icon allows the Christ life to infect us and empower us to live into the potential inherent in us as Divine Image bearers. This type of iconic art is almost wholly "constructive", without a hint of the "critical" function of proper aesthetics.

Conversely, we might look at a deconstructive work of art such as "Napalm" by Banksy. This work, originally painted subversively on a public wall, features a happy Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald (themselves symbols of the ubiquitous commoditization we are suffocated by). They are holding hands with a facsimile of a suffering, napalm-burned young girl from the famous picture from the Vietnam War (a war infamously spurred on by the American Military-Industrial complex, a dark manifestation of the same consumerism that allows for Mickey and Ronald).

By looking into this work, we are immediately drawn into a "thick reading" of our predicament in Western consumer culture. It functions as a kind of anti-icon, or inverse icon, that critiques how our political-economic system diminishes full human functioning. As a window that invites us into darkness, we are implicitly made to yearn for the light. Not only is it excellent in technique, but it is a superb example of the critical function of aesthetics.

And it was made to be free and public as graffiti, thereby attempting to subvert the commoditization of the value of art.

And that is a beginning of what I think constitutes art now that we have become gods.


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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.