Sunday 22 November 2009

The Pope on Beauty

The "way of beauty" is the theme of the Pope's recent address to artists on 21 November 2009 in the Sistine Chapel. In it he writes - quoting both Hans urs von Balthasar and Simone Weil, who are influences on the book on which this blog is based (see left), and building on the Letter to Artists of Pope John Paul II - as follows: "Beauty, whether that of the natural universe or that expressed in art, precisely because it opens up and broadens the horizons of human awareness, pointing us beyond ourselves, bringing us face to face with the abyss of Infinity, can become a path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate Mystery, towards God.... In this regard, one may speak of a 'via pulchritudinis,' a path of beauty which is at the same time an artistic and aesthetic journey, a journey of faith, of theological enquiry.... Simone Weil wrote in this regard: 'In all that awakens within us the pure and authentic sentiment of beauty, there, truly, is the presence of God. There is a kind of incarnation of God in the world, of which beauty is the sign. Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is possible. For this reason all art of the first order is, by its nature, religious.'"

The Pope has also recently spoken very eloquently of the beauty of the medieval cathedrals, one of which, the Cathedral of Orvieto, is featured in the photograph. There he speaks of "a much broader form of reason, in which the heart and reason come together. This is the point. This, I think, is in some way the proof of the truth of Christianity: the heart and reason come together, beauty and truth touch. And to the extent that we are able to live in the beauty of truth, so much more will faith again be able to be creative, in our own time as well, and to express itself in a convincing artistic form."

Thursday 12 November 2009

The Way of Beauty program

Readers of my book and blog might be interested to know that a colleague and friend, David Clayton, with whom I worked on these ideas in Oxford, is now the Artist in Residence at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire. There he has developed a course based on the traditional quadrivium called THE WAY OF BEAUTY. He writes, "Literature, art, music, architecture, philosophy—all of creation and potentially all human activity—are bound together by this common harmony and receive their fullest meaning in the Church’s liturgy. This course teaches a deep understanding of these principles and their practical application through both lectures and workshops." If you follow the link you'll find out more about this wonderful educational initiative. David's articles can be found on the New Liturgical Movement website and are permanently linked from my Links list on the left. David is also the author of a Distance Learning programme called ART, BEAUTY AND INSPIRATION offered through the Maryvale Institute in the Archdiocese of Birmingham. There is also a recent interview with David on Zenit.

An interesting article inspired by David Clayton's writing and that of Robert Sokolowski is available on Jake Tawney's blog, entitled "Content and Form - From Linguistics to Abstract Art".

Image: Icon at Pluscarden by David Clayton, based on the crucifix at San Damiano.

Sunday 8 November 2009

The Fate of the Cross

Sitting in an airport recently for several hours - a perfectly smart, pleasant, efficient airport - I had occasion to look around and realise something. Not only could I have been in almost any country of the world, and therefore I was in some sense "nowhere", but I was in a space where signs predominated over symbols. Everywhere I looked there were signs: pictures, advertisements, instructions, those little "icons" that tell you where the toilets are, or ground transportation. But the whole place had been constructed with absolutely no sensitivity to the natural symbolism of shape and number and light. Of course, that didn't mean that symbolism had been eliminated, just that it was inadvertent. The modern world tends to eliminate symbolism, because symbols, unlike signs, point us to something outside this world, something deeper and more real than toilets, or things to buy.

The final elimination of symbols that speak of the transcendent has not yet taken place, but the recent judgement of the Court of Human Rights that Italian schools must remove crucifixes from their walls shows that the struggle is intensifying. A crucifix may be treated as a sign, in which case it points to the social phenomenon of Christianity, much as a Union Jack represents the United Kingdom. This is how it is being treated by the Court - as the flag of Christianity. But the crucifix is also a concatenation of symbols, a symbol par excellence, the symbol of symbols. In a way, the attack on the crucifix is itself symbolic - of an attack on symbols in our culture.

It is more important than ever that our education should give special attention to cultivating the symbolic imagination. James Taylor's Poetic Knowledge is a helpful resource. What he calls "poetic knowledge" is the intuitive, tacit, connatural way of knowing that tends to be neglected in the pursuit of mere information. Catechesis, too, needs to take more account of the symbolic dimension of scripture and the sacraments. More on that another time.

Thursday 5 November 2009

The Source of Ugliness

There is a noticeable ugliness in much 20th-century architecture, design, and town planning that expresses a deeply rooted problem in the way we have learned to think. The problem, as I try to show in my book, can be traced back to Descartes (or even further to William of Ockham). If I may caricature somewhat, Descartes lay the foundations of modern instrumental reason by reducing everything to positions on a conceptual grid. Very efficient, very helpful - like putting the world on a slab in order to conduct a post-mortem (or vivesection). The industrial method is similar - for the sake of mass production and division of labour (sometimes called Taylorism). This is what Christopher Alexander says about it: "Mass production, high industry, and lower craft techniques advocated in the 20th century, as a result of Taylorism, led to a world where it was thought efficient or good to make things out of massive ultra-simple elements like huge prefabricated concrete panels, which would then be joined in the simplest ways, and without significant differentiation at the joints..." Everything has to fit into "brutalized rectangles". On his website and in his books, such as Pattern Language and The Nature of Order, listed in the Links section, you will find Alexander's detailed analysis of this phenomenon and his solution to it.

The contrast between buildings produced from the Cartesian analytic mentality and, for example, the medieval Gothic cathedrals or the works of Antoni Gaudi in the 20th century could not be more extreme. The latter are participatory and organic in conception and execution, as is nearly all traditional architecture the world over. There are lessons here not only for architects and designers of sacred spaces, but for those who design buildings for secular use, and even for managers of organizations and communities. Please note that I am not saying that all modern architecture is ugly, or that Gothic is best, but that by comparing the worst of the modern with the best of the ancient and medieval, we can learn something true and useful.