Moral Imagination: Beauty, Truth, and Goodness

Recently I wrote about literature as being capable of conveying, and even discovering, truth, which can be called “poetic knowledge.” Both Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas upheld a similar view, Aristotle by demonstrating that poetry is “more philosophical” (i.e., more capable of demonstrating truth) than history, and St Thomas acknowledging poetry as a kind of “science” (scientia) or knowledge, albeit a lower form of knowledge than philosophy because it relies more on imagination than intellect. Today I’d like to consider the value of beauty, an abstract value, but one that we often associate with poetry, as well as music and the fine arts.

beautiful dew drops on clover leaf

Beauty lifts us up

My thoughts are prompted by this interesting feature article from the National Catholic Register, “True Beauty Satisfies the Human Heart,” an interview by Trent Beattie of psychologist Margaret Laracy, who identifies beauty as a kind of knowledge. Laracy has made a study of the healing effects of beauty on those suffering from mental illness. Since she is one of the few scholars to study seriously the effects of beauty, she first had to arrive at a satisfactory definition of “beauty” before she could study it; as a starting point she turns to St Thomas Aquinas, the great definer of abstract truths. Thomas identified three essential qualities of beauty: clarity (the luminosity or illumination communicated by the object of perception), harmony (the right ordering of the parts of the object), and integrity (the wholeness of the object’s luminosity and harmony which, in synthesis, elicit repose and contemplation). Through its integrity, beauty calls us to contemplation, and thereby leads us beyond the beautiful object to the greater beauty of which it is but one instance. (This reminds me of what C. S. Lewis said of “good books” – that they enlarge us.) Dr. Laracy does not cite St Augustine in her discussion of beauty, but she well might: Augustine would say that in contemplating the creature (beautiful object) one is drawn to the Creator (God). In this way, I would say, beauty can provide not merely mental but also spiritual healing.

Thinking about Thomas’s three essential marks of beauty, I was reminded of an experience I once had in an art museum. Many years ago, I was in the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, probably more out of morbid curiosity than for aesthetic pleasure. In those days (and still) I found most of what is classified as “modern” art to be incomprehensible and repugnant, sometimes even laughable. (In fact, I can remember at least one occasion on which I was all but physically expelled from the Modern by a docent who didn’t like my jeering commentary on the exhibits.) I guess, in Thomas’s terms, I found that the “artworks” being exhibited failed on almost every point – for instance, a pile of stones of nondescript stones did not communicate anything in particular; patrons were invited to rearrange them as they liked, so there was no inherent harmony; and there certainly was no integrity, since the implication was that the “artwork” was always unfinished (although patrons were exhorted not to take any of the stones away). The only thing it led me to contemplate was why the heck the museum would present such dreck as “art.”

A visceral reaction

Perhaps the same day I saw the pile of stones at the Modern (or some other day altogether), I wandered into an open gallery containing sculpture that immediately arrested my attention. I imagine there were a number of pieces displayed there, but I remember only one. It was fairly large (say about the size of a large man sitting with his knees drawn up), and seemed to chrome-plated (it was probably polished aluminum), abstract in form, a twisted, highly reflective mass suggesting (to my imagination, anyway) tangled car bumpers, which I found mesmerizing and repellent. I would stare at it for a few moments and then rush out of the room, but come back a few minutes later to peer at it in horrid fascination from a different angle. I felt an incoherent, but insistant, impulse to find a curator and demand that the sculpture be taken away. Eventually, I left the museum feeling inexplicably distressed and nauseated.

I remember asking myself what it was about the sculpture that provoked such a strongly negative response and could not articulate a reason other than to think, as I looked at the sculpture, “It’s just wrong! It’s a lie!” Had I been foolhardy enough to say such a thing to a curator, I undoubtedly would have been told that there is no “right” or “wrong” about art, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and what I found repellent someone else would find enchanting. If anyone had suggested as much, I would have replied, “Then anyone who likes that thing has something seriously wrong with him.”

Winged Victory of Samothrace
Winged Victory of Samothrace
I can’t remember any other work of art that elicited such a vivid sense of repulsion, but I have had at least one other encounter with sculpture that provoked an equally viscerally, but completely opposite, reaction. I was visiting the Louvre Museum in Paris and, after spending two or three hours perusing the paintings on the ground floor, realized that the museum would be closing in less than an hour and I hadn’t even gotten upstairs yet. I was rushing toward the large double staircase that led to the upper floor when I was stopped as suddenly as if I had run into an invisible wall. Dazed, I looked around to see what had stopped me, and found myself gazing at a sculpture that I had seen many times in photographs without finding it very impressive: the famous Nike, Winged Victory of Samothrace

You’re probably familiar with the image: a female torso that seems to be striding forward, wearing those formless drapey garments often found on Greek figures, with large, backswept wings sprouting from the shoulder blades. The statue has been badly battered, with the arms (probably once outswept like the wings) and the head completely missing. Still, it was, quite literally, breathtakingly arresting; it had stopped me dead in my tracks, while my attention was elsewhere. As I looked at it, I felt indescribably exhilarated: I could feel the wind rushing against Nike’s glorious form, sweeping back her gown and unfurling her great wings; I even felt I could see her hair blowing back, her eyes gleaming, her triumphant smile dazzling – although the statue’s head has never been found. I doubt I even noticed that she was standing on the prow of a ship, yet I could feel the rush of air against her body and lifting her wings. She seemed to me to be alive and in vigorous motion, and yet she was only a broken lump of stone carved by some anonymous craftsman two thousand years ago.

Beauty and Truth

These two sculptures – the deliberately twisted, highly polished metal one at the Fort Worth Modern and the badly battered hunk of marble at the Louvre in Paris – both evinced from me strong, visceral reactions that I can’t fully explain. The former, modern work was undoubtedly beautifully crafted according to the sculptor’s intent, but it struck me as horrifically false and wrong, highly-polished but somehow ugly and obscene. If we judge it according to St Thomas’s “essential” criteria of beauty, it has none: it does possess a certain clarity or luminosity (at least, it is very shiny and smooth), but it is so disharmonious as to suggest a car crash; the (apparently deliberate) disharmony opposes the clarity (if that is what we can call its smooth shininess) that the work does not seem to posses integrity, indeed its clarity seems to belie its disharmony, making it seem false and wrong, and to evince a feeling of dis-ease, rather than repose.

On the other hand, while the mutilated form of the Rhodian sculpture might make its maker weep with frustration if he could see it today, it nonetheless remains incredibly beautiful, radiating life, movement, and exultant emotion that can quite literally stop a person in her tracks. Its clarity is such that the sculpture almost seems to be lit from within, not with actual light but with life itself; even though many portions of the sculpture are broken off and lost, what remains is unified by a profound harmony, despite its broken state; the clarity and harmony of the object imbue it with an pervasive integrity that make the viewer feel as if somehow the essence of Life itself has been given exuberant form.

By Thomas’s standards then, the modern metal sculpture lacks the criteria of beauty, and my negative reaction to it suggests that, for all its careful craftsmanship and smooth surfaces, I was not wrong to find it quite the opposite of beautiful. The Winged Victory of Samothrace, however, seems to possess all the hallmarks of beauty, in spades, and certainly it left me feeling “enlarged,” enriched for having seen it. (Even today, more than thirty years later, I feel exhilarated as I remember seeing the Winged Victory.) Its beauty did not depend on “integrity” in the most literal sense, since many parts of the original are missing, which just goes to show that integrity itself is something more than material and literal completeness; yet, its beauty does somehow seem to depend on direct experience, as no photograph of it that I have seen before or since was able to do more than hint at the great vitality of the sculpture.

ugly metallic sculpture
The dog seems to have the right idea,
to treat it as a toilet.
All of this serves to show that there does seem to be, despite what so much modern “culture” insists, that there is a strong identification between beauty and truth. However, it also seems to be true that our faculties for perceiving and recognizing both beauty and truth must be honed, so that we are not led astray by, for example, smooth shiny objects that appeal to our senses without illuminating our souls. And, if we can recognize the identification between beauty and truth, it is not difficult to see (as Dr. Laracy’s study of beauty and mental health suggests) that regular exposure to beauty can also help us to be whole and healthy, to be good. This in turn suggests that we should, on principle, avoid spending our time on ugliness, just as we should avoid lies and wickedness.

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