Monday, 15 March 2010

Beauty and the Piss Christ.

A friend of mine here in Bonn organized an informal salon last weekend on the topic of "beauty." Various people get together and make various cultural contributions. I didn't have time to think up anything myself, so I simply did a German translation of a wonderful post that Ben Myers wrote a while back entitled Desire and Beauty: An Augustinian Anecdote. Interestingly enough, somebody else brought along a picture of Serrano's (in)famous Piss Christ, which Jason Goroncy also posted on a while back. It seems to me that on the surface these two posts diametrically contradict each other. Augustine talks of God as beauty itself, the actual substance of the form of beauty that we see in created things. Regardless of what we think, God is ultimately the real reason why we yearn for beauty in the first place. Serrano goes on to visually present precisely this God - and yet this image is in fact the opposite of what any healthy individual would consider to be "beautiful": a corpse, tortured to death, soaked in human fluid. How do I synthesize that? This is my own inadequate attempt - please help me to fill in the gaps:

The God that Augstine describes - beauty itself - never, in fact, enters into one-to-one unmediated relation to humanity. The basic Biblical metaphor for the relation between God and man is not a disembodied, formless, spiritual experience, but the Garden of Eden. This image brackets the Two Testaments like an inclusio and it pops up repeatedly and in various permutations throughout the rest of Scripture too. Whatever it means to enter into relation with God, it is always presented as a relationship with God the Creator. How does the Nicene Creed begin and end?

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
However we conceive of God, then - Augustine's beauty itself - it can only be done within the context of the totality of God's good creation: interpersonal relationships, delicious smells, and spiritual fulfilment and all. The God who meets us in created forms is not a substance that supersedes the form, it is a substance that fills the form and thus redeems it (I think Ben's anecdote illustrates this wonderfully). We can rightly consider beauty in this world as a foretaste of what God has in store for us, his Kingdom, and a "post-taste" of something that once was but was lost (cf. Ps 24).

What does this have to do with the Piss Christ? This is something I'm still struggling to comprehend, as until now I've been used to thinking of the crucifixion in juridical rather than ontological categories. It has something to do with God's way of "filling the forms" ... God so loved this world, this cosmos, that he entered its deepest chambers in order to exhaust their darkness and bring light ... . As long as we live this side of the consummation, we have to train our vision to be able to see God everywhere, even in that place where God the Son cried "Why have you forsaken me?"

I can't wait until the day when form and content become truly co-extensive, the day when - as the poem on Jason's post puts it - there will no longer be such a thing as "useless beauty."

Update: Jason Goroncy has given a helpful response to my post in the comments section of his original post, which you can read here. I've taken the liberty of reposting his response in the comments to this post. He basically affirms my point and enriches it by drawing on a paper by Trevor Hart entitled "Ugly as Sin? Beauty, Holiness, and the Crucified." Well worth a read.


Phil Sumpter said...

Phil, I appreciated your post very much. It reminded me of a paper I heard Trevor Hart give some years ago. It was titled, ‘Ugly as Sin? Beauty, Holiness and the Crucified’ in which he explored the notion of beauty as contradiction. That beauty is not chaotic, and that when it interrupts it takes us beyond its immediate reality. That is, it refuses to be restrained by any creaturely reality. Beauty also creates a frustration in us as it fades and leaves us with a longing not for the beauty itself but for that to which the beauty points us. Beauty points to promise. Hart went on to recall that beauty does not mirror God but rather the true nature of creation as it shall be in its entirety, as we shall be, humanity glorified. Thus, beauty is an experience of the foretaste of final redemption and resurrection rather than of God himself. It is experience in this world as part of God’s promised future. Hart bore witness to the fact that the cross – that place where holiness is mixed up with the world’s sin and ugliness – is principally an act of worship (a very Forsythian way of seeing things!). And he noted that our encounter with beauty is always a Holy Saturday affair – both of the Friday before and of the final word of the Sunday.

- Jason Goroncy

Anonymous said...

Please find some related references which point out that the Garden of Eden (or the Rose Garden of The Heart) is the very condition of our existence-being in every moment.

And that Beauty is also the intrinsic condition of every one and every thing. Or put in another way God IS The Beautiful Itself, and that True Religion is a celebration of The Beautiful