Beauty and Reality in Art

There is a tradeoff in art between beauty and reality: the more reality is embraced, the more the ideal is compromised.

Nature and Art

Nature, ambitious and productive, working through the poor medium of the physical, tends toward imperfection. It’s subject to the laws of decay and error that govern mortality. The artist’s idea seems to be superior. It is not based on or constrained by the physical but emanates from some eternal wavelength of the soul. The created will always surpass the organic through a selective juxtaposition of the noblest of each part.

This was what Gian Pietro Bellori thought in the 17th century.

Bellori thought that an artist’s idea will be supreme to nature, and I agree that the reason is a gathering together of the best of each of the parts. However, I believe that the best of each of the parts is not necessarily something beautiful, pure, or free of deformity. Daniel Libeskind is a great example. His geometries are not the pure, sedating shapes of the Renaissance, but are sometimes jarring, sometimes unexpected, and often times unconventional. YET! His architecture stimulates response and produces reaction, and the resultant beauty is in the effect.

In a sense, Bellori’s conjecture is a far reaching ripple of Abbot Suger’s belief that man may rise to the contemplation of the Divine only through the senses. However, I think that Bellori’s philosophy leads to a fundamental misguidance in art and disseminates cultural ignorance of ourselves. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Crime and Punishment, and Frankenstein are all milestones in literature because they pick apart the tragic, the malicious, or the miserable. We embrace them because we identify with them. They all depict an aspect of our flawed humanity. Although it’s defected or skewed it’s still lovable because it’s human. They are real and because they are real, they are poignant, enlightening, and inspiring.

On the other hand, something like a sonnet from Shakespeare is rigid, formal, mathematical, possibly perfect in execution, yet shallow and unrevealing- it is fluff. I agree with Proust when he exclaims:

How much farther does anguish penetrate in psychology than psychology itself!

Renaissance and Baroque

This comparison continues into architecture. It is interesting to note the two prime geometries that dominate Renaissance and Baroque architecture.

The Renaissance is characterized by the use of the circle. Of all geometries it is the most pristine and divine. It is static, rational, and simple. The Renaissance architects, like Palladio, sought to imbue their buildings with proportion and mathematical harmony. To them this was beauty. Although a mathematical rationale governed all design- from room size to order of rooms- it was not perceived as equation and logic but through the resulting sense of tranquility.

The Baroque architect substituted the oval in place of the circle. The word baroque means “misshapen pearl” in Portuguese. The Baroque is characterized by the dynamic, emotional, and irregular. Tensions are felt. Forces effervesce as bulging geometries. You can see this in the geometries of the dome of San Carlo Alle Quattro Fontane above. The staid formality of the early generation bent under the frenzied passion and restlessness of the new style.

Divine and Human

For God so loved the world… –John 3:16

Maybe these two architectures are an unconscious analysis of the divine and human natures.

What is more pure than God? What has become more warped than humanity? Yet, God so loved the world- fallen totality of humanity- that He gave His only begotten Son- pure expression of God. In God’s economy and based on Christ’s redemption, these two disparate entities not only are reconciled but become one. The beauty is not in a perfect man who never fell from grace, but in a loving God who, in His divine life, perfected the fallen.

Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth. –Psalm 50:2

2 thoughts on “Beauty and Reality in Art

  1. Pingback: 2012 in review « life and building

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