Golden Beauty Lies Sometimes

"O, the horrible laughter of gold,” says the poet Georg Trakl. The thing is, beauty lies sometimes. Like the malevolent Queen out to displace Snow White’s beauty with her own. Or the Scandinavian nøkk, water spirits who played gorgeous music to lure women and children into drowning. Or the Gaelic aos sí who wait in their hill-kingdoms, ready to draw some unwitting passerby to their end under a spell of glamour—unless one has an offering by which to appease the terrible-lovely being. The folk-lesson is clear: beware mere beauty, for “charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting” (Prov 31:30).

Beauty is perhaps the best agent of lies. With only a turn of phrase here, a sketch of color there, beauty carries in her robes a dark cave of rotted bones. Beauty emptied of truth, after all, does not cease to be alluring; it simply ceases to be true. This can happen in the first place because beauty is malleable, because beauty beats with a heart of morphe or shape, which shudders with life even in decay. More decisively, beauty is always in the midst of falling away. Beauty is never not caught by the jaws of death, which is at once her exaltation—none of the other transcendentals can bear up the sharp lines of death quite so well in order to show them to us—and also her perpetual weakness. “[N]o transcendental is as demonic as the kalon,” says Hans Urs von Balthasar, champion of beauty. “As the last of the four...the Beautiful is only an appearance (Schein) breathed over the transitory: who knows whether it is the shining light (Scheinen) of God or the plausibility (Scheinbarkeit) of the void?”

We might distinguish between “real” beauty, which delights in the true (Summa Theologiae I.5.4.), and “false” beauty, which does not. One is a transcendental of being; the other is mere appearance. But how am I to know beauty except by appearance, and how am I to know the difference, except by a simultaneous grasp of the good and the true? The distinction is perhaps less than helpful here. After all, beauty, in the language of someone like Balthasar, expresses itself in its appearance. But “images simulate something that they themselves are not: a world.” Thus it is not apparent, upon that first impact of appearance upon the self, what sort of beauty is at hand. Of themselves, “images float without fixity between being and nothingness,” says Balthasar in his Theo-Logic 1. In other words, beauty does not immediately tell us whether it has any relationship to truth. We will not get out of this by listing what is “really” beautiful and what is not. Nor, indeed, will we do so by naming art that is great and art that is “degenerate.” Not only is it not clear how to make such divisions, not only might we us standards reducible to taste or to something more shadowed by sin, but also it is not clear whether the distinction would be useful.

This makes me wonder what it means when we Catholics say “we.” That is, when we talk about ourselves, especially about our beautiful objects, just who is that? What is the truth shining forth in this peculiar assessment of beauty, and what is its goodness, if there is such to be found? This question is almost impossibly broad, and so complex as to be overwhelming. But it is important.

It is, I repeat, a peculiar sense of the beautiful when we say “we,” and not unreal. It is not unreal, that is, when we speak of “our beautiful things.” Our beautiful cathedrals, paintings, statues, etc. It is not that they are not beautiful. Yes! Look on in wonderment! Yet to say that we have made beautiful things is also, in the same moment, to associate the particularities of our identity with material expressions of beauty, to understand these works themselves to be a part of a tradition, and to prompt questions about that tradition and why it is that we make such things. Who are we, particularly? What is that we? Is the Church somebody, and who? This line of questions could scatter in a number of directions. Ecclesiology, pneumatology, sociology, and so forth. These are not it.

We have so far discussed how beauty is wonderful and yet ambiguous. Beauty can lie and yet still be lovely to look at. We have also surfaced how we, Catholics, connect ourselves to the artistic creations of our tradition. We are linked, and we link ourselves, to the beautiful things we have made. They say something about us. Now we move a step further: I am interested in how history is concealed in the “we” of “we have made beautiful things.” Human beings are creatures of history, and are subject to it as we also create it.

I think a certain concealment has happened, a veiling reiterated over time. This is one sense of the historical: its repetition. History in the form of tradition shapes us in a kind of habitus or hexis that guides our work and inquiry. For Aristotle, a hexis is a way of having a virtue or even a way of having knowledge that extends beyond passive ownership. Virtue is not a ball I hold in my hand. Hexis, or the Latin habitus, is a moral feature that the soul has acquired, and therefore that we use, and it is present to us or in us even when not “activated,” and thus in a way it is still, it is always, “active.” The veiling under question is a habitus of a sort, rather unconscious (except when it is not), and something like a tendency. One that manages to be active even when it is not adverted to. At its broadest, the tendency is to exalt beautiful objects without their history. To marvel without context. But this is still not yet what I really mean.

I do not only want a history book next to an art book, though that is nice. Art can also be enjoyed in itself, at least in a limited sense. I will make this very complicated. For now, though, I do not only, nor even primarily, want us to know that beautiful works have been brought into existence by all manner of calumny, scandal, and pain. I want us to know that beauty is entangled thoroughly and forever in history, to know that transcendence only happens in history, and that it is avoided in history, too.

I think of the Baroque often. I have a weakness for Bernini’s sculptures, for Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro, for the dramatics of Spanish artists like Zurbarán—and I have almost no patience for lots of gold, for whatever reason. Call it a quirk or a detriment of taste. The question, though, is this: when we remember the Baroque, who are we, or what history is it that makes us, in our memory?

Often, I do not quite know. The Baroque was resplendent, and horribly-wonderfully-weirdly Counter-Reformation, and it was Catholic. It was also made at the height of European colonialism. When Europe became Europe at all. Now, I am not here to ruin everybody’s enjoyment of art with the bitter taste of historical truth. Well—a little, yes. I am. It is the remembering that’s the thing. The point of painful interest and confusion. Whatever the original historical situation, we have a present one. They weave into one another, constrain one another, shape our understanding of each. That understanding, when it comes to beauty, is able to lie. Able to lie all the better because beauty is at hand. The lie itself, such as I can make it out (and I cannot entirely), is that art and colonialism did not and do not exist together. But they do.

In a certain genre of Catholic speech, at least, even in Catholic essays about art (including my own), we carefully elide colonialism from the art that we wonder at. This is an act that has a certain place, surely. But in this we are also dishonest about who we have been, and how that shapes who we are. And “we,” here, is white.

Colonialism’s central invention is race. With colonialism, race’s existence and its meaning came to be, and it was grafted closely onto the new market and to Christian logic. Willie Jennings argues thus in The Christian Imagination (20-21). He calls this colonial invention the “racial scale,” because it is not just about a contrived aesthetic of bodies, but also about their value (Ibid., 30-31). In the racial scale, bodies, human bodies, are designated “white” and are designated “black,” and each are assigned new roles and values in the world. Here is precisely where Christianity lifts its arms to justify the rising monstrosity: “white” is Christian and “black” is not. The slave trade is, therefore, the work of white bodies redeeming black ones (Ibid., 27-28).

Notice that “white” and “black,” used here, are technical terms. Each define a systematic set of relationships that structure the modern world (35). Racial and aesthetical categories are organized around far more basic forms of relating, in particular that one group “has” humanity and Christianity, and the other one does not. In other words, race is not ontological, but a human creation; race is not only a human creation, but also a specific one.

It is impossible to really quantify how radically the racial scale changed the world of Western Europeans and the people they touched. According to Weheliye's Habeas Viscus everything was rearranged according to this new, deeply aesthetic logic. And it is aesthetic: we are literally talking about colors applied to bodies. Furthermore, if Maurice Blondel is right and human action is simultaneously historical and metaphysical, then the impact of human action does not just stack up like waves rolling into one another—out beyond persons into communities, into the world—but human action also transcends the bonds of mere reverberation, to reach into the good that transcends and the sin that does not. That is, we are no longer speaking in terms of a pure linear progression of time. We are speaking of meaning that is impossible to fully conceive (see: Job 38:1,4; Psalm 22:1,14).

That cruel, impenetrable colonial meaning continues today, because how could it not? There can be no simple retreat once blood is on the ground, ringing in God’s ears. Which is why I say “white”: white Catholics, by eliding history, repeat it. There was a time, there is a time, when white bodies made (and make, dear God still make) black bodies into mere flesh denied of all its humanity. This means that turning our eyes to the Baroque while forgetting those bodies is being “white” all over again. Because to be white is not just a color, but also a scale of value, one built on the denigration of what is called black. The racial scale, remember, exists according to the violence of its two poles. To forget it is to remember it, and helplessly. “Paradoxically,” says James Baldwin, “it is we who, every hour that we live, reinvest the black face with our guilt; and we do this—by a further paradox, no less ferocious—helplessly, passionately, out of an unrealized need to suffer absolution” (20).

We are left with still more reverberations, such as Christian art’s role in the racial scale. To pretend that Catholic art was not, and is not, involved in this grotesque remaking of the world in colonial modernity is to refuse history. Catholic silence about it is a turning away from the auction block, which shadows our backs anyway (Ibid., 89). In other words, pretending that Catholic art ought only be enjoyed for itself renders beauty the instrument by which an ugly truth is forgotten. It creates a lie, which beauty is so lovely at conceiving. But Christians have never been much interested in art “for itself.” Art is for God, and to be for God is to bind self and things to history and to truth, as Christ himself did with his flesh.

There is a recent example of Catholics countenancing an ever-growing understanding of our art and its relationship to historical truth. The president of the University of Notre Dame, Fr. John Jenkins, announced that the university would be covering the murals in its Main Building. These murals were painted by Luigi Gregori between 1881 and 1884. They depict the life of Christopher Columbus. It is a triumphal narrative, one that attempts to weave Catholic immigrants into the life and history of the United States.

Yet, Columbus’s arrival was not at all triumphal, not at all glorious, for the peoples he met. Terrible violence followed in the wake of Columbus and others. The mural, by weaving Catholic history into American history, at once acknowledges the roots of the “New World” and conceals what exactly this world was like for its residents. While preserving the art and its history, the university decided its context and interpretation were too complex for people just passing by in the hall, and so moved to conceal it.

This will, perhaps, seem like a loss. It will feel like the possibility of losing great works of art. This is not what I am suggesting, nor am I suggesting that they are not great. Art remains, such as it can, in the shape that it is: stretched across and in time. It also remains entangled between “real” beauty and “false,” such that art is capable of both, even both at once. I am, therefore, arguing for the remembering of Western Catholic art in new ways, ways that recognize not only its original history, not only its sustaining splendor, but also that recognize our own present and Catholic art’s existence in it: these are all, already, bound to one another.

Quite seriously, I am asking us to recognize the real. Or, to put it another way: I am not interested in a history lesson so much as I am interested in a lesson about how history acts in us. In this sense, what I suggest is a loss: it is the surrender of a lie that sinfully structures our world. We cannot have our Purcell, not really, without remembering who Purcell forgot. This might feel like loss, like bitter tears, because we will not be able to tell stories as we once did. We will not have our enchanting slideshow of Catholic glories on the wall one-by-one, perfect and lovely, glories that symbolized or were made during the violent colonial restructuring of the world. We will have to acquire new eyes and ears for new webs of relations. We will have to surrender white stories and their attachments to white assemblages of power, and surrender them for more thoroughly Catholic ones. White, the structural “white,” is only ever antithetically universal, because it is only ever antithetical to blackness.

Let us look at another example of Catholic awakening, of Catholic growing. In this case, the Catholic setting enables what occurs. Recently, the artist Kara Walker emerged with new art after a residence in the American Academy in Rome. Called “Christ’s Entry into Journalism,” it borrows from motifs in Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment.” In it, Walker depicts the good and the guilty mixed together, punctuated everywhere by images of the subjugation of blacks in America. Erin Kidd, wrestling with the meaning of the art, writes,

Perhaps the struggle to discern Christ in the crowd is part of Walker’s design. Will the viewer be able to discern the true Christ from the false? The one being given glory and honor and praise in this mural is no innocent but a member of the KKK. Walker satirizes a world that would welcome a Klansman as a messiah, who would confuse white supremacy for the good news. But there is another Christ figure: the lynched man.

Discerning the real Christ from the false is one of the things that we need to do. We might find, as with Columbus, that the hero is not a hero. We might find Christ’s voice alone in the wilderness of history: Bartolomé de Las Casas. There we might find, to our devastation and wonder, Christ within the ugly deeds of our past, which reaches us in our present, where we still live with memories both known and concealed. We might find Christ in the lynched man.

To find Christ here is not, we should say, thanks to Christians. Certainly not thanks to those who lynched this man—these many, many men, dangling in the symbol of this one. Finding or placing Christ here, of all places, is literally beyond our power. But we are bound by our baptisms to searching for Christ, to clinging to him. Which means we are bound to finding in the eyes of the lynched black man the eyes of Christ.

It is a discovery that does a kind of violence to expectations, to settled notions. It cracks apart the racial scale, because we find God not in its upper registers, but in its lower, its least. The discovery sunders the idea that whites control the world’s destiny and its redemption, because lo, their God is in the man they demeaned and killed.

Baroque art loved to emphasize, among other things, two qualities: movement and contrast. Compare Michelangelo’s David to Bernini’s, and it is almost simple to see the difference, to take in the way Bernini’s young man twists in the middle of a motion made known in the curve of the body and in the use of dark and light. These aesthetic qualities supported religious themes: conversion/repentance, and life/death. Zurbarán has several paintings of Saint Francis in meditation. He holds a skull in his hands, and sometimes he contemplates this skull—his death. Other times he stares upward at the unseen God, clutching the skull close, seeking God and the forgiveness that he gives. The contrast of chiaroscuro is not just a neat visual trick, but also, when we ask more about it, an attempt to reveal the truth of guilt, death, and life. Only God is Life, our life; without God, we die. This is the movement of our lives from death to Life.

What I always enjoy about Baroque art is the warm skin-tones that the artists use. Or, in El Greco’s case, pale and elongated, but filled with a vibrant activity for it. I could touch Zurbarán’s Francis and expect to feel warmth. Or, I could wait for El Greco’s to ascend to heaven in ecstasy. The art suggests that, whatever it means to die, whatever it means even to be living the death of sin, we do still have substance and life. There is, in other words, something there to resurrect.

This is important, and in two ways. First, it emphasizes that the life of the black man, our symbol from before, is not only to be found in his suffering. This cannot be, for he was made by God. This man is more than his death. (This is, even in his dying, what we seem so determined to forget.) Second, the “something there” in the midst of all this, the something in God’s preventing us from total oblivion, emphasizes the same for our contrition. We are responsible for our history. We are responsible to move, to clutch the skull of history and see in it our end, and to see God on the other side. Though we did not bring ourselves to where we are, though none of us is responsible in “that” way, Blondel would remind us that we are still responsible to act. This is our calling and our challenge: to act.

Notice that “Catholic art” can so quickly become the art of Europe, where Catholicism has had sway for so long. Even in my summary of the Baroque this is so. We have to act responsibly about where we find ourselves, though. We have to act in the history we actually have. For one thing, Catholic art occurs, and has occurred, elsewhere. In this reminder, I am not asking for more variety—not simply. That would be a superficial remedy to the problem of history, a history that still demands to be lived in, which is our job: to redeem history by living in it.

The superficial remedy tends to render identity a blunt token. But efforts at variety, which are good, assist the much more challenging, much more thorough, much more historical puzzle: that “white” and “Christian” have been so deeply thought about together, have arranged the world together. It creates a very specific “we,” unspoken but assembled concretely in the social structures we inhabit. White Christianity is not, however, the memory of Christianity that the Apostles have tasked us with handing on. We therefore have to re-remember Christianity. Re-remember the “we” that makes us Catholic. This requires not just a Catholic imagination in the sense of retrieval and play, but also a Catholic imagination willing to be absolutely daring. One willing to surrender itself into the hands of the Father without knowing what it will, at last, be made to be.

The racial scale traps white people as much as blacks, though the mode of enchainment is quite different. So it is important to remember that we, this strange white “we” that we become when we forget, are not tasked with knowing and deciding the future. In fact, attempting to control all the terms of our conversion to Christ’s truth only repeats the illusion, or rather the lie that power makes true, that we are the ones in control.

We have spent centuries now with the scar of this hexis in the heart of our culture, in our very imaginations. There will not be an unlearning in an instant, and we cannot do it without the black man our history has made, nor without God. It might be best, in fact, to train our eyes on where Christ is, which is with his beloved least, with the past that we forget and with the black man that our forgetting hangs over the void of our memory. We must pray that God make this sight possible, and with it the remembering.

We have a way of telling a story about ourselves with our art. We throw light on the golden frames of our creations, and proclaim the greatness of the Incarnation. But how rarely, and to our unwitting devastation, this memory includes where we got the gold. How rarely does it tell a story beyond the bounds of Europe. How rarely do we allow this beauty of ours to rest alongside the violence of its context, and ours.

When Notre-Dame de Paris burned, many reacted in sorrow and pain. Others, seeing a symbol of the France that brought their land and people under its control, were far more ambivalent, angry, even happy. Both reacted to something real, to a doubled disposition and contradiction that beauty, because it is flexible, can hold. Was it a loss to see Notre-Dame as infamous, or was it true? Is it really beautiful, and also really a symbol of the terrible? What has history made of us, and are we not tragic as well as lovely?

“Do not be afraid” (Lk 12:7). Do not be afraid at the unraveling of history, when it splits open at the seams to reveal its cavernous depths. Echoing with the cries of the lost, with the hidden shadows of figures on the auction block. Reverberating with a situation that we are already in. Do not be afraid: to lose art as we understand it now, to sunder the Baroque, to rupture it all, to relinquish all grip on the meaning of history. To realize that the Baroque is lovely, and that we conceal our past in its loveliness. To realize that we do this with all of our art, and not just the Baroque. And still, do not be afraid: to lose this concealment, which might feel like the loss of everything, because after it nothing will be the same. (What are we holding onto? And why? Will not Christ store up every good thing as treasure for us, if only we sell everything we have for his plot of land?) Do not be afraid: to taste bitter wine and hyssop.

We threaten to— No, we continually misremember Christianity when we will not look our present in the face. Because this memory, the memory of our past, is about the present too. White memory’s very repetition, the reiteration of the lie, is a condition of the racial scale’s living on. The terrible truth is that there can be no simple unseeing of race, because there is no winding back of history. But it is possible to see the ruinous misremembering of Christianity for what it is, to see that its closeness to Christianity is its greatest and most effective danger to Christianity; and, finally, it is possible to see that Christianity needs to be re-remembered. It needs to be re-remembered not tomorrow, not another time, but right now. “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation,” says James Baldwin. “The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now” (Collected Essays, 214).

In other words, there is the beautiful; there is also all that the beautiful conceals. So artistic beauty shudders, after all, with a heartbeat of life and of decay. As it always does. But Christianity, Christianity is a revelation: of the beautiful, of the hidden, of what is beyond both. And its revelation is always, also, now.

Beauty points beyond itself to the glory of God. To the glory that it, that beauty, is not. Christ is on the other side, in-and-beyond beauty. Just as he is on the other side of every truth, even ugly ones. He is on the other side of every good, and he is in the unmasking of evil. For my part, I am simply called to want Christ, wherever he is.

Perhaps I need to be willing to give up everything. Perhaps that is really how beauty survives, so very delicately. Artists relinquish everything into hands that are not theirs, first through a work of art, and then in death. Perhaps, indeed, we cannot save ourselves. We must relinquish that, too. We of the complicated and mournful (and white) “we.” It may well be that we need a Word that became flesh—that became less than human, hanging there on a tree. The lynching tree! (See: Jame Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree). We will need such a Word to speak to us—and, oh, I cannot see what is on the other side! I cannot make this Word come to me, but how much I want it! To hear my name and to say: “Rabboni!” (Jn 20:16).

May the living Word come to us, then, and come quickly (cf. Rev 22:20). We must keep our eyes open. Light our lamps (Mt 25:1-13). We must see the real. See all of it, including what we do not want to. For Christ is there, too.

Do not fall asleep: keep watch. Remember: maranatha.

Featured Image: Caravaggio, Sick Young Bacchus, c. 1593; Source: Wikimeda Commons, PD-Old-100.


Anne M. Carpenter

Anne M. Carpenter is the Danforth Chair in Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. Her current work has focused on theologies of tradition, recovering the thought of Maurice Blondel, and other topics.

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