A few years ago there was a controversy brewing in Tacoma, Washington because the Tacoma Art Museum wanted to show the work of an artist named David Wojnarowicz. Specifically, they want to show a video montage he put together that was pulled by the Smithsonian because it was too offensive. The Tacoma museum’s curator responded to critics by saying, “For someone to come and have to confront this image, it’s not going to be easy but art’s not easy.”
Curious about what this non-easy art might involve, I did some searches and found a clip of the video on Youtube (it’s called Fire in My Belly by David Wojnarowicz if you’re interested, though I don’t recommend viewing it). It features images of ants crawling on a crucifix juxtaposed with flickering shots of a young man doing something pornographic.
Oddly, it was this kind of thing that helped lead me to God.
Beautiful? Umm, no.
Shortly after I got married, and when I was still an atheist, my husband suggested that we check out an international modern art festival that had come to town. At one exhibit we walked into a large room where stylishly-dressed people wandered around rows of metal boxes, nodding and making approving comments. Were we in the wrong place? Had the organizers not had a chance to set the art out on the boxes yet? As it turned out, the metal boxes were the art.
As we walked through the other exhibits, I was amazed at what was considered art: a light bulb, a paper with some holes in it, even an entire building with some spray painting on the side. A favorite approach seemed to be to take something that traditionally symbolized purity and hope (e.g. a sacred religious object) and juxtapose it with something considered dirty and bad (e.g. excrement).
“It’s beautiful,” someone commented at one such exhibit. I recoiled at the statement. If someone wanted to say that this art was thought-provoking or interesting, I could have barely seen where they were coming from. But beautiful? No.
My husband teased me by joking, “Hey, one man’s Sistine Chapel is another man’s metal box!”
“Umm, no,” I mumbled.
A Hard Question
At the time I was an atheist, and my husband responded with an interesting question. As we walked back through the rows of metal boxes, he said: “Are you sure that you can defend that statement from a purely atheistic perspective?”
Without thinking about it, I blurted out, “If not, then I denounce atheism. Because I know more than I know anything else that those boxes aren’t as beautiful as the Sistine Chapel.”
I meant it as a half-joke. I’d been an atheist art critic for all of thirty minutes, so I hadn’t exactly fleshed out my thesis, though I assumed that there must be a way to defend my point of view without appealing to anything supernatural. But as I thought about it in the days and weeks that followed, I found that it wasn’t as easy as I’d imagined it would be.
To make the case—from a pure atheist-materialist perspective—that that box was not as beautiful as, say, a Monet, I could say that the creation of great classical art requires more skill than other types of art, and that we get the concept of objective beauty by recognizing the work of the most skilled members of our tribes. But that argument was flimsy. After all, maybe I had no idea what was involved with putting together an aluminum box.
I went over similar lines of reasoning, considering the human animal’s evolved desires and the way we react to stimuli, but each time I came up short. Even if I had been able to demonstrate conclusively that humans do have an evolved tendency to register the chemical reactions that indicate “beauty” with some types of art more than others, I couldn’t get around the fact that there was no objective rule that would apply to each individual. Someone could walk into the Sistine Chapel and announce that he thought it was ugly. Everything within me screamed that that person would be wrong, and not just because I thought so, but because he was not recognizing an objective beauty that existed regardless of any person’s opinion. But I couldn’t get there while adhering to atheistic principles. All I could do was point to trends about what people tend to do, which proves nothing objectively.
What I sensed in my soul is that there is indeed a scale of objective beauty. Some works of art are more beautiful than others; therefore, there must be some ultimate source of beauty that the more beautiful works are more like than the less beautiful ones. (To borrow an analogy from G.K. Chesterton, if someone says one city is more like New York than another, that analogy only works if a specific place called New York actually exists.) Yet in order to supersede human opinion, this objective source of beauty couldn’t originate in the human brain, could it?
This line of thinking disturbed me. My flippant comment that I would denounce atheism before I said that a metal box is as beautiful as the Sistine Chapel turned out to have more weight than I’d expected. Because in order to defend my position that an objective scale of beauty did exist, I had to appeal to something for which there was no strict scientific evidence, something beyond the material world.
And that’s why I always see a silver lining when controversies like the one in Tacoma come up. Because it makes people wonder: “What is true art? What is true beauty?” And, as I know, when you start asking those questions, you’ve taken the first step down a path that leads to the living Source of all that is beautiful.
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