I've been hearing a lot of conversations these days about whether an atheist can produce art that is beautiful. Of course, we can start with Keats' famous quote from "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is...all ye need to know" Of course, Keats was no Christian, but rather, "love is my religion...my creed is love."
I think most of us will argue that the poetry of John Keats is among the most poignant and beautiful in the English language. His ponderings on life, nature and loss are deeply felt and speak to the heart, which is exactly what he wanted to do. He wrote in a letter, "O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!" Then again, the man was dying at a young age, and what's more, he was fully aware of his fate. Keats lost everything because of his illness, and indeed, he admitted in his sonnet, "When I Have Fears," that because of his condition, he will "never live to trace [romance's] shadows." It makes sense that he was likely angry about his situation, and rightly so. And of course, living in the Romantic Era, when all the traditional institutions of society were routinely challenged and denigrated, that only fed into his frustrations.
But let's fast forward to something more modern, for balance. In the postwar 1950s, Irish playwright Samuel Beckett wrote one of the most influential works of the nihilist era, Waiting for Godot, in which two men, Vladimir and Estragon, spend two acts talking in circles as they wait for the elusive Godot. The audience is left in the dark as to Godot's identity--some theorize that Godot is a play on the word God, though Beckett always disputed that. Considering that he wrote the play in French, I'm led to believe that he's correct. But that adds a layer of meaning to the play, or rather, a layer of meaninglessness. Godot means nothing. Vladimir and Estragon waste their time. Lucky and Pozzo live a vicious cycle of nihilistic misery. And the play ends where it began. Nowhere. With nothing. As Pozzo laments, "we are born astride of a grave."
Godot is a great play, in that it contains humor and engages the audience, who tend to share the characters' frustrations. But is it beautiful? Is there a beauty in nothingness, or is nothingness just an empty vacuum? Considering that Beckett believed Christianity to be "mythology," I think the Catholic viewer can pretty easily write him off as a writer who speaks for his time and who possess wit and intelligence, but whose stance on faith is so remarkably absent that there's little threat to the faithful. Beckett, along with other modern artists such as Karlheinz Stockhausen are academic, to be sure. They both give credence to the spiritual and religious as inspirational, but not in the way that a deep believer is inspired. I don't pretend to know the heart and soul of either man, but I suspect that their use of religious themes or inspirations are quite different from those of Dante or Handel.
While nihilist works have a place in the artistic continuum, I don't know that I would classify them as "beautiful." They might speak a certain truth, but they also deny a greater truth, and while they might reflect a modernist frustration and postwar trauma, they don't rise to the heights of a Dante Aligheri. Dante might not have lived in the era of genocides or total war, as Stockhausen and Beckett did, though Dante's times were tumultuous enough. Dante was even thrown into exile, where he lost nearly everything. He wrote in the Paradiso, "You are to know the bitter taste of others' bread, how salty it is, and know how hard a path it is for one who goes ... ascending and descending others' stairs." His world was rocked in terrible ways in the chaotic battles of Medieval Italy.
Yet while his poetry reflects the same kinds of feelings of betrayal as the nihilists felt, there is also the element of the transcendent present in Dante that the nihilists lack, and which even Keats lacks. Keats' poems are intimate and intensely personal, but his unbelief places limits on how far his works can go. Similarly is William Wordsworth's claim in "The World is Too Much With Us" that if given a choice between a connection to nature and losing that connection, "I'd rather be a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn." In other words, nature trumps the creator of nature for Wordsworth. Now one could say that at least the Romantics believed in something, which is very true. Neither Keats nor Wordsworth nor even Shelley were nihilists, to be sure, and perhaps it is that different sort of belief that rescues their works and lends them a higher beauty than what the nihilists could ever have.
Could it be that beauty comes in degrees?
Take music, for example. There's great modern music--jazz, blues, rock, country, rap, Big Band, even Karlheinz Stockhausen. As wonderful as the viewer might feel as they listen and experience that music, can that compare to Handel's "Messiah," or Mozart's famous Requiem Mass, or the supernatural subtleties of Gregorian Chant? Of course, everyone's tastes run in different areas, but the deep believer knows that these works lift the soul in ways that other music can't, just as the poetry of St. John of the Cross takes the reader to places that even Shakespeare can't--and Shakespeare was a strong believer.
The question remains: can the godless create works of beauty? To some degree, yes, but I believe that a work achieves its deepest level of beauty when it is grounded in theological truths, works that cause the viewer to experience the mystery of God in speakable ways. If God is, according to the Summa Theogolica of St. Thomas Aquinas, "impossible for any created intellect to comprehend," then one must conclude that an artistic work grounded in a profound connection with the One True God must necessarily lead the viewer to spiritual places that anything else simply cannot. That doesn't mean that every work a believer produces reaches that level, of course. At the same time, when an artist has the desire to lift up their audience, and fills themselves with prayer and contemplation, and if they possess the artistic skill, then they stand a greater chance of achieving a work that resonates with the soul in its pure state.
I'm interested in your comments on this issue, so feel free to leave any thoughtful reply.
Witty; cunning; crafty
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