Touching the Transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in Art
(Excerpts from a keynote speech given by Kirsten Appleyard, Curator at the National Gallery of Canada, at the Starry Night Gala, November 9th, 2019)
“From the moment you declare who you are, you have the right to say what you think. Therefore you must speak the truth, the goodness of things, and the beauty of the face of God.”
These are words spoken by a Catholic painter named Arcabas who passed away just last year. For Arcabas, these three transcendentals are at the heart of his sense of artistic vocation. All aspects of his art that are true, good, and beautiful are derivative of their divine transcendent counterparts, thereby granting us a glimpse of the One who is all Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. According to the twentieth-century neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritian, “The moment one touches a transcendental, one touches being itself, a likeness of God, an absolute, that which ennobles and delights our life; one enters into the domain of spirit.”
For those of us who dedicate our lives to Christ, every decision and every action should be guided by these three properties of being. We need to seek and engage with all that is true, good, and beautiful, in an effort both to draw closer to Him whom they reference, and to proclaim His glory to the rest of the world.
How can art help us do this? How can we look at and read art—how can we teach our children to look at and read art—so that it presents the heavens to the earth, so that we are drawn into the mysteries of the Church, our eyes opened to a reality outside ourselves, bringing us into closer communion with Him who is all Truth, Goodness, and Beauty?
In what sense is art able to give us Truth? For Christian artists, painting the Truth should be one of their primary objectives. There are a number of ways to accomplish this, but I’d like to focus on truthful representation. And I’m not talking about realism, because the most realistically painted image can be the farthest thing from the truth. As Maurice Denis, a twentieth-century Catholic artist and art theorist has stated, truth in art is not defined by the exactitude with which objects are represented, rather “truth consists in the conformity of the work to its means and its end… A painting conforms to its truth, to the truth, when it communicates well what it must say.”
[...] Central to any discourse involving the arts is the question “what is the good of art?” What is the purpose of man’s creative impulse? According to many, the good of art is simply to be a source of pleasure or a form of entertainment. Art offers no longer the transfiguration of the senses but a glorification of sensual experience as an end in itself. In many cases the good of art is discussed in therapeutic terms; accordingly, a taste has been formed in which paintings are steeped in emotional sentiment and saccharine imagery. And if people today don’t believe that art exists to create a mood, at the very least they describe it as a projection of the artist’s mood on the outside world. Art is self-expression, art is self-definition—art is the triumph of subjectivism. [...]
“The artist has become the paradigm of the lonely hero wandering in an absurd and hostile environment. He becomes the mythic quester for whom there is no holy grail. Reality begins and ends in his ego. Cut loose from a hierarchical cosmos, he must now stagger around this existential landscape, searching for his own lost face.” -Michael O’Brien, contemporary Catholic writer and artist
[...] One of the goods of art is celebrating the mystery of the Incarnation and its implications for man. Now, it is impossible to grasp the mystery of the Incarnation by which God incomprehensibly and gloriously became part of us, but art can act as a means by which this mystery discloses itself more fully in all its wonder and uniqueness. For some artists, they grapple with this mystery by exploring various aspects of humanity, for God, in the Incarnation, did not only reveal an image of himself, he revealed a person.
A human person with a human face—our own face restored to the original image and likeness of God. Christ’s coming thus reminds us of the sanctification of our species—man has been set apart by the imago dei that we bear. This image may be severely marred at the moment, but thanks to Christ’s redeeming work on the cross it will one day be restored to its former glory. Until then, we cannot deny the presence of the imago dei in us—we cannot, as many artists are wont to do, strip man of his dignity and humanity. Instead, we must restore a sense of the good in man. One way of doing this is to explore the tenderness of human interaction.
There was a time, however, when artistic pursuit implied something much more self-transcending. For Saint Augustine, the usefulness of all arts was, at the first level, that they conduce to the enhancement of human life; even more important, the arts at the highest level are propaedeutic to the love of God.
[...] Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son (see above) is an example of the good in human relationships made possible by Christ’s example of the ultimate Good. One of the most frequently illustrated parables in the history of art, the story of the prodigal son contains the important themes of death and rebirth, sin and grace, departure and realism, self-alienation and self-recovery. Rembrandt depicts the climax of this scene—the moment when father and son are first reunited.
The prodigal’s shoe has fallen off, indicating the abject state of his return; his face is hidden from view and his hands are clasped around his father’s legs: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). The father, on the other hand, leans forward and extends his arms, eager to embrace his son who was once lost and is now found. Rembrandt perfectly captures the warmth and sincerity of this family reunion—his expressive lighting and colouring and the magic suggestiveness of his technique, together with the simplicity of setting, help us to feel the full impact of this event.
[...] In Arcabas’s version, the artist places the figures close to the picture frame, drawing us into the composition and highlighting our place in the scene. We are the prodigal son kneeling in a manner reminiscent of the orans pose, and God the Father stands with his arms open, ready to receive us—made possible by the redeeming work of God’s son, represented in the cross that Arcabas has strategically placed between the father figure and the prodigal. For me, this is the ultimate symbol of homecoming—of the darkness of human existence illuminated by tenderness, of weary and sinful mankind taking refuge in the shelter of God’s mercy. This is thus a celebration of the good of human life and love insofar as it is a reflection of a higher Good.
We now come to Beauty, the most important transcendental for an artist. “Beauty is the word that shall be our first,” the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar cries, “Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another.” An artist may cherish what is True and love what is Good, but it is Beauty that drives his artistic pursuit—it is Beauty that calls him to transcendence, opening his soul to the eternity God has put in his or her heart.
“The beautiful is neither the ‘true’ nor the ‘good’, it can substitute for neither one, but both need it in order to win access to the heart of men.” -Etienne Gilson, French philosopher
And yet, of the three transcendentals, it is Beauty that is most often abused or else completely swept aside. Talented artists throughout the ages have shown us what it means to separate Beauty from her sister transcendentals and glorify her for her own sake; conversely, the contemporary cult of the ugly derives pleasure in brutally ravaging Beauty’s face. In the former case, Beauty is no longer oriented toward a higher Truth; in the latter she has been deprived of the Good. In both cases Beauty is emptied of significance—she is left, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “wrecked, this majesty beaten down.”
[...] For art to be truly beautiful it must be a reflection back to the One source of perfect Beauty—it must engage with ultimate Truth and proclaim that which is Good. Regardless of how magnificent a work of art is, if we lose the sense of reference, we lose our sense of proper worship.
There’s so much more that could be said on this topic, but I wanted to give you a small taste of what it could look like to search for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in art, and how this search can open our eyes to the glorious mysteries of the faith, leading us back to the One who is all Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. We in turn must strive to be vessels of these transcendentals in order to proclaim His glory to the world.
I’m going to leave you with something that Michael O’Brien once told me when I was speaking to him about his artistic vocation. I hope his words bless you as they have me: “No matter what you decide to do, awareness of the transcendent begins in your heart, in your particular mission in life, your particular vocation. You may talk about Christ in your work and dazzle the eyes and the intellect, and change nobody. But if you’re truly living in the fire of the Holy Spirit, which all of us struggle to do and never achieve perfectly—if you’re living to some degree in that fire of the Holy Spirit, the words that God speaks through you and with you are life-giving words. If they’re also beautiful life-giving words, then their power to give life is greatly enhanced.”