At the moment I am doing a directed reading course on an age-old question (a question which is also the title of an intriguing book by Herman Rapaport): is there truth in art? If so, what kind of “truth” do we encounter in the work of art? Propositional? Fictive? A truth about ourselves? About the work itself, or its “workliness” or “thingliness” (Heidegger)? A political message? A theological disclosure?
One interesting aspect of this project for me is trying to relate the rehabilitation of the three ‘transcendentals’ – Truth, Goodness and particularly Beauty – in the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar with other (diverging and converging) movements in twentieth-century art theory and aesthetics. How do Beauty, beauty and art fit together in postmodernity?
In what amounts to proof that I’m not the only person out there interested in these topics, check out this great post by W. David O. Taylor on his “Diary of an Arts Pastor” blog which provides a great reading list for those interested in art, beauty and the Christian tradition. In addition to the texts he lists (Balthasar, Maritain, Milbank, Viladesau), I would also like to recommend to anyone similarly interested in the intersection of theology and art the following titles. In no particular order:
James Elkins, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (New York: Routledge, 2004).
James Elkins, David Morgan, eds. Re-Enchantment (New York: Routledge, 2009).
David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003).
Alejandro Garcia-Rivera, The Community of the Beautiful: A Theological Aesthetics (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999).
John Navone. Enjoying God’s Beauty (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999).
Josef Pieper, Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, trans. Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988).
Calvin Seerveld, Rainbows for a Fallen World (Toronto: Tuppence Press, 1980).
Some people say things like “all truth is God’s truth” as a way of relating the secular to the sacred; art, like science, thus becomes related to “general revelation” rather than “special revelation,” and the ‘truths’ we encounter in art are sort of appropriated by God as his rightful property. But I’m not sure this broad, blanket statement really gets to the heart of the matter; for the ancients, Beauty, Truth and Goodness were Names of God, qualities that overflowed into creation and found their fullest expression in the Incarnation of the Son. Balthasar speaks of Christ as the “form,” the one in whom these radiant qualities cohere; “seeing the form” is to behold the glory of God made manifest in earthly beauty, goodness, truth, etc. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”; truth is personal and revelatory, not just ‘factual’. Exactly where human art and creativity fit into this great movement of divine self-disclosure is hard to determine, but I think “truth in art,” theologically considered, may be a much more profound and ontologically significant category than the peripheral state art sometimes occupies in our lives would suggest.