Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Beauty, ugliness and art

Michel pochet

“Ugliness will redeemed us” was certainly among the most provocative and profound insights shared at a conference of Christian academics and artists that I attended some 12 years ago in Rome. This statement, by the French painter Michel Pochet, was made very much in earnest and at a moment of reflection on a sacred text that spoke about Jesus’ suffering on the cross and his cry of abandonment before his death (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mathew 27:45). It certainly was not a frivolous, Oscar Wilde-esque quip, yet the reaction to it was one of disbelief, shock and immediate, widespread opposition. A very prominent Italian sculptress asked to be given the floor and launched into what was effectively a plea for reason to return: “How can you say that ugliness will redeem us? God is beauty and it will be by beauty that salvation will be delivered!” Personally, I was very much attracted to Pochet’s words and equally disappointed by the immediate opposition they received. Thankfully, the conference chair swiftly rebuked Pochet’s critic, with something along the following lines: He said that the sculptress’ words were not in the spirit of charity, reminded her that we must believe in the good intentions of others and that if their views differ from ours, we must try to understand why they are different. In the end what she said was true but so was that which she criticized, in its own context. The most impressive thing to my mind was not only Pochet’s insight, but also that this group of distinguished academics and artists was both capable of open disagreement and of accepting a rebuke that in many contexts would have lead to offense.

But, let us return to Pochet’s insight, which has immediately attracted me, for which I could see good reason, but which I never had the opportunity to know more about, until I read the transcript of a talk (in Italian) that he gave at an event in 2006. There he talks about his experience of returning to painting after many years and being in post-war Croatia with some friends. Materials were scarce and when his friends realized that he was painting again, they were looking for supplies for him. One day he was given a piece of canvas that was badly marked, torn, discolored and generally not in a fit state to be used as the basis for a painting. Since it was offered to him out of love by his friends, he could not refuse it. Examining the canvas, the thought came to him to paint a portrait of Jesus in his abandonment on the cross, since there he too suffered from the damage that this canvas presented.

Upon completing the painting (shown at the top of this post), Pochet realized that what he did was not so much a portrait of the abandoned Jesus but of the risen one, bearing the marks of his crucifixion and suffering. Looking at his own work, Pochet understood that this dual portrait of the suffering and risen Jesus provides an insight into what beauty is. He realized that Jesus, being God, is also perfect beauty and that his person is substitutable with that of Beauty in the Gospel:1
“[Beauty] seems dead, buried under the rock of ugliness. But on the third day the tomb is empty. Someone tells us that she is risen and that she waits for us. She walks with us, talks to us. My heart burns in my chest. It is getting late. We ask her to stay for supper, but our eyes open in the moment she disappears. Risen Beauty does not appear again: she disappears, hides in the anonymity of whomever, in the banal, the everyday. […]

Beauty is at the lake’s shore, unrecognizable. A pure eye intuits her and opens our eyes. We dive into the water and Beauty nurtures our mind and our senses, with bread baked on a hot stone. Beauty climbs a mountain with us, is lifted up high before our eyes and a cloud removes her out of sight.

And while we are staring at the heavens as she leaves: “Why are you looking at the sky? This Beauty, which has been among you and has been taken up to heaven, will return one day in the same way in which you have seen her leave.” And we, along the ways of the world, remember her words of farewell: I am with you all the days, until the end of the present age. […]

[T]he death of Beauty, “ugliness” - if we want to call it that, [is] assumed by God, divinized, in the risen Jesus.”
This fits perfectly with the intuition I had when first hearing him speak about ugliness, although the profound insight that Jesus’ life can be applied to Beauty, to gain a deeper understanding of it, is an impressive bonus! Beauty, understood through the optics of Jesus, is not superficial, ‘kitsch’ or only concerned with aesthetics, but one that goes to the heart of what it is to be human. It embraces the ugliness of suffering and uses it to arrive at love and joy.

What Pope Benedict XVI has to say on the subject is very much related. E.g., when talking about Michelangelo's “The Last Judgement” fresco in the Sistine Chapel, he says that it “issues a strong prophetic cry against evil, against every form of injustice” and goes on the exult beauty as follows:
“[T]he experience of beauty, beauty that is authentic, not merely transient or artificial, is by no means a supplementary or secondary factor in our search for meaning and happiness; the experience of beauty does not remove us from reality, on the contrary, it leads to a direct encounter with the daily reality of our lives, liberating it from darkness, transfiguring it, making it radiant and beautiful.

Indeed, an essential function of genuine beauty, as emphasized by Plato, is that it gives man a healthy "shock", it draws him out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum -- it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it "reawakens" him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft.”
He then quotes Simone Weil, saying: "In all that awakens within us the pure and authentic sentiment of beauty, there, truly, is the presence of God. There is a kind of incarnation of God in the world, of which beauty is the sign. Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is possible. For this reason all art of the first order is, by its nature, religious."

I hope that you won’t see this as an attempted land-grab for all art in the name of religion. Instead, I believe, it is an acknowledgement of art expressing a fundamental attribute of God, which believers can seek regardless of whether the artist intended it, agrees with it or believes in it. With the profound understanding of beauty (including a “risen” ugliness) that both Pope Benedict XVI and Michel Pochet talk about, we can further seek to recognize the presence of beauty also in art (and life!) that at first sight appears ugly.

1 Apologies for this unpolished translation - it is mine and was done in a hurry :$