ITIA Conference 2007: The Offence of Beauty

St Andrews, 3–5 September 2007

What can a theological perspective on beauty offer to the arts today?offenceofbeauty

In recent decades, among those who practise, think and write about the arts, the notion of beauty has often come under deep suspicion. For many who have not dismissed it as irrelevant, it has even become a matter of offence. For some, beauty is an offence against truth, a lie in the midst of a world that is so obviously not beautiful. The quest for beauty in the arts is the quest for an illusory consolation, signalling a primal human urge for order in a world we cannot bear to admit is destined for futility.

The pursuit of beauty has also been seen as an offence against goodness. In the hands of the comfortable and powerful, the love of beauty – in the arts as much as anywhere else – is a luxury that can easily muffle the howl of those who know little or no beauty, distracting us from our obligations to those in need. Or, from the other side, beauty dulls the oppressed to the injustice of their predicament.

Beauty is also distrusted insofar as it is assumed to ‘harmonise away’ the evilness of evil. In particular, there has been a distrust of theories of beauty in which the notions of balance, symmetry and equivalence predominate, where evil’s irrational, intrusive quality is suppressed, where it is subsumed into a harmonious metaphysics of necessity and seen as part of the necessary balance of things. Art, it is said, must never collude with such schemes.

Undoubtedly, the Church and Christian theologians have been as responsible as any others for generating and encouraging these suspicions. The question arises, however: can there be a theological perspective on beauty that takes these suspicions seriously, while at the same time refusing to set aside the notion of beauty altogether? More particularly: in what ways can attending to the triune God of Jesus Christ, and this God’s gracious, reconciling, self-revealing activity in and for the world, inform and transform our conceptions of beauty? In this light, are there ways in which it might be quite legitimate to speak of the ‘offence’ of beauty – especially in relation to the ‘scandal’ at the heart of the Christian faith, the vindication of the crucified Jesus? And – the focused concern of this colloquium – what might such theological construals of beauty imply about the way we practise, interpret and enjoy the arts in the twenty-first century?

Speakers:

Bernard Beartty (Liverpool)
‘Beauty and the Opening of Distance: Defending the Two-Dimensional’

Carol Harrison (Durham)
‘Kind of Blue: Beauty and Broken Images’

Trevor Hart (St Andrews)
‘Ugly as Sin? Beauty, Holiness and the Crucified’

Robert Jenson (Princeton)
‘Deus Est Ipsa Pulchritudo’

Grant Macaskill (St Andrews)
‘Presence and Place: Contemporary and Traditional Scottish Songs’

Patrick Sherry (Lancaster)
‘The Holy Spirit and Beauty’

Nicholas Wolterstorff (Yale)
‘The Troubled Relationship of Art with Beauty’