Beauty Will Save the World
“Beauty will save the world!” my second graders shout together. Then several add, “By Dos-toy-ev-sky.” I have made this quote our art class motto, which opened up a fount of excellent questions.
A girl raises her hand. “How can beauty save the world?”
Great question. Most of us would not even bother to ask, because we assume it is an empty phrase for a mug or an Instagram post. We think of beauty as a delicate, ornamental thing. In the community I grew up in, beauty was considered superfluous at best and sinful at worst. Art had no value unless it included a spelled out message, making its point with words. Simply being beautiful was not enough.
So, how does beauty save the world? I’m hardly qualified to answer, so I will consult Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who asked himself the same question. Dostoyevsky’s enigmatic remark begins to make sense, he said, if “the old trinity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty” is truly united “as thinkers used to claim.” If we believe the Church Fathers and theologians who understood beauty, truth, and goodness to be inseparable and contained in the nature of God, then beauty is powerful indeed. A work of art carries truth and goodness to whatever extent that it is beautiful.
The unique power of beauty is that no one objects to it. It is not a controversial idea or action. People can still be touched by beauty, even when they replace truth with lies and goodness with corruption. Solzhenitsyn knew this first hand. He came from a country where Christians were not allowed to feed the poor, much less share their faith. The Soviet Union did its best to silence truth and criminalize goodness. But it had a harder time banishing beauty. Solzhenitsyn says,
“If the all too obvious and the overly straight sprouts of Truth and Goodness have been crushed, cut down, or not permitted to grow, then perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, and ever surprising shoots of Beauty will force their way through and soar up to that very spot, thereby fulfilling the task of all three.”
In the Soviet Union, artists continued to create works inspired by truth: Irina Ratushinskaya wrote her poetry, Solzhenitsyn wrote his novels, and Andrei Tarkovsky made his films. Tarkovsky in particular, a Russian Orthodox director, expressed that the aim of his art was to remind people of their spiritual nature, to “turn and loosen the human soul, making it receptive to good.” His films rarely had explicitly religious themes, but one cannot watch his films without sensing the spirituality of his characters, their aching for the transcendent. “My function,” writes Tarkovsky, “is to make whoever sees my films aware of his need to love and to give his love, and aware that beauty is summoning him.”
So yes, we discuss Plato’s transcendentals in second grade art. The children become most engaged whenever we have these conversations about what it means for beauty to save the world. They are fascinated and ask lots of questions. They deeply care and remind me to care. Even if they do not become artists, I hope that as they grow up, they will believe that beauty is more powerful than fear and evil.
So many Christians I encounter seem to be afraid. They believe our culture is hopelessly corrupt, that intolerance towards Christians will become outright persecution, that young people are throwing away truth, never to be retrieved again. I read their aggressive tweets and disconsolate essays. Some are trying to save the world from error with facts and logic. Facts and logic certainly matter. But the human soul responds differently to facts and logic than it responds to beauty. Rembrandt and Michelangelo have not been removed from art history because they painted politically incorrect scenes from Scripture. In Europe, people work to preserve their ancient cathedrals because they are unquestionably great works of art and architecture.
Christians have left influence all over the world in the forms of paintings, sculptures, symphonies, and poems. They have been spread even further by museums, orchestras, and literary publishers. Their artistic value goes unquestioned despite their religious roots.
There is nothing new under the sun. Beauty can still save the world. Christians will probably not win this cultural battle with angry rhetoric, mockery, and Scripture aimed as weapons. Fearful people fight, but peaceful people create. Makoto Fujimura is creating paintings that help people see beauty through suffering. Terrence Malick makes critically acclaimed films that continually point to the transcendent. Solzhenitsyn says, “A true work of art carries its verification within itself. Artificial and forced concepts do not survive their trial by images; both image and concept crumble,” but “works which have drawn on the truth . . . attract us to themselves powerfully, and no one ever–even centuries later–will step forth to deny them.”
Not all Christians have a calling as an artist, of course. But we can all help to cultivate a culture that loves beauty, whether found in God’s creation or in a human work of art. A soul that responds to beauty can guide a person through the many temptations of lies and corruption. In whichever heart the seeds of beauty are allowed to grow, truth and goodness will spring up alongside it.