Theology, Beauty, and Race (a couple thoughts)

Undercurrent by Skyler McGee (oil on canvas, 4 x 3), 2008

I’m married to an artist, find myself in the company of various artists, and have a few friends studying theology and the arts. One of these friends recently posted a humble 9.5 theses on beauty–a mere tenth of Luther’s audacious 95. After reading his post, I wanted to enter into a couple of his theses and turn them in a direction my friend does not take but which I wish he, and others studying “theological aesthetics,” would take (thus adding  a couple more to the theses up for discussion).

My friend’s first thesis reminds us that every discussion of beauty is set within a context. He lists a few “traditions” (intellectual contexts or situations) but another context is missing, the context of the formation of the modern racial world. Cornel West situates the discourse of race within the tradition of “classical aesthetic values” and the accompanying “normative gaze” (C.W. Reader, 75).  With characteristic bluntness, Frantz Fanon discusses how the “transcendentals” (the true, the good, and the beautiful) function cooperatively (8th Thesis) in a colonial world: “Doesn’t white symbolize justice, truth, and virginity…the black man is the symbol of evil and ugliness” (BSWM, 157). Fanon also highlights the aesthetic vision, or the “white gaze” in his work. I take two points from this context.

First, “traditions” are formed and perform themselves in a larger social reality. The “classical tradition” of beauty (which my friend helpfully defines as “harmoniously unified, richly complex and attractively splendid”) comes to us not just as an “idea” about beauty but as part of broad social articulation of the necessity and propriety of white, colonial domination (West and Fanon). As Edward Said has argued regarding “culture,” this imperialist context is essential to interpret both what is produced and how things are evaluated in the modern world. This does not mean one should disparage “culture” or “beauty” as nothing other than imperialist self-assertion. Nevertheless, I think Said is correct in stating that the absence of this context betrays a subtle, perhaps unknown, but nevertheless determinative “act of complicity” with this imperialist context. To reflect on beauty, therefore, one must reflect on both the imperialist production and the anti-imperialist protest, criticism, and redirection of this aesthetic vision, especially by those whose bodies were and are wounded by this imperialist gaze.

Second, discussions about beauty are also discussions of desire, and about desiring communities. The idea of “tradition” (Thesis 1), the brief sketch of a “history of beauty” (Thesis 3), and the observation that beauty is linked to a feminine object (Thesis 7) all point to this social, communal setting. To highlight one example: beauty is associated with the feminine not at the level of desiring but at the level of object (the desirable). Desire functions socially as the desires of a masculine, heterosexual subject, and thus the object that fulfills or pleases this desire (the beautiful) is associated with the feminine (both the subject and object of desire are, not surprising, also structured by race).

Ascriptions of beauty depend upon the formation of a community whose desires are deemed–by that community–to be properly oriented towards the beautiful. Situating the “constant discrimination of preferences and erection of hierarchies” (Milbank, TST 308) within the church does not preserve this aesthetic gaze from functioning imperialistically. To put it bluntly, saying, as Milbank does (but my blogger friend does not), that “the church” will beneficently arrange the world according to the church’s proper, authentically human desire for and creation of beauty is just a reassertion of what colonial Christianity always said to those it colonized: if only you were more properly human, you would see that this violence is really an act of loving desire and this dehumanizing gaze really a discerning vision for beauty.

To try to summarize these two points:

1) Discussions of theological aesthetics must take into account the imperialist context (including the resistance to it).

2) One cannot safeguard aesthetics from operating imperialistically through an appeal to the beneficent desire (the good), holy wisdom (the true) or discerning vision (the beautiful) of the Church.

Let me end with a suggestion of a place towards which we can look. Since beauty is often a marker of success, perhaps we can alter Bonhoeffer’s remark on success, “the form [an aesthetic term!] of the crucified disarms all thinking aimed at success,” into a remark on beauty: “the form of the crucified disarms all thinking aimed at beauty.” The form doesn’t abolish but disarms it, not enshrining ugliness or failure but suspending judgment. The form of the crucified is, as Bonhoeffer says, “a denial of judgment,” a suspension of our (aesthetic) judgments by the God who triumphs as a prodigious failure and (as Paul says), judges all in Christ so as to be merciful to all (2 Cor 5; Rom 11).

This entry was posted in art, bonhoeffer, colonialism, Cornel West, ecclesiology, Edward Said, fanon, milbank. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Theology, Beauty, and Race (a couple thoughts)

  1. Jeremy Alder says:

    Thanks for this Tim. You’ve articulated some of my own un-articulated discomfort with the recent evangelical interest in and reflection art and aesthetics. The material-historical conditions of the production and evaluation of art and beauty are rarely taken into consideration. Too quick of a move to the transcendentals obscures/hides/erases what’s going on on the ground…

  2. Tim McGee says:

    Jeremy–Thanks. Writing this post made me want to read Said’s _Culture and Imperialism_ again. He has a very nuanced mode of engagement, neither downplaying the imperialist context of culture nor reducing culture to nothing more than imperialism. It’s also an enjoyable read.

    • Jeremy Alder says:

      Have you read Orientalism? If so, where do you think someone new to Said should start?

      • Tim McGee says:

        Both are great, and different. I read _Orientalism_ first. If you have the time and interest to read both, I think that is a good route to go, but if not, I think C&I is a remarkable text and can be read on its own (it’s not a strict sequel to Orientalism). But if you can, you should read both, as they are both still quite relevant and theologically thought provoking.

  3. Halden says:

    This is another great post, Tim. Thanks very much.

  4. Pingback: Domestic Arts: The White Space(s) of Domestic Desires | veeritions

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