The World Needs Beauty

The World Needs Beauty, conclusion of the series Art and Faith in the 20th century.

We began our reflections on the responsibilities of the audience in respect to art by discussing the role of the aristocracy in patronizing the arts. Now, we turn our attention to the democratization of art in the modern world: to the fact that art is no longer the province of the privileged, but the property of an entire civilization.

Although popular art often serves the “lowest common denominator” by appealing to our vices, we should not be ungrateful for the increased availability of art in the modern world.

Half a millennium ago, only a select few could actually own a book. A century ago, it was the privilege of the minority to listen to music in their own homes. Seventy years ago, films could be seen only at the theater.

The implications of this are tremendous.

A great work cannot be exhausted in a single sitting. Most of us have had the experience of returning to a favorite book and finding it transformed by the passage of years, of finding new meanings in a beautiful piece of music when we hear it in a different setting or in a different mood. The relationship that we have with these works grows and develops over time. We have the privilege of being able to enjoy and develop these relationships at our leisure.

This degree of engagement with art is a tremendous gift, and it is a gift that we ought not to waste.

Just as a gardener can’t cultivate a garden if he doesn’t understand plants, we, as the inheritors of Western culture, can’t cultivate beauty if we don’t understand what beauty is.

The simplest way to learn is to school our aesthetic sense in the cultural wealth bequeathed to us by the past. A critic who steeps himself in the doldrums of modern television may be able to recognize a masterpiece when it suddenly lands on his doorstep, but he may well fail to notice that most of what he thinks of as “good” is merely not awful.

A person who has grown up on Beethoven and Homer, on the other hand, will never be satisfied by Britney Spears or Dan Brown.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency for us to combat moral decay in the arts by producing sanitized alternatives to decadent forms of entertainment. The results are morally innocuous, but uninspiring. A pop song that happens to be about God instead of fornication is a poor fusion of form and content: It is Christian only on the surface, and has little capacity to evangelize.

If you take art that is vapid, but succeeds because it fills the vacuity with an appeal to sin, then when you remove the appeal to sin what you end up with is nothing. It’s like diet food that tries to be healthy by removing all of the sugars and fats: The result may not give you tooth decay, but it’s flavorless and only avid dieters will consent to eat it.

What is needed is beauty.

Dostoevsky once wrote that “beauty will save the world,” and John Paul II restates it in his Letter to Artists. The culture of death does not create works of beauty. Its creations may be entertaining or clever or innovative, but they rarely touch the heart.

There is a tendency to blame artists for the plight of modern art — and this has some validity. However, it neglects to notice that there are many unknown artists struggling with meaning and mystery, who are creating good work. The responsibility to dig up these talents and investing in them, instead of leaving them buried under the detritus of a faltering civilization, lies with us: the audience.

In the modern world, we patronize art by consuming it. When we buy a book, we provide the author who wrote it with the income that will allow him to write another book.

When we watch a television show, we contribute to its ratings and encourage the advertisers to support it.

We have no business grumbling about the lack of beautiful, inspired works, if we are willing to patronize trash.

Just as we earn the governments that we vote for, we earn the movies that we vote for with our ticket purchases.

The solution is two-fold. On the one hand, we can withdraw our support: refuse to watch, to read, to listen. If there’s nothing on television that is going to deepen your relationship with God, with others, and with the world, turn it off. If there’s nothing good playing at the movie theater, don’t go.

On the other hand, take the time that is no longer poured into the consumption of rot, and seek out the artists who are trying to illuminate the world with beauty.

Give them our patronage. The culture of life is here, laboring in the shadows. It is up to us to bring it out into the light.

Melinda Selmys is

a staff writer at

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