In Beauty We Should Damn Well Trust

by D. W. Sabin on January 14, 2012 · 27 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Culture, High & Low,Economics & Empire

beautiful-land

Washington, Ct. The recent contretemps between the blessedly described “liberal conservatives” at the First Things web site and our own clutch of barking mongrels here at the homespun Porch revealed that the First Things folks might consider the important arena of “aesthetics” to be a pejorative. This beats all.

Distributism, a practicing branch of the noble idea of subsidiarity, was described as being a mere “aesthetic exercise” as though beauty was something beneath the dignity of our Utopian Champions of the Evanescent State. Not to mention that a certain very real, and very vibrant district in Spain has been attempting it, with more than “mere” aesthetic reasons for more than a couple of decades.

I admit Distributism as an overarching concept gives me pause, but to call it a merely “aesthetic”…aka, philosophic and so worthlessly airy adventure makes me want to mount the barricades at the corner of Avenue Felix Fuare and Rue de la Convention. The fact that one of my favorite restaurants is nearby holds no bearing. After all, I am an aesthete, I like to dine well.

The very idea that aesthetics, as they dimly perceive them might be regarded as a pejorative by the neo-liberal-statist “conservative” is about as good an indictment of their worn-out creed as can ever be found.

Sure, they can parse and dissemble and qualify but aesthetics is about beauty and beauty is about love and unless you are a completely imbecilic adherent to this death cult of modern technocratic statism, you may hold onto some rudimentary appreciation of the value of beauty in your life. It is, in sum, a stalwart pleasure of endless payout.

Beauty is a wing of love. It is a sturdy refuge in our fallen state, our bit of firm ground in the face of the manifest ugliness of our prevailing surrender to base desires and zero-sum commercial freebooting.

The Real-Politik banner wavers traffic in carnage and so are opponents of beauty. They consider war a manly pursuit and the pursuit of beauty in this temporal life to be somehow fey. Truth be told, this Death Cult of Liberal conservatism has hitched their cart to the idea that destruction is beautiful and somehow bountifully “creative.” Pathos dogs this creed like a junkyard dog.

Beauty is everything. It is what distinguishes our species, this propensity for beauty and it is one of the vital forces which animates the power of love.

The very idea that somebody might denigrate the concept of aesthetics , and that they may very well be in charge of our checkered fates given the mercenary atmosphere clutching Washington….well, this puts me in a morose mood. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Luckily, I ain’t sentimental whence morose. I get damned well plucky. We need to recover the ground of beauty in this once and still beautiful land. It is the helping hand of Love and with Love, all things are possible . There has never been a case of inflation, nor deflation in the realm of Love.

This land of ours is staggeringly beautiful and the current version of the mirage of modernity has distracted us with seductive ugliness. Recover the ground of beauty and you recover the ground of Love. Recover the ground of Love and you very well may create men and woman to match the mountainous possibilities of our lovely continent.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar John Haas January 14, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Paragraphs six and seven are some of the best things I’ve read this decade, and it’s stuff like that that keeps me coming back to the porch. Reading those words is like watching Van Helsing drive a stake through a vampire’s heart . . .

avatar Matthew Schmitz January 14, 2012 at 3:52 pm

It would be a mistake to assume that any one editor of First Things, including this one, speaks for the entirety of the enterprise.

This post also seems to confuse the recent use of the terms “liberal conservative” and “conservative liberal” in the magazine’s pages (the former actually refers to a more FPR-friendly type of traditionalism): http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/02/letters

As should be made clear by that exchange, First Things indeed does publish both more traditional and more neoconservative voices. Nor can it be said that the magazine fails to talk about beauty. I recommend Matt Milliner’s writing, and of course there are many other examples: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/03/the-beauty-of-the-ethical

avatar JA January 14, 2012 at 4:04 pm

One of the great ironies regarding this imbroglio is that David Bentley Hart, a very popular columnist at First Thing, writes extensively about beauty and aesthetics as a justification for Christianity in a book based on his dissertation: “The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth.” You will also find that he well distances himself from the “theoconservatism” of the publication.

avatar Anymouse January 14, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Too many people are addicted to Modernity in it’s various forms. The special thing about the First Things crowd is that they want to have their liberal modernity and their Christianity too.

avatar Thomas McCullough January 14, 2012 at 6:19 pm

First Things’ problem is a frequent attachment to the primacy of political action and to the USA as the necessary locus of the successful, failing or failed pinnacle of Christian Civilization.

This essay is Truth, by the way. I am by it reassured and supported. Thank you.

avatar Anymouse January 14, 2012 at 8:59 pm

“This post also seems to confuse the recent use of the terms “liberal conservative” and “conservative liberal” in the magazine’s pages (the former actually refers to a more FPR-friendly type of traditionalism)”
That is true, but I would argue that the letter exchange shown is indicative of a general tendency at First Things. They understand Christian morality, but don’t seem to understand the importance of a traditional life that exists alongside it and helps sustain it. They are indeed too eager to embrace modern liberal life. I am a reader and admirer of James Kalb, and hope to one day read his book The Tyranny of Liberalism, but he is much more likely to post at Alternative Right or View from the Right than First Things.

avatar JA January 14, 2012 at 9:08 pm

I should write something else on that Hart book mentioned above. Part of what he writes is that the glory of God manifests as beauty in the world in its givenness, belying all of the evil and sin of the world. Beauty is also elusive: it cannot be quantified, it is not calculable, there is no way to circumscribe it fully with language. Beauty can only be experienced doxologically, in wonder; it is never subject to rational control or the market. It defies everything about our age.

And, if I may allow my own observation, this is why hapless liberals dismiss beauty. They cannot control it — it is not subject to the nihilistic rationality of our modern age. This makes it a threat.

avatar John Gorentz January 14, 2012 at 10:57 pm

Yay! The terms “conservative liberal” and “liberal conservative” are catching on. I claim to be the first person to have used those terms on himself, though.

avatar C R Wiley January 15, 2012 at 7:34 am

Moderns want power without beauty — in the glory of God these coinhere. If the glory of God is not both the power of God and the beauty of God — I don’t know what it is. The reason modernity is so bare and ugly is it wants nothing of God. Strange that the journal where I first learned of Urs Von Baltasar could be so ham-fisted on this score.

avatar Matthew Schmitz January 15, 2012 at 12:38 pm

It will be hard to advance the cause of beauty without any attention to truth, which is why I want to raise again an objection to the suggestion made by the poster and subsequent commenters that the entirety of First Things magazine can be boiled down to a series of blog posts and comments by one of its editors (I set aside here whether or not his views have been misconstrued).

It is curious indeed to launch such a broad criticism of a journal without making reference to a single article that appeared in its pages. I invite the post’s author to offer a single example of such an article which disparages beauty, or to focus his fire a little more carefully on his real target.

avatar Rob G January 15, 2012 at 1:40 pm

“Part of what [Hart] writes is that the glory of God manifests as beauty in the world in its givenness, belying all of the evil and sin of the world.”

For a near perfect cinematic manifestation of this idea see the recent Terence Malick film ‘The Tree of Life,’ (of which Hart is a great fan). A fine video discussion of the film can be found here:
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/july-8-2011/the-tree-of-life/9110/

Also, mention should be made of another frequent First Things writer whose work is greatly sympathetic to the ideas expressed in this post — Anthony Esolen.

avatar JA January 15, 2012 at 5:12 pm

While it certainly isn’t fair to impugn every writer for First Things as those who disregard beauty and aesthetics, it would also not be accurate to characterize the journal as neutral overall in this regard. The founder of First Things, of course, was Richard John Neuhaus, a neoconservative. And while all manner of views are expressed through the journal, the right-liberal view is often given priority. The Institute on Religion and Public Life, which publishes First Things, either currently or at least previously described its mission thusly:

“The Institute is an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society. The aim is to teach people about the moral and ethical basis of capitalism.”

avatar JA January 15, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Mea Culpa. I should have added something above: liberals, left or right, tend to marginalize beauty and aesthetics for all the reasons listed in this article and the comments: they have no use for that which lacks utility, what cannot be subjected to rationality and logic, and what cannot be controlled and manipulated to master nature and ourselves.

avatar C R Wiley January 15, 2012 at 5:48 pm

Matthew,

I’ve been a reader of First Things for about 15 years and I’ve enjoyed it immensely and my debt to to its contributors is very great. Yes, there is much to be found in it extolling the virtues of traditional life and objective beauty–but I can not recall a single instance when the ravages of capitalism on either of those things was ever addressed. (Various contributors may say so elsewhere — but I’ve not seen them say so in First Things.) Admittedly my knowledge is partial I would be please to be shown the error of my ways.

avatar D.W. Sabin January 15, 2012 at 5:48 pm

Schmitz,
I would counter your argument that it is the First Things folks who coined the term “Porchers” as a dismissive tag for we purportedly sentimentalist mutts here and we never never countered with something as potentially inane as “Thingers”.

Localist ideas will have their day for the simple reason that human endeavor must begin ….and end, with feet underfoot. Soil is dirty, fragrant, muddy but most of all, it is real. Mud is enough evidence for me.

As someone who plants, I avoid the idea of “entirety” as something a tad artificial. However, lock-tight ideas have a way of encouraging enforcers.

The purported controversy between the First Things folks and we rustics at the Porch is but another of the ricochets of a noisy age which relies upon percussive motion for distraction.

I have read of beauty on the First Things site but I have also read, with disbelief, but another apologia for the manifest carnage of our surrender to technocratic exploitation. This does not mean I wish them to stop what they are doing. Far from it, I only wish that they might step back at times and hear the faint echos of Augustine and the reality of his thought rather than the perversion of it that is abroad in this most messy of worlds.

I am guilty of pronouncements in the realm of entirety, this I know. But what I do know is that I am just a pilgrim, happily…warmly….obligingly and beautifully so.

avatar Chris January 15, 2012 at 5:54 pm

….. and ground of Love is the God who became man to die an ugly death on a cross, before rising again. Beautiful.

I am young, so I don’t know whether First Things once had that line about teaching people the moral and ethical basis of capitalism, but they certainly do not have it now, at least in their About Us section. Now it only reads:

First Things is published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.

avatar Matthew Schmitz January 17, 2012 at 10:58 am

I am grateful for D.W. Sabin’s response and will only highlight a couple of instances where First Things sounds economic notes that he and others here might find more sympathetic:

Edward Skidelsky, “The Emancipation of Avarice”
http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/05/the-emancipation-of-avarice

(And from yesterday) R.R. Reno, “The Wall Street Journal’s Libertarian Blinders”
http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2012/01/the-wall-street-journalrsquos-libertarian-blinders

avatar Joseph Stromberg January 17, 2012 at 1:11 pm

‘Truth be told, this Death Cult of Liberal conservatism has hitched their cart to the idea that destruction is beautiful and somehow bountifully “creative.”’ — Very good, that.

There is even more of this at National Review, where ‘creative destruction’ and turning the Middle East into a ‘cauldron’ have been popular themes. There is an aesthetic of sorts there, but it lands somewhere between Bakunin and an Italian Futurist and early fascist urge to groove on the rubble. Romanticism never died, it just became a backdrop.

avatar D.W. Sabin January 17, 2012 at 6:06 pm

Mr. Stromberg,
A good look at Max Ernst’s draw-jopping canvas entitled “Europe After The Rain”, a fine depiction of the so called “creative destruction” of post WWII will induce one to think that aside from the absence of atheists in the average Foxhole, there are no aesthetes to be found either, they are the cannon fodder littering the battlefield. There is awe and a kind of perverse joy in the carnage of war but it is never anywhere near to love and beauty, it is the bleak playground of evil, covetousness, revenge and a base surrender to sin.

War is a dirty murderous business and the institutional marketeers of it would rather we accept their protestations of “creativity” without asking too many questions. Are there “Just Wars”? Perhaps. Vanquishing Hitler or any of the other pencil-pushing apparatchiks of cockeyed purity in our own time may provide an accounting in support but war, but it is by nature, an acquiescence to base and destructive desires. Interestingly, said base and destructive desires most frequently are the redoubt of those who seek deferments while sending the youth of their nation off to ill-found wars.

What is worse however, is the chorus of Chicken Littles who are found crowing constantly, dulling the senses of us all and making enemies of friends and friends of enemies.

avatar D.W. Sabin January 17, 2012 at 6:23 pm

Thank you Mr. Schmitz,
I enjoyed the referenced articles but retain a nagging suspicion from the second article, a good one…. that the writer still believes, like the general drift at First Things…. that large institutions must control rather than reflect the ideas and sentiments of their constituency. But then, as is well known, I am a bit reflexive and possess a bad attitude.

Neitzsche was an observer and while his fervent writing may be observed as prescriptive, it always was, and remains, one of the best diagnostics of what remains thoroughly wrong with this age of supremacy and immortality-lust.

avatar Joseph Stromberg January 18, 2012 at 2:00 am

Mr. Sabin,
I take it we are in substantial agreement. I did not mean to say that the Futurists (see Marinetti’s manifesto) and Italian fascists had a *sound* aesthetics, merely that they *said* they had one. Art phonies are no new phenomenon (see New York art marketing practices since Adam). Still, the artistic motif — e.g., Mussolini as an operatic buffoon — was part of the fascist pitch in its time.

Of course war is dirty, because that is the greater part of what war is. It was the self-appointed task of the proto- and realized fascists to pretend otherwise. They may have influenced some people. *Triumph of the Will* is a very good film, if you accept its premises. Stephen Kern, *The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918* (1983), has a very good discussion of Futurism and its cult of speed, explosions, mechanization, and senseless violence; these twits *liked* World War I. (They would have loved chainsaws, and not in the spirit of Jerry Clower. ['Po' Marcel, standin' on them gravels outside.']

Our war party (parties) are not so bold, for the most part, as to go down this exact same path again. (V. D. Hanson being a partial exception; and Michael Ledeen, too, in his way.) They draw as much as they can on fin-de-siecle militarist drivel, but there is a limit. They can quote Teddy, but not Field Marshall Bernhardi.

Best

avatar Jordan Smith January 19, 2012 at 7:55 pm

My biggest complaint about First Things is that their website is awful. It tells me all I need to know about their understanding of beauty. Perhaps you laugh, and say that’s trivial… I heartily disagree.

Not to mention the masthead explanation of what they stand for is obfuscating and vague at best.

avatar D.W. Sabin January 20, 2012 at 3:35 pm

Stromberg,
There is something in the industrial mindset, the mechanized priesthood which spawned the modernist urge for perpetual war that seems preternaturally adept at the carnival barker end of the beauty spectrum. It is a form of theatre perhaps, some have asserted the Third Reich was an elaborate piece of murderous performance art…..but is not beauty.

One of the defining things about this era is the lust for shocking image. Each benchmark of shock is met, the bet raised and another round of higher stakes shock is enacted. The entire nation at times seems to reflect a kind of sock-adicted Attention Deficit Disability and it is therefor no wonder that some of the highest cost art in the industrial art market range from a giant flower-festooned puppy dog on the irony side of the spectrum to diamond encrusted skulls or a shark suspended in formaldehyde on the visceral side. Shock, revulsion and awe are the new proportion, perspective and chiaroscuro.

What I have found interesting is to ponder the robust art of the Futurists in their time. Balla…Boccioni etc ..produced some remarkable imagery on canvas and sculpture when speed and motion, in this industrial era were young. It seems they held onto traditional forms of beauty while letting themselves swoon to the seductions of mechanized speed and the violence which attends it. Balla’s canvases of Swallows and Swifts knock me out every time I see them.

As to our own prevailing War Party, perhaps they are not quite so bold as the National Socialists of Germany or Mussolini’s Italy or Franco;’s Spain but they are no less deadly on a large scale. Truth be told, they do not have to be bold because the Totalitarian infections we thought might have been excised at the conclusion of the last two World Wars and the Cold War have steadily invaded our own nation and as a result, we are actively at war across several time zones, claiming national greatness, exploiting fear and spending vast sums of money on an increasingly dangerous debt plan. Like all totalitarian efforts, the homeland is loudly claimed to be protected while all the while, it is being cannibalized. Our own “Triumph of the Will” might be the current infatuation with Vampire and Zombie movies.

avatar D.W. Sabin January 20, 2012 at 3:37 pm

Smith,
I myself would not agree that the “First Things” web site is “awful”. I’ve read some stirling things there at times. Perhaps they were accidents, I would not presume to say they were.

avatar Dave Dutcher January 24, 2012 at 10:10 am

He’s not against the idea of Beauty, just the use of the state to coerce citizens into living according to a specific form of beauty they may not subscribe to.

It would be like the state forcing everyone to build according to the Modernist or Bauhaus schools of architecture. In other words, a small group of aesthetes and policy makers pushing their view on everyone in a way to rob fundamental liberties of the citizen’s idea of beauty. That’s about as anti-distributivist as it gets.

Being against that is different from being against aestheticism as a concept, and saying that only functional concerns should ever be considered.

avatar David S. McCalmont August 17, 2012 at 4:05 pm

Too many vague and blurry thoughts, expressions and words being cast about here that look profoundly beautiful at first sight but amount to gibberish upon further reflection. D.W. Sabin must fall asleep at night having re-read his gorgeous paragraphs for the umpteenth time and marveling from just where his verbal talent came. It’s a distinct possibility Mr. Sabin’s mind is too deep and complex for my understanding – but I don’t think so!

Neo-liberal statist-conservative? Liberal-conservative? This is pseudo-intellectual meaningless rhetoric to us street-level pundits who need more clarity and simplicity in digesting the English language.

avatar Judith September 25, 2012 at 10:58 am

Great idea. But author swept into the maelstrom of his own words.

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