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Acton Commentary

Flannery O’Connor: an artist for art’s sake

An emphasis on the need for practical use is beneficial when applied to goods in the market, so as to meet the ever-changing demands of the consumer. But the value of some goods cannot be reduced to a selling price. One such good is beauty. Although the market has a role to play in the creation of beautiful things, this essential good can only be fully realized through the work of talented people devoted to the vocation of art.

Flannery O’Connor, American Southern fiction author and essayist, boldly insisted that her worldview as a Christian did not narrow her field of vision as a writer and participator in the arts, but rather widened it. In an essay in Mystery and Manners, O’Connor emphatically states that “[w]hen people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist.” The artist who believes people are made in the image of God should not let pragmatism slip into their work but is called to create art which is good for the sake of God’s beauty and reflective of mankind’s co-creatorship. An artist’s Christian anthropology should not drive them to siphon out all but the sentimental in their work, but should instead reveal God’s goodness, truth, and beauty as reflected in nature. These virtues touch at the very heart of Christianity.

A demand for pragmatism when applied to the reception of art can quickly erode the true purpose of art. O’Connor addressed this problem directly. “Now, we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God, because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art.” O’Connor later explains that often within the Church, “we see people distorting their talents in the name of God for reasons that they think are good — to reform or to teach or to lead people to the church.” The glory of God is revealed every day through nature without being used — this beauty reflects the truth of God’s goodness and unveils the mystery of His grace.

Concerning the exact definition of beauty, Abraham Kuyper, the Protestant theologian and prime minister of the Netherlands from 1902 to 1905, wrote, “One could write volumes on that issue and never arrive at a definition.” (Wisdom & Wonder.) Even though it defies definition, people have a natural tendency to gravitate towards resplendent beauty which speaks of God. As Kuyper also notes, throughout history people have attributed value to beauty in nature and art, and as a result, wrongly idolized that beauty and attributed its worth to sources other than God. The inclination to gravitate towards and desire what is beautiful nonetheless reflects an innate knowledge that there is a difference between what is good and what is bad. “Despite the fact that it is repeatedly abused by sin and Satan,” Kuyper tells us, “the realm of beauty, together with beauty in and of the world, proceeded in its origin and essence from God’s decree, and is to be valued as his creature.”

Even the seemingly mundane aspects of nature testify to the supreme artist’s glory and demand the viewer’s awe. This artist spoke emerald blades of grass into the soil, gave the cow her long lashes and spun the planets into organized orbital patterns. Each year, five million people visit Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona to gaze upon the dizzying formations of layered rock stretching over an expanse of 10 miles. The sheer magnitude of the created realm causes us to wonder at its grandeur and magnificence. These breathtaking and awesome displays of beauty in turn bear witness to the artistic virtue of God himself. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows forth His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).

The world also contains things that are ugly. Pain and sin have marred creation and mankind. Does the artist who believes God created the heavens and the earth allow this sin to be presented in his work? O’Connor argued that her worldview better prepared her for presenting the reality of the “grotesque.”

The virtues of art, like the virtues of faith, are such that they reach beyond the limitations of the intellect, beyond any mere theory that a writer may entertain. If the novelist is doing what as an artist he is bound to do, he will inevitably suggest that image of ultimate reality as it can be glimpsed in some aspect of the human situation. In this sense, art reveals, and the theologian has learned that he can’t ignore it.

As O’Connor points out, the artist who is a Christian is not called to separate their Biblical theology from reality as they observe it but penetrate the human condition. (O’Connor later explains, to separate Christianity from the natural world reflects a “Manichean-type” theology.)  This does not mean that the artist should avoid the hopefulness of Christianity, but only that their worldview should equip them to find and present the beautiful that penetrates a fallen world. Artists are not to be commended for cultivating an appreciation for ugly and vulgar representations apart from goodness. The Christian worldview bears witness to a mystery of common grace within human nature.

Man-made beauty reflects creative capacities that have been bestowed by the creator. If art is good art — if it is true and if it is beautiful, then it bears witness to the Author of the good, true, and beautiful — whatever the themes. The celebrated author and artist, Makoto Fujimura, spoke about the moment he realized beauty belonged to God as he reflected upon God’s awesome love for sinful men revealed on the Cross:

… this historic figure of Jesus was not just this historic figure, but He was the one who was calling me all along through my creativity. And I realized, if this is true, if Jesus is the one who gave His life for me, so I would know love, the greater love that I have been longing for. If this is true, then that is exactly the paradigm that would allow me to understand beauty. Beauty I was creating, that I could see not just as a self-expression, but as an offering.

Beauty and art are subjects that cannot be exhausted, due partly to God’s amazing store of creative diversity imbedded in our creative abilities and the expanse of nature. R.C. Sproul, author and theologian, wrote in his article “The Christian and Art: Superficial" that today, “Christians have accepted a level of art that is marked by superficiality; art has become plastic, it lacks depth and substance.” We are not to abandon the importance of beauty as creation groans for renewal and release from sin. Instead, as proclaimed in “For the Life of the World,” “We need to rediscover the beautiful. Perhaps the greatest thing we can do is to behold. Behold our God. Behold 'His creation.”  

Featured image credit: deanna staffo. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). Image Cropped. Modified image not for reuse or distribution.

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Caroline Roberts is a writer and producer of the Acton Line podcast.