Everyone likes beauty. Why hang an ugly painting on your wall when you can hang a beautiful painting instead?
But for many Christians, there is a question that nags more deeply: Why hang any painting at all? I mean, the money spent on that painting could have been used to show compassion to someone who is hungry. It could have been spent on Gospel tracts. And besides, I could have written part of a sermon in the amount of time it took me to hang that picture!
Of course, I am only giving a caricature of “many Christians.” Few would state things in exactly those terms. But I think the caricature helps in framing an important tension that we should all wrestle with: Can we really justify “useless” beauty when people are suffering? Shouldn’t gracious social action come before artistic pursuits?
This is a question I have been wrestling with for a while, and I recently came across this excellent response from Leland Ryken. It is worth quoting at length:
“We are hardly ever faced with the absolute alternatives of combating social problems or pursuing the arts. Whenever we have to choose between enjoying artistic beauty and showing compassion to someone in need, we should of course do the compassionate act and forget about artistic beauty. But over the long haul, this is not the kind of situation people face. Nearly everyone’s life gives an abundant opportunity to enjoy art as well as serve one’s fellow humans. In fact, to encourage others in the wise use of leisure is increasingly an act of compassion.
Furthermore, I would dispute the common assumption that the arts are irrelevant to the solution of social problems. Many social problems have arisen precisely because our society has not taken the time and expended the energy to be truly artistic and to value beauty. It may sound simplistic, but it is true that some inner-city problems will be solved only on an aesthetic basis. If our society would uphold beauty as a value not to be violated, our cities would not be concrete jungles, and our streams would not be polluted.
Our practical modern world has regarded beauty as an extraneous luxury, and we are left in horror at the kind of world this attitude has produced. If we look honestly and deeply within the human spirit as created by God, we will find a hunger for beauty as well as for truth and righteousness. Have you ever seen some of the drawings done in the concentration camps of the Second World War? If we look beyond the human spirit to the God of the Bible and the God of creation, we will conclude that God does not regard beauty as the unnecessary pursuit of an idle moment.” (The Liberated Imagination (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1989) 83-84).
As with so many crucial issues, the right approach avoids the false dichotomy (either this or this). God has created us as whole beings, and we were created to function as such. Let’s not give up on the aesthetic beauty that God delights in, but let’s not let our pursuit of artistic beauty lead us away from moral beauty and compassion.