In earlier times, according to Stephen Hicks, professor of philosophy at Rockford University, artists focused on beauty and originality, but that changed at the end of the nineteenth century. Under the influence of the philosophies of skepticism and irrationalism, artists began to see their calling in terms of truth-telling; and the truth, from their perspective, was ugly. “The major works of the twentieth-century art world,” says Hicks, “are ugly.”
The performance arts have also become enamored with ugliness, preferring darkness to light, and antiheroes to heroes. Today, antiheroes are artistically interesting, but heroes are boring. Antiheroes represent truth. Heroes are a fantasy. These days, no one is making films with “High Noon” plots or Will Kane-like heroes. Darkness – think of the recent Batman films – is in vogue.
Literature, too, is filled with dark, tortured protagonists. Anne Shirley of Green Gables is false, Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye is true. Literary fiction is by dark by necessity. One of the worst things a critic can say about a writer is that they produce “lightweight, commercial” fiction.
The philosopher Roger Scruton illustrates this trend in his book, “Beauty: A Very Short Introduction.” He brings up Mozart’s comic opera, “The Abduction from the Harem,” which debuted near the end of the 18th century. The opera focuses on the love of Belmont and Constanze. When she was shipwrecked along the Turkish coast and forced to enter the harem of the ruler Selim, her lover heroically went to rescue her.
In 2004, 222 years after its premier, the opera was staged in Berlin. This time, the Turkish ruler was an urban pimp, his harem a Berlin brothel, and Mozart’s beautiful music was juxtaposed against wanton violence, mutilating torture, and nauseating sexual narcissism. All this, while words of faithfulness and compassion filled the hall.
In the contemporary art world, wanton violence, torture, and narcissistic sex are truth. Faithfulness and compassion are a lie. And since art is about telling the truth, many artists (and perhaps, even more art critics) think that art must be ugly.
Think, for example, of some of the art that has been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. There was “Fiction Collective 2,” which an NEA spokesperson called “a highly respected, preeminent publisher of innovative, quality fiction.” This quality fiction featured works about sexual torture, incest, and child sex.
Then there was Andres Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass of his own urine. Whether the piece was blasphemous, as many think, or a commentary on what society has done to Christ, it was ugly. That may explain why, when it was featured at an NEA-funded art competition, it took home the $25,000 prize.)
Ugliness in the arts reflects philosophies in the academy. If, as some in the academy have claimed, there is no truth or truth is all that is left after ontological reductionism has finished its work, then Yves Klein’s 1962 work, IKB 191 (a monochrome blue rectangle) was truth—for whatever truth is worth. Which is not much. Which is the point.
Ugliness in the arts not only reflects the theories of the academy, but it also expresses the darkness of our hearts. Jesus said bluntly: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”
Perhaps antiheroes attract us because heroic qualities are absent from our hearts. Perhaps we seek out darkness in the arts because it is in the darkness we feel least exposed. Perhaps every culture gets the art is deserves.
But thankfully, God gives us more than we deserve. He gives us beauty, and beauty is a signpost that leads to him. It invites us to believe there is more to this world than dark hearts and squalid ugliness – that there is light beyond the darkness and meaning beyond the emptiness. As long as we can delight in beauty, there is hope for us, for the beautiful God still beckons.