Art is Meant to Disturb, by Kathryn Claahsen

I thought Good Friday would be an excellent time for this guest post by Kathryn Claahsen. I hope you all find it as thought provoking and interesting as I did!


Two years ago I was taking a painting class at the Art Institute in Chicago. It was a class which involved copying the original masterworks in the galleries, and I tended to attract a lot of interesting comments as I lugged my three-foot-square canvas across town along with a carpet bag of supplies. One particular morning I was waiting for a train, and a hipster with a guitar walked up to me and asked about my peculiar load, so I told him about the program at the Art Institute, and he said “oh yeah, I went to that museum a while ago”. Of course I asked him what his favorite picture or display was.  His eyes were thoughtful as he sat down and lit a cigarette. “A lot of the paintings I didn’t think were that interesting, but then I came into this room that had a huge picture that took up most of the wall, of these dead animals on a table. It just grabbed me. I must have stood there at least an hour. It made me really think. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”

I found his story to be quite moving. When I saw the painting for myself (Frans Snyder’s Still Life with Dead Game, Fruits, and Vegetables in a Market. 1614), I thought of the offerings in the Jewish temple. It was elegant and sobering, like the sacrificial lamb offered for our salvation. The paradox of beauty and death which I saw in this painting reminded me of an address that Pope Benedict XVI gave back in 2002, before he was pope, to the Communion and Liberation movement. He talks about two scriptures which are read together in the divine office during Lent, the first from Psalm 45 where Christ, prophetically, is called “fairest of the sons of men”, and the second from Isaiah 53: “He had neither beauty nor majesty nor anything to attract our eyes, no grace to make us delight in him.” Benedict takes the apparent contradiction of these two verses to be in reference to Christ’s passion. Pilate told the crowd Ecce homo! Behold the man, in order that they might be repulsed and discouraged – and yet in every Catholic church we find a crucifix, a representation of the God-man enduring the most humiliating and painful death imaginable. Benedict reconciles this difficulty by claiming:  

“it is not merely the external beauty of the Redeemer’s appearance that is glorified: rather, the beauty of truth appears in him, the beauty of God himself who draws us to himself”. (Ratzinger 2002)

The beauty of truth. What is that truth, and how do we understand it? There have been many definitions of beauty purported over the ages. Plato called it the visible form of the good (Plato 380 BC, 508e2–3), so it would seem that there are as many understandings of beauty as there of the good. In the Republic, Plato says that the purpose of the arts is for the regulation of the state – that the artists, dramatists and musicians are to depict scenes of virtue of vice so that the public is led to examine whether their passions have been correctly ordered, if they rejoice and mourn over the correct things. Aristotle’s Rhetoric addresses the power of directing an audience’s emotions, how the orator should play upon the sympathies of others in order to win them over to the idea he is trying to advance. Art movements have always been defined by political sensibilities, as advocating a particular group or message.

Particularly in traditional Catholic circles, the standard of beauty goes back to the definition by St. Thomas Aquinas, pulchrum id quod visum placet, that which, on being seen, pleases (Aquinas 1274, I.Q5.A4). This goes back to the Greek ideal of order and participation in an ideal form. Aquinas proposes three components to be fulfilled in order for an object to be called beautiful, namely, integrity, harmony, and clarity. These provide for a strictly realist understanding of the arts and leave very little room for creative interpretation. Applying the Aquinas standard to the statue of a human figure, it must have all its parts (so that excludes the Winged Victory or the Venus de Milo, which are missing their head and arms respectively. The parts must all be perfectly proportionate (this excludes the elongated figures of El Greco), and its meaning must be clearly, without ambiguity as to the subject matter.

The Catholic Church prevailed upon St. Thomas to define matters of important doctrine, such as Transubstantiation, which had never been formally delineated according to the principles of philosophy and logic. His opinions and modes of phrasing were given great import, and his Summa Theologica is still a vital masterwork seven hundred years later. Aquinas’ standards of beauty were taken as definitive in scholastic circles at a time when Western Civilization was entering the Renaissance and reviving the Greek and Roman ideals from ages past. We see those same ideals in the works of Michelangelo, Botticelli, Tiepolo, Caravaggio, and many others whose frescoes and statues adorn churches and museums throughout western Europe. Their works reflect a philosophical movement which heavily emphasized tradition, based on a certain nostalgia as well as the struggle to emerge from the Dark Ages into a time of greater erudition and learning.

It is important to note that the standards of the Renaissance and even of Thomas himself were never meant to lull the Catholic or academic world into a false sense of complacency. In Michelangelo’s figures, one invariably finds a complexity, a vitality, whether it be the hesitation in the David or the serenity in the faces of the Pieta. His works were deemed scandalous at the time, the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel proclaimed “too obscene” to be featured in a church by the papal master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, who said that the shamefully nude figures belonged in a bathhouse or tavern, certainly not in a place of contemplation and prayer.

For those who believe that the purpose of beauty and the arts is to be soothed and gratified on a superficial level, I would direct them to Pope Benedict XVI’s Meeting with Artists from 2009, an address which he delivered in front of the Last Judgment painting in the Sistine Chapel:

“An essential function of genuine beauty…is that it gives man a healthy shock, it draws him out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum – it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it reawakens him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft.” (Ratzinger, Meeting with Artists 2009)

He then goes on to quote the French painter Georges Braque: “Art is meant to disturb”. These are shocking words from Pope Benedict, especially since he has such a false reputation as a reactionary wedded to the past. What he proposes is radical, in the original sense of the word, from the Latin radix, or root. He wants to strip away a false sense of security. In that same address he says,

“Too often, the beauty that is thrust upon is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed; instead of bringing him out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy.” (Ratzinger 2009)

There are many people today who find themselves unable to identify with our traditional depictions of beauty – the Grecian lovers, blonde Madonnas, and Victorian pastoral scenes seem to have no bearing on today’s culture.  I’ve seen people stand in front of masterpieces by Renoir and Botticelli and say, “I guess that scene is pretty, but it seems kind of silly at the same time. If this lady in the big bustle has only the cares of how she’s going to change her clothes seventeen times a day, or if I see pictures of saints sitting around with dewy complexions and jewels in their hair, it makes me think that I’m not good enough, that there’s something wrong with me. Other viewers might see the naïveté depicted as a sort of escapism, but for me it causes me to feel trapped and isolated.”

Because of that skepticism which exists in our present day, I find it necessary to examine the philosophical shift that occurred between the Renaissance and our present day. The Age of Enlightenment began in the late seventeenth century and emphasized a rugged individualism that threw off the schools of thought of Plato and Aristotle, and begged the question of what we as human beings actually know and experience without being locked into a set of platitudes and just spouting off a set of words without knowing what they mean. What is the essence of man? A rational animal, according to Aristotle’s definition (Aristotle 350 BC, I.13). Does anyone know what means? Does that definition cover what a man is?

This academic revolt chiefly originated in France, as a response to the superficiality and excess of the upper classes. Proponents of the Enlightenment included such intellectuals as Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke, Descartes, Newton, Kant, and Adam Smith. It took a while for their practical ideals to take hold in artistic circles, but when it did, we became introduced to the idea of subjective perspective. Not everyone views things in the same way or has the same experience.  This is what set the groundwork for the Impressionists. Before they came along, if you were doing a painting of a woman sitting on a hillside and you wanted to put a pink spot on the grass, and blue on her hair, and green on her face, the public and art critics would tell you “those colors don’t belong there, there are no pink flowers in the grass, the woman isn’t seasick and her hair is black, now go in there and blend those colors properly”. Then what painters like Pissarro were able to accomplish was to show that these colors were part of how he viewed the scene, how he saw the light distributed and what surfaces reflected off each other. This was groundbreaking. What Pissarro, Monet and Van Gogh set out to do was not to give a literalist interpretation of the most basic shapes and colors present in their subject matter, but to isolate different nuances to get people to think about the subject in a different way.

There is no need to define beauty according to some reductionist formula, saying there is a golden standard which all objects must meet before they can be deemed beautiful or worthwhile. If such a standard even exists it must be taken relative to the particular object, as Edmund Burke points out in his treatise on aesthetics. We say that both swans and peacocks are beautiful, while from a purely objective standpoint it would appear that the swan’s neck and peacock’s tail are both in gross disproportion to the rest of their respective bodies (Burke 1757).

Another example of this relativism and how it affects one’s conception of beauty would be the proposal from David Hume that:

“One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others.” (Hume 1757)

More commonly understood as beauty being in the eye of the beholder, we see this attitude in the adoring mother whose child can do no wrong, or in the adulating husband who is convinced his wife’s beauty surpasses that of Helen of Troy. One cannot possibly draw a universal inference from such a subjective experience. An individual may be pleased or gratified by any number of idiosyncratic qualities without having to give an account for why he should love those things.

Eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant had his own terminology to describe the process:

` “If we wish to decide whether something is beautiful or not, we do not use understanding to refer the presentation to the object so as to give rise to cognition [or reason]; rather, we use imagination to refer the presentation to the subject and his feeling of pleasure or displeasure. Hence a judgment of taste is not a cognitive judgment and so is not a logical judgment but an aesthetic one, by which we mean a judgment whose determining basis cannot be other than subjective.” (Kant 1790)

Simply put, Kant means to say that our experience of a particular object, such as a film, a sunset, or a French dinner, really says more about us and how we are affected, than about the qualities of the thing itself. Whether we like or dislike something has to do with referring the experience back to something in ourselves. Is this due to some flaw in our characters, if we fail to enjoy something which represents a good to other people? It is a possibility. Those judgments of taste that reflect idiosyncratic bias, ignorance, or superficiality are not as good as judgments that reflect wide-ranging acquaintance with various objects of judgment and are unaffected by arbitrary prejudices.  We should be aware of what is valued in different times and cultures before judging according to our own isolated standard and calling something objectively good or beautiful.

That is not to say that good or beauty does not exist, only that people have different understandings, and that one cannot speak to a select group of people through the medium of art without taking their cultural or geopolitical bias into account. Eastern cultures have different modes of musical harmony than ours. African and Aborigine tribes take great pride in their piercings and tattoos. Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau go off into the woods to commune with nature and rediscover man’s originally primitive state. There is nothing wrong with any of these avenues for discovering beauty in some way and using that experience to reach God. There are as many ways to God as there are souls, as Pope Benedict said in his 1997 book Salt of the Earth. We need to make people receptive to the idea of a higher calling, to the concept of salvation, but in so doing we must first understand what it is that they value and call beautiful.

Today we find ourselves in a post-modern era of despair and hopelessness. Modernity was defined by its progressive attitude, favoring productivity over contemplation of final causes, and issuing in an era of technology and hyperactivity. Likewise, postmodernity is characterized by an ultimately nihilist outlook where nothing seems to really matter because we’re all going to die anyway amidst a lot of pointless suffering. Beauty seems to have no place in this bleak landscape. There is no concept of goodness or sin, merely a dull and aching Angst, wherein “I don’t need to fight to prove I’m right; I don’t need to be forgiven.” (The Who 1971) The ugly is valued in today’s art world, because it is what the people understand, and this deep-seated inner turmoil is not to be written off lightly.

In the address which Pope Benedict gave as Cardinal Ratzinger, which I mentioned at the beginning of this talk, he says that a purely harmonious concept of beauty is not enough. It cannot stand up to the gravity of today’s questioning about God. (Ratzinger 2002)

What people need in today’s society, as they have always needed, is to be validated in their own experience, while at the same being challenged and made to see that their experience is part of a universal aspiration for what is good and true and beautiful. It is because we fundamentally want things to make sense that we become so discouraged by seeing the suffering in the world and find ourselves incapable of remedying it by our own power.

The cynics of this world are disappointed idealists. Nietzsche once said that “Man can undergo the how of anything, if he only understands the why” (Nietzsche 1889). He was one of the fiercest atheists of the modern era, and yet that line makes him a figure of pity, as we realize that he was only looking for some kind of redemption all along. People are hurting, their souls are aching for compassion, for the sight of someone who knows how to suffer as they do and yet can bring some good out of it. And to this end God gave us his only-begotten son.

It is not enough to rely on the Greek ideals from the past concerning beauty and goodness. What Christ reveals in his passion and death is that he has entered into the suffering and ugliness of our human condition, and has transformed it into the means of our salvation. When Dostoevsky says that beauty will save the world, Benedict tells us that this is in reference to the beauty of Christ’s redeeming love for us, the love that went to the very end, so as to show us that death does not have the final word, and that we are capable of achieving eternal life.


Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. 1274.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. 350 BC.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime. 1757.

Hume, David. “Of the Standard of Taste.” Essays Moral and Political, 1757.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. 1790.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols. 1889.

Plato. Republic. 380 BC.

Ratzinger, Josef Cardinal, as Pope Benedict XVI. Meeting with Artists. 2009.

Ratzinger, Josef Cardinal. The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty. 2002.

The Who. Baba O’Reilly. 1971.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *