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Toward A Roman Catholic Aesthetics

John Kelleher

One fairly good scientific foray into the meaning of the word "aesthetic" is:
The so-characteristic blend of regular, ordered patterns alternated with surprise and uncertainty, common to all sensorial input judged as "aesthetic," may be a manifestation of man's curious, yet fundamental desire to exercise his superredundant neural network with biologically nonessential information-processing operations of changing or alternating complexity. [Roederer JG (1975). Introduction to the physics and psychophysics of music. New York: Springer-Verlag. p. 11]
This means that man engages in aesthetic activities because he likes to. But the word "aesthetic" is introduced here for a rather more serious purpose. For no one can with dehistoricized certainty distinguish any particular acts or embodiments that we would call 'art', or 'moral inquiry', or 'rationality' either from each other or from madness.

The basis of all postmodernism is that we are indeed not able to do this; or rather, its basis is that we assert that we can so distinguish, but over and over our assertions prove groundless, which we deny even to ourselves. Interestingly, the sharp modern distinctions between these modalities are also not made by most traditional cultures, including classical Greek culture, and indeed a growing recognition of the distinction between these modalities is over centuries and cultures a kind of marker for the growth of consciousness that is more "conscious." But what distinguishes postmodernism from everything that came before is its absolute refusal either to unify or to distinguish the modalities by appealing to a skyhook. (for more on skyhooks, see here).

A Catholic triniversity must therefore develop a theology of art, which is the same as a theology of waste, which is the same as a theology of superabundant particularity, in order to deal with "aesthetic" issues that are simply insoluble within a dehistoricized cosmology, and which are obviously deeply connected to key problems far outside "aesthetics." The following is one try at one part of the problem.

Within all art is the claim that, should any culture be or become what it would need to be or become in order to know that art and to care about it, the goodness of that culture would retrospectively justify the making of that art. Thus the "work of art" makes an implicit moral claim:

A culture would have to be good, in some respect, in order to know the art and to care about it
A culture would have to become different than it is to know the art and to care about it
the culture would then be better
the art might then stand revealed, not as a dehistoricized "beautiful," but as "more beautiful than" some existing rival art with which it could and should be compared
the art would stand revealed as free, as a waste, as a superabundant particularity, freely, covenantally, available as a medium for worship in Christ
To put this in slightly less elevated and perhaps even more appropriate terms, this is what all art claims about itself: that it is something good to eat. Yet the questions can still be asked: is the claim true, should it be eaten, how should it be eaten? And thus (although this may be true in a specific case only in a severely trivial sense) all art, all moral acts, all science, all rationality confirm an historical culture in its goodness (or confirm it in the non-existence of sin), or urge a culture to become either better or worse than it is, and therefore call the culture to moral decision about what it eats and how it eats what it eats; since there is no understanding without background knowledge, in the end much more than individual men are confronted by any of man's works. And in its acceptance or rejection of those works, a culture judges both the works, and itself.

Further, the superabundant particularity, the waste, of the Good Creation of mice and men, of works of art, of moral acts, of science, of rationality is a constant reproach to man. So much of the world is eaten before man even gives it a name. Unless man abandons dehistoricized cosmology, he inevitably enslaves himself and the world, and as a consequence he can never experience the superabundant particularity of the Good Creation; and yet, when he finally does experience the world's superabundant particularity he often experiences it as a waste, as a cosmos entirely too teeming and as a consequence nearly void of meaning.

If man acknowledges his radical historicity he then finds that he is continuous with a world in which the thousand nameless lions eat the hundred thousand nameless gazelles, over and over; in which a million true gifts of art, of science, of rationality, of love may never be received, because never even noticed, by the recipients; in which the Watchmaker produces far too many watches, of far too various a quality; in which the life not only of lions and gazelles but also of every man may seem a work of art produced for no audience, a sheer waste.

But the point is - and this postmodernism faces - there really is no audience. The art is a waste. Man is continuous with a radically historical world in which no dehistoricized One watches the show from the clouds and in watching thereby gives the world's performance, its ceaseless teeming eating of itself, its necessitating meaning. And how happy some must be to feel that Godot is not presently watching, that they are instead Waiting for Godot to appear; for then, at least in the interval, they may rest, and pass the time (as best they can) in their own way. For, if Godot is watching, and the world has no meaning unless Godot watches, then the world must perform without rest, unceasingly: The Show Must Go On, for exactly as long - exactly as long, unceasingly - as Godot wishes.

Hence, to remove oneself from history is not to find rest, but to find that the postmodernists were right all along. To rely on Godot for one's meaning is automatically to find that one has no rest, ever; that one's every breath is taken in desperate, striving slavery to a spectacle: the insistent performance of a snake, eating its own tail, six billion characters in search of an author, for someone else's amusement, to understand that Vladimir and Estragon were not miserable, but lucky indeed, that Godot never showed up. And yet to reject that world of slavery is to be continuous with a radically historical world, to be continuous with the world of superabundant particularity, of waste, of art, of free human acts, of morality, of rationality. This is the unbearable burden made the sweet yoke only as a consequence of the New Covenant in the Eucharistic sacrifice.

Who am I, Lord,
That Thou shouldst love me,
And offer Thyself
For my sake?
We have it all backwards because we have all of it backwards. That is, even to begin, we face backwards, and proceed from there. No wonder our search to reconcile waste with superabundant particularity, with freedom, with art, moral acts, and rationality, seems fruitless. Always we forget to turn around, to make our re-conversion toward the Most Holy Trinity. Always we forget that the first word of the Catechism is: God.
God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. [CCC 1]
He lavishes himself on us, even to his death, death on a Cross; and that is the beginning of all things, and their true end. To begin as if the Eucharist did not exist is to refuse to begin, but instead to turn away as the first step. Yet we do so turn away, every day, as if we can not bear even the thought that God would ceaselessly waste himself on this pathetic world. His sheer goodness rebukes all our temptations; and thus every day we need to confess this most unoriginal sin, our turn away from the Tri-uniate God who perfectly and unceasingly wastes himself on us, and on all our world, and turn back, and in our misery profess that
In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God,
And the Word was God.
Everything begins with a sheer waste: a free creation, that is nonetheless a plan of sheer goodness. We can hardly bear the thought, and so we flee into a world where 'waste' is repellent. We turn from Him, who wastes himself on us, and on our kin for all generations, and on the totality of what exists:
The beginning of sin and man's fall was due to a lie of the tempter who induced doubt of God's word, kindness, and faithfulness. [CCC 215]
And with waste repellent merely, unable to be associated with words like 'plan' and 'goodness' and 'free', then we begin to be slaves. So as not to 'waste' our time, our pleasure, our power, we make a god of necessity, or of blind fate or chance. But the worship of the Church stands forever in the way:
We believe that God created the world according to his widom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance. [CCC 295]
All art, all moral acts, all science, all rationality, rest on the 'waste' of God, given in the New Covenant in his blood, given in the Eucharist, and the Covenant is inseparable from the revelation of creation. [CCC 288] That Catholics have not begun there when they have thought about aesthetics is patent. Sooner or later Catholic thought about art has moved away from freedom, from superabundant particularity, from waste, and found false comfort in necessity. That is, sooner or later the most venerable Catholic thought explains art in terms of necessity, in terms of what is in principle predictable, in terms of what can make art subservient to a pre-existing Principle or Scheme. Sooner or later, in all this thought, 'beauty' or even 'truth' is defined utilizing fundamentally pagan terms, which of their nature can make utterly no reference to the sheer waste of God, which is the true beauty, which is the true wisdom, which is the true freedom, which is "a plan of sheer goodness"; and at that instant a Roman Catholic aesthetics - rather than a fundamentally pagan aesthetics constructed by those who may be Roman Catholic - once again is stillborn.

But art is first a free and thus a moral act of man, and thus per se is not bound by necessity, but rather per se is free and thus capable of free obedience to God's sheer goodness, which "is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance."

As Catholics move toward a truly Roman Catholic aesthetics, they must remember to begin that movement as part of their daily reconversion to the Most Holy Trinity, God who gives himself - who wastes himself - on man and on the totality of what is, in and through the Eucharistic One Sacrifice.

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