Relaymedia

American Beauty

Feb 11, 2003 01:54 PM EST

For much of the twentieth century, a trip to a museum or concert hall could turn into an ordeal—especially if what was being exhibited or performed was created after World War I.

Many artists believed that the purpose of their creations was to shock and disturb their audiences. They viewed their work as part of an avant-garde whose goal was to overturn respectable opinion and sensibilities. And they deliberately severed the connection between art and beauty. Among art elites, concern with beauty is equated with conformity and a lack of creativity.

Their musical colleagues shared similar beliefs. Much of twentieth-century music is euphemistically called "challenging." What is really meant is that it is dissonant, harsh, and, yes, ugly. Just as the visual arts forgot about beauty, music forgot about melody.

This is all changing. There are new artists who reject the avant-garde status quo—an oxymoron that exists only in the art world. And they embrace what draws us to art in the first place: beauty.

A PBS program, titled "Art Under the Radar" and hosted by Ben Wattenberg, introduced viewers to what Wattenberg called a "resistance to the cult of the new and the shocking." Instead of criticizing and attacking their audiences, this resistance seeks to create objects of lasting beauty.

The three artists featured—Paul Georges, Janet Fish, and Jacob Collins—differed greatly in their approaches and their influences. As a result, the audience for their work probably doesn't overlap. Yet they all represent an aesthetically justifiable alternative to the spiritually impoverished and creatively sterile stuff that has gone by the name of art in recent decades.

In music, the resistance to avant-garde ideas is further along, especially in the United States. As music critic Robert R. Reilly puts it, the ideology that produced atonal and dissonant works is "alien to our nature." It was the product of a Europe that had "largely destroyed its culture."

In response, some American composers are re-embracing "melody, harmony, and rhythm." They regard music as a "medium for beauty," as do the artists Wattenberg profiled. Examples cited by Reilly include the late Samuel Barber and more recent examples like Stephen Gerber and Lowell Lieberman.

The result of this commitment to melody is what Reilly describes as a "sweeping grandeur"—words that have never been used to described avant-garde art or music.

This rejection of the avant-garde and re-embracing of beauty testifies to Christianity's continuing influence on Western culture, no matter how much elites try to suppress it. As art critic Bryan Appleyard of the London Times wrote, Christianity taught the West how to think and create. Great Western art embodies Christian ideas about how creation is supposed to reflect the goodness, order, and intelligence of its Creator.

Without this idea, art is left without a moral core or purpose. It becomes "alien to our nature" and morphs into what art critic Hilton Kramer calls the "free-floating hostility to life" that characterizes much of modern art.

There are encouraging signs that art might once again be nourished by a Christian vision of truth and beauty—good news for the creativity of artists and for their audiences as well.

By Charles Colson