The Beautiful Things, Episode 4: What is Art?

Season 5, The Beautiful Things, Episode 4: What is Art? (Part 1 of 2)

When we look at a piece of modern art, whether it’s a splash of paint trickled down a white wall or a banana duct-taped to a canvas, our immediate reaction is typically, “I don’t get it” or possibly, “yuck”. While we may feel pressured by modern “experts” or society in general to admit that maybe we just don’t understand the sophistication of this medium, we should feel comfortable in the knowledge that a banana taped to a wall has always been and will always be, “yuck.”

How can this be so, you ask, since beauty is in the eye of the beholder? In some cases it’s true that the individual can find something more pleasing to his eye than his neighbour might. For example, someone from China could find another someone from China more attractive than they would a Caucasian from America. But this would be like comparing a Da Vinci face and Caravaggio face and stating that you find one to be more beautiful while other people may have the differing opinion. What modern society and art scholars try to tell us is that the duct-taped banana face is as potentially attractive as the Da Vinci or Caravaggio faces. It’s not.

On this episode of Member-supported Restoration Radio ‘Season 5, The Beautiful Things, Episode 4: What is Art?’ Stephen Heiner and His Excellency, the Most Reverend Bishop Donald Sanborn explore the topic of beauty and discuss four famous images.  They begin with a critique of the mediaeval image of ‘The Madonna and Child’ followed by ‘The Trinity’ by Andrei Rublev from around the same time period. These two are simple pieces; and the Bishop - as is his wont - has strong opinions on them. Following these, they cover the famous work of Michelangelo, 'The Last Judgement’ which can be found at the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Finally they discuss the 19th-century paintings from the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Lyon in France.

Before discussing each piece at length, the Bishop describes exactly what we know beauty to be. For as Stephen perfectly states, “there is a Catholic way to look at everything.”

“Beauty is that which when it is seen, is pleasing" ~ St Thomas Aquinas

Saint Thomas perhaps oversimplifies the issue in this quote but it gives us good ground to start on. We can immediately expel many modern pieces from our interest as they lack any form of beauty. For instance, the giant, purple cardigan which was hung during Lent in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Austria is undeniably unpleasing. If it is unpleasant then it lacks beauty, if it lacks beauty then it is ugly, if it is ugly then it is ungodly and if it is not godly, it should not exist.

True beauty, however, isn’t only about what our eyes and brains interpret as being pleasing, and we have to have a deeper connection to a piece for it to be good art. Bishop Sanborn explains:

“We are speaking not merely about the vision of the senses but of the intellect. That is the principle vision. To see an essence, to see a nature, to see something that is intelligible.” He continues, “To give pleasure, things must have truth and goodness in them...The good of everything that exists is because it comes from God.”

Here is yet more proof against the taped banana. It does not raise our minds to God, it has no truth and no goodness in it and it clearly does not come from God. The best place for such monstrosities is in the garbage bin.

To start the show, Stephen warns listeners that some of their notions of the subject of art may be trampled upon during these critiques, but we are reminded that it’s not only about appealing to the senses.

“You have to get away from the idea of a photograph. Pay attention to the sacredness of the image. Iconic art (for example) does not appeal to the senses.” Bishop Sanborn explains, “The excitement to piety is far more important than beauty."

His Excellency applies the guidelines from the first half of the show into his critique of these four works of art; and in some cases they earn high praise and in others his words are nothing short of excoriating. The listener may be quite surprised to hear his opinions on the work at the Sistine Chapel.

If you are an art fanatic or simply want to have a better understanding of objective beauty, this show is a must-listen. You can find this show and many others of its sort at Become a member today and gain access to true Catholic content.

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TR Staff

True Restoration Staff