Over the past few weeks I’ve been planting trees on the property where I live and work in Murrumbateman, New South Wales. This region, with its cool autumnal nights and dry climate, is daubed at this time of year with glorious stands of golden, flame red, and deep claret leaved trees. It’s glorious. As I sat down to write, I was daydreaming out the window about planting a Turkey Oak in the front paddock.
Good looking trees are the first beautiful things described in the Bible. In the description of the garden the Lord God planted for his humans in Eden, the very first thing he did to make the garden a fitting place for his image bearers was plant trees. And the very first trees he planted were the beautiful kind—even before the edible ones. What does this say about God’s priorities?
We might be tempted to make a whole slew of claims about God’s relation to beauty from this innocent observation. For now, I’m interested in noticing that these trees invite attention. This is the meaning of ‘pleasing to the eye’—something about the form generates a desire in the observer (‘desire’ is the concept embedded in the Hebrew root translated as ‘pleasing’). The desire we experience is the desire to look at this thing, to attend.
Interestingly, the idea of focussed attention is already threaded powerfully through Genesis chapter one. It is often obscured by our (correct) emphasis on the description of God’s creative speech. All of creation springs into being by God’s word. But day after day in the Creation account, God’s speech-action is concluded with a moment of attention: ‘And God said’ is rounded out by ‘And God saw’ (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).
The rhythm of God’s looking should strike us. It is a description of evaluative judgement: ‘it was good’; and this repeated judgement is significant for the narrative as it moves toward the aloneness of Adam (‘it was not good’) and toward the disorder of the Fall. But behind this narrative purpose stands an unnoticed, yet important, true metaphor: God looks at stuff.
When God plants good looking trees into the Garden, he invites his humans into a shared activity of mutually focussed attention. A beautiful tree is beautiful precisely in that it is worth looking at together. That’s the reason for planting them. I want to share the beauty of these autumn leaves with others, even if our moments of looking together are separated by decades. It’s the same reason that might drive me to paint them or photograph them. I make an appeal for mutually focussed attention on this object.
There is a great deal of fascinating sociological theory and research into the importance of shared attention spaces. Specific forms of mutually focussed attention underpin and constitute our most fundamental social structures. Shared attention is the substance of our experiences of communion. As a Christian, I think Genesis gives an aetiology of this: we are ‘attending’ creatures because God invites us to shared attention. Our fundamental experience of this is in worship, when we attend to him and join in his own intra-trinitarian mutual attention. This is the ‘one thing’ that David desires: ‘to gaze on the beauty of the Lord’ (Psalm 27:4). David wants to gaze because the Lord is beautiful. He is a fitting object of sustained, focussed attention. Attending to him with others is the ultimate divinely intended basis of human communion. But the beauty of the Lord is not the only kind of beauty. His works are beautiful. Hence beautiful trees. And beautiful people: ‘How beautiful your sandaled feet, O prince’s daughter! Your graceful legs are like jewels, the work of an artist’s hands.’ (Song 7:1).
Let me advance two propositions about the relationship between beauty and art that might flow from these reflections: The first is that ‘beauty’ is the quality of a thing which authorises shared attention. What I mean is, beauty is the kind of thing that if someone asks, ‘why should I look at it?’ the answer, ‘because it is beautiful’ is all the reason you need give. This is fundamentally true of the Lord but it is also true in a secondary way of the world. I believe that there are such things in the world—beautiful things—because they are a testimony to the beauty of the Lord.
The second is that ‘art’ is a kind of working or making that appeals for shared attention. The power of art arises when many individuals respond to this appeal—focussing our attention where the work of art appeals— and find communion with each other in this shared attention space. The production of art is competitive because our capacity for shared attention is limited. Our experiences of art can be powerful because uniting people in acts of shared attention is the fundamental means by which humans change our social and material environment.
Art can be beautiful but it may not. The allure for the artist in making beautiful art is derived from my first proposition: beauty authorises attention. If a work of art is beautiful, we need no further justification in giving it our attention. Thus the artist who pursues beauty in art and succeeds, infallibly succeeds as an artist. A work of art may intend to be other things than beautiful, but if so, it requires some authority from these other things to demand our attention. It may be political or truthful, it can be urgent. It is these things when the appeal for attention seeks authority in truth or goodness. Thus the artist who pursues truth or justice through art may succeed as a prophet— succeeding in his appeal to us to give our attention to the thing revealed by the work—while in some sense failing as an artist— failing to justify our attention to the work of art itself. Does this just depend on your definition of ‘artist’? Perhaps, but I think most of us share the intuition that while beauty is not a necessary condition of Art, it is a sufficient condition for successful art.
C.S. Lewis, in a haunting passage from Till We Have Faces, places these words on the lips of Psyche (the soul). ‘The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing … to find the place where all the beauty came from.’ Christians have an answer to this longing in the beauty of the Lord, the Creator. As Psyche goes on to say, ‘All my life the god of the Mountain has been wooing me.’
Yes. He has been wooing us from the moment he planted good-looking trees. The glory and dignity of the artist is simply a quintessence of the glory and dignity of a human. It is the graciously given capacity to make appeals to each other to ‘Look’. Humans are made of and for shared attention. Whether to plant or paint good looking trees, or to rush inside at the sunset and call your family, ‘come and look’, each is to invite others to attend to the beauty of the world. And this is of a piece with the grander appeal to ‘see his glory’—ultimately the appeal to attend to the gospel— and in this shared attention find communion in worship.
 C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (Harcourt, 1980), p75.
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