Beauty and Art: Introduction

June 23, 2021

Beauty and Art: Introduction

William L. Peirson

When my co-editor, Dani, first proposed that Case Quarterly should devote its attention to the subject of beauty, I confess cynicism. Could this be a suitable topic for the public journal of a leading college at a leading international university?

However, I acquiesced and we started discussing what the edition could cover with potential authors. The enthusiasm with which the proposal was met—by both writers and readers—was overwhelming, leading us to produce not one, but two editions on beauty!

Our previous edition, The Beauty Paradox, focused on the idea of beauty in theology and Christian practice.

The current issue explores aspects of the relationship between beauty, art and Christianity. Renowned art scholar, Ben Quash, guides us through centuries of Western thought, tracing out the rise and fall of beauty, and illustrating this through key art works. From this grand canvas, we turn to two detailed studies, as local Christian artists Fiona Pfennigwerth and Philip Miles reflect on their own art, experiences, and choices. We thank them for allowing us to include instances of their work in the edition, including the cover image—Philip’s beautiful View from Govett’s Leap.

Observant readers may have noticed that our ‘Case in Point’ segments are a little light on in these ‘beauty’ issues—a consequence of splitting our content for the theme into two parts. In the current issue, our columnists all chose to write on the theme, drawing our attention to beauty in relation to God, and to cosmetic surgery, and asking whether AI can produce genuine beauty. Reviews of two significant books on art and theology complete the edition: A Peculiar Orthodoxy is the latest book by Jeremy Begbie, well known to us as a past New College Lecturer and CQ author; and Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, which was written as a response, 50 years on, to Hans Rookmaaker’s influential critique of modern art.

These editions probe some profound aspects of this ‘thing’ we call beauty, and prompted me to question my own discipline. Is engineering capable of creating beauty? Is natural beauty the ideal and artificial interference an inevitable scar on the landscape? Can engineered structures enhance existing beauty? Clearly they can and do—from the Eqyptian pyramids to the Millau Viaduct in France. But how often do such plans fall short, and the potential for beauty become compromised due to lack of funds, poor planning, or incommensurable outcome requirements?

Much of my recent work has been dedicated to dams—ensuring their safety and ameliorating their most significant environmental impacts. We have been able to create structures that provide a much higher level of water security in this land of droughts and flooding rains—a beautiful solution for agriculture—but their impacts on the aquatic environment have been significant.

Perhaps this is part of the futility of this present world which, the Bible tells us, God has imposed on it and our attempts to govern it (Genesis 3:14-19). No doubt you have similar experiences in your own work. Faced with such frustration, it’s tempting to despair. But this very longing for uncompromised beauty in our endeavours has the power to redirect our hope. As artists, appreciators of beauty, or even people who struggle with the flawed nature of our creations, our aspirations should point us back to the hidden beauty of the redemption Jesus offers through his hideous crucifixion and astonishing resurrection to point us forward to the yet-to-be revealed beauty of his glory.

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