Friday, November 23, 2007

Updike on Beauty: Refocusing the Eye of the Beholder

(reflection on a couple of readings in DUE CONSIDERATIONS, a collection of prose by John Updike, published this past month.)

An earlier article in this blog takes up the age-old question, "Is beauty merely a matter of opinion?" (see March 27, 2007

Skirting a definitive answer, John Updike provides a succinct partial answer. "The beautiful is, from one perspective, simply what we need -- a meal to the hungry, a bed to the weary. . . ." But "appreciation of beauty is empathy with a creator." Updike, whose aspiration to be an artist was sidetracked by writing, describes the way a painting by Vermeer draws the viewer into "an ordinary world re-created by a human hand and eye, and our sense of the beautiful becomes a kind of awed applause at another human being's extreme and tender skill" (Due Considerations 663-4).

In the context of an article on "the future of faith," Updike describes the negative of his Vermeer experience. On a vacation in Italy, feeling the ubiquitous images from the life of Christ becoming "a repetition like that of certain maddening television commercials," Updike took in a contemporary art exhibition, he writes,

"I made my way from one pavilion to another, exposing myself to artificial fog and upside-down dandelions... unintelligible whispers and showers of magenta dust... a room of electronic numbers.... Everywhere, abrasive irony and nihilism. ... The desire to shock the hardened art connoisseur into some kind of response had become veritably frantic; there was hardly an inch of the void, of disgust, of scorn left to expose, in this age of post-faith. Only the vegetation and the other spectators... belonged to a world I wanted to be in, a world I could recognize to be continuous with the world of my childhood" (32).

The two passages meet in "religion" in its broad original sense of "connection" (as in ligament). The glass of water, the youthful museum-goers, the painting by Vermeer, and a stand-out painting of the Annunciation connect to the beholder's physical need or remembered experiences. The works of art connect the viewer to the creators' minds. The ugly works deny connection, except in the way they divide their audience into camps of those who look for beauty and those who deny that beauty has any reality beyond the eye of the beholder.

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