On Ugliness and Catharsis
There is a sense in many conservative cultural circles that all forms of modern art are somehow decadent or contrary to traditional ways of looking at the world. Beauty, in simple terms, seems to be under siege for many, and the weapons that are attacking it are hard rock, Webern string quartets, Joyce novels, Dylan Thomas poems, Picasso paintings, and the sculptures of Richard Serra, to name a few. For many conservative Christian theorists, to portray the ugly, the subconscious, and the dissonant is a very modern obsession that forms part of the anti-Christian revolution started at the Renaissance. It is deemed that such obsessions were not part of a classical and more human aesthetic.
Upon reading some texts of the fourth century Neoplatonic pagan philosopher, Iamblichus, it would is necessary for me to revise this view in saying that in many circumstances, the ancients viewed the representation of disorder as a fundamental part of their religious and philosophical conceptions of the world. Those familair with the thought of Frederich Nietzsche would recognize this as the balance between the Dionysian and Apollonian realms of expression and consciousness. An explanation of the thought of Iamblichus can further shed light on the German philosopher's suppositions.
Iamblichus in his work, De Mysteriis, writes an apology for the pagan cult against the accusations of another philsopher, Porphyry. Like the early Christian writers, Porphyry was uneasy with various unseemly forms that pagan religion took. Iamblichus at one point addresses one of his concerns, that of the establishing of large phalli in cultic rituals, and from there expounds the idea that the invoking of the base and unpleasant is a fundamental part of philosophical liberation and catharsis:
But I am of the opinion that the obscene language that then takes place [at the erection of phalli], affords an indication of the privation of good about matter, and of the deformitiy which is in material subjects, prior to their being adorned. For these being indigent of ornament, by so much the more aspire after it, as they in a greater degree despise their own deformity. Again, therefore, they pursue the causes of forms, and of what is beautiful and good, recognizing baseness from base language. And thus, indeed, the thing itself, viz. turpitude, is averted, but the knowledge of it is rendered manifest through words, and those that employ them transfer their desire to that which is contrary to baseness.
In the Iamblichean system, then, the representation of the base in art and religion reflects the longing of matter for the immaterial and the infinite. The only way to conquer the aethetically unpleasing is to confront it by showing what it is.
This exposure to the unseemly also can prove as a vaccine against the passions, as Iamblichus further writes:
The powers of the human passions that are in us, when they are entirely restrained, become more vehement; but when they are called forth into energy, gradually and commensurately, they rejoice in being moderately gratified, are satsified; and from hence, becoming purified, they are rendered tractable, and are vanquished without violence. On this account, in comedy and tragedy, by surveying the passions of others, we stop our own passions, cause them to be more moderate, and are purified from them. In sacred ceremonies, likewise, by certain spectacles and auditions of things base, we become liberated from the injury which happend from the works affected by them.
Thus, the bias of the Platonic system against matter is in a way nuanced, for it is not through escape from the unpleasant results of materiality that brings liberation, but rather their use in a type of catharsis that longs ever for the things beyond physical appearances. Even though many modern artists do not have this conception while conceiving their creations, we can view them ourselves in this manner. Whether it is listening to Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, reading a Sylvia Plath poem, or viewing a Jackson Pollock painting, we can see how far things have fallen from the beautiful, and how in their ugliness, they long for it again.
For me, there is also very much a cultural aspect to this unwillingness to accept the darker side of humanity in our own religiosity. As I wrote in another post, there seems to exist the idea in the Anglo-Saxon world that the best way to deal with existential catastrophes is to either ignore them or deal with them in a sterile way that never really accepts the human condition as it is. This may be due to the more affluent state of the faithful in these parts of the world, and also to the idea that the expression of suffering and pain is inappropriate for the public sphere. That is why religious art in churches here can be so clean and often without the feeling of a Spanish saint or a Baroque crucifix.
This is also the reason that I have criticized the idea that Byzantine iconography or medieval relgious art is somehow superior to other religious art forms because they are more "objective" and "sober". To exclue the reality of what occurs in the world under the guise of wanting to "transfigure" it can be escapist in the wrong cultural context. In the context of Ottoman Greece or Czarist Russia, such religious art may have avoided these pitfalls. (Though most of these places also adopted the "Italian" style alongside more traditional Byzantine forms, so speaking of distictions here is very complicated.) Thus, in our American religious culture that has no roots in apostolic Christianity, to argue for primitive iconography as purer and less scandalous to the eyes could merely be taken as aesthetic Protestantism carried out by other means.
I am not arguing here that one religious style is superior to another. What I am arguing is that some cultures may approach the world in a more wholistic way, and ours may not be one of them. That which is ugly, unseemly, and causes us discomfort may in the end be good for us. It may stir in us a longing for something that transcends this vale of tears. In religious art, especially in such forms as the Spanish baroque, it can inspire us to realize how much God emptied Himself in becoming man, and it can remind us about how people continue to suffer in our human condition, and that the most beautiful moment is when this suffering is overcome and transformed into redemptive love.