By Dr. Paul M. Gould

On October 5, 2018, the iconoclastic anti-establishment artist Bansky shocked the art world by destroying his Girl With Balloon print as the auctioneer’s gavel pounded the podium at Sotheby’s. Sold for $1.4 million pounds, onlookers watched with shock, awe, and confusion as the print was sliced into strips by a shredder hidden in the work’s frame. Sotheby was quick to spin the prank:

Banksy has a history with pranking art establishments, having previously pulled stunts in the Louvre, Tate Britain, the British Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Natur ns that long and distinguished list. [1]

The shredded work of art found new life too. Renamed Love Is in the Bin, the buyer plans to go through with the purchase: “When the hammer came down last week and the work was shredded, I was at first shocked, but gradually I began to realize that I would end up with my own piece of art history.” [2]

This episode raises a number of important questions:

  • Is beauty in the “eye of the beholder”?
  • Why do we seek art, and even pay good money for it?
  • Are art and beauty things only the rich enjoy—a luxury—or are they essential to a life of flourishing?
  • A superficial reading of the Banksy stunt might lead us to think that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that art is whatever we want it to be. First, we thought the Girl With Balloon was beautiful. Then, when it was destroyed—upon reflection, we decided the new work of art—“destroyed Girl with Balloon, a.k.a Love Is in the Bin—was beautiful. Art, on this reading, is that which shocks, tantalizes, and brings pleasure. We’ll pay for that. We’ll give millions for the opportunity to own a slice of “art history.” 

On a deeper reading of the Banksy stunt, however, we see the human longing for meaning, wholeness, and significance. Roger Scruton argues that beauty (and beautiful works of art) speaks to us of human fulfillment, “not of things that we want, but of things that we ought to want because human nature requires them.” [3] According to Scruton, beauty is an objective and essential feature of life. On this traditional view, beauty is not merely in the “eye of the beholder.” Rather, beauty is an objective feature of the world. It is part of the furniture of the universe. Moreover, beauty is essential to a life of flourishing, not a luxury. Recent research in social science supports this claim. Happiness is linked to beauty more than to wealth, relationships, career, or health! Instead, happiness is attained through “the cumulative positive effects of daily beauty.” [4] We flourish when we are surrounded by beauty. We want it. And we ought to want it. This is why the rich are moved to spend millions on Banksy “art” and the poor can’t help but create order and beauty and abundance out of poverty. We are naturally led to create and cultivate beauty, order, and abundance in our lives whether we live in a city of trash in Cateura, Paraguay or Kensington in London. [5]

But there is more. Augustine speaks of God as the “beauty of all beautiful things” reminding us that beauty too, like all other aspects of reality, finds its source in the divine.

How might this richer understanding of beauty inform our teaching, research, and relating as academics? Here are two ideas:

First, since beauty is an objective feature of the world, seek it in the things you study. Note the elegance of the laws of nature, expressed in mathematical formulas, and how it is suggestive of a Mind. Reflect on the beauty of a sunset or rock specimen or a cell and consider: What is the nature of the God of the sunset or rock or cell? Read for sheer joy an eloquent poem or story and consider: what kind of creature are we that creates stories and uses language? Reflect on the mystery of the mind-language-world connection and the mystery of a loving God that speaks the world into being. 

Second, incorporate beauty into your teaching, research, relating, and living. We flourish when surrounded by beauty. And we help others flourish also as we invite them to experience beauty. Some ideas to get started: add pictures to a power point presentation, spend time crafting eloquent and memorable lecture notes, create beautiful spaces in your office or home for relaxing, and most importantly, cultivate a life of virtue—a beautiful life—as you follow Christ.

 



[1] https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/oct/11/woman-who-bought-shredded-banksy-artwork-will-go-through-with-sale

[2] Ibid.

[3] Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 123.

[4] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/08/the-beautyhappiness-connection/375678/

[5] See the documentary Landfill Harmonics for the story of the “recycled orchestra” and the trash city in Cateura, Paraguay. http://www.landfillharmonicmovie.com