Beauty and utility (or form and function)

In my post where I wrote about a recent crisis of confidence and some corrective thoughts on creativity, I mentioned the wider topic of beauty and creativity pointing to God.

I think sometimes as Christians we hear so often that when we interact with those around us we need to present the good news about Jesus to them comprehensively and with great clarity, that not only do we often attempt to awkwardly shoehorn the whole gospel into a conversation, but we also tend to think that Christians cannot make art which is not explicitly Jesus or gospel-focused. That somehow without an explicit presentation of the gospel the art loses its validity.

Then I heard a conversation between Jonathan Rogers and Dr Irwyn Ince on The Habit Podcast which was a perfect antidote to that.

And once again of course all this was prompted by my Brazilian bird poem mini-series.

Dr Irwyn Ince has made the following statements:

“Beauty calls us to embrace mystery and transcendence that has its roots in God. … It points us to God as the source of all.”

“The pleasure of beauty is decentred delight in another.”

“Beauty is not about utility.”

Each of these was like a hammerblow for me. I don’t think I have ever really considered beauty as an abstract concept before.

The last excerpt of the conversation that I wanted to share really brought this truth home to me, and I think clearly shows where human nature would take us (and has already taken us).

“When you look at the civil rights movement and post civil rights you would hear African Americans use this term ‘Black is beautiful’. It became part of what African Americans would say and I argue that it’s not because in the history of America the primary message had been that Black was ugly but that Black was useful. […] [That] Blackness in America has only been about utility.”

I’m not really sure how to follow that as an extremely uncomfortable truth (for me as a white person). I would recommend listening to the whole episode here.

The conversation on The Habit Podcast moves on to showing how beauty in its lack of utility points to God. It is not an means to an end. So creating something to bring beauty is still a wonderful thing (and arguably remains a valid motivation). I’ve loved including the photos of birds alongside the poems because the birds are inherently beautiful. Whilst I am unable to provide an opportunity for another person to experience the birds in their own environment, I am able to choose images captured by highly skilled photographers which highlight the beauty of each bird, even though that beauty cannot be fully experienced by the reader / hearer / seer. While I cannot take you to the bird, perhaps in some small way I can bring the bird to you. Even as I choose which photos to include when composing the image to accompany the poem, I can still attempt to harmonise the photos and hope in this way to convey some of the beauty of the birds.

I think I’ve always considered myself to be a function over form sort of person, perhaps as a kickback against form over function people, but now I am coming to understand the balance of form alongside function, and the function of form and beauty as a pointer to the Beautiful One.

This is why I use photos taken by the pros! I love my own blurry zoomed in bird silhouettes but I appreciate that not everyone will. A canário da terra (saffron finch).

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