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Subjectivity Overload
(r2hox / Flickr)

Subjectivity Overload


Dec 30 2013
The problem with sentimentality, porn, and emotion for emotion’s sake.

Among all the top and best-of lists, I noticed two lists in particular, celebrating publication covers: the first offered the worst Christian book covers of the year, and the second documented 60 years of Playboy covers.

It would seem that lists couldn't have less in common than these two. However, different as they are, both lists are partly rooted in a single problem: our culture's abandonment of objective beauty. We no longer distinguish between what Roger Scruton in his lovely book, Beauty, calls "aesthetic interest" and "mere effect." If beauty is entirely subjective, the only thing that measures its worth is "mere effect"—how it makes us feel.

Consequently, we have seen—as in these covers—the increasing acceptance of two art forms that produce divergent, but parallel effects: the sentimental and the obscene.

Catholic novelist and short story writer Flannery O'Connor offered a startling similarity between sentimentality and pornography. Sentimentalism is defined as an indulgence in emotion for emotion's sake, apart from the purpose of emotions. It is an indulgence like that offered by pornography. In her 1957 essay, "The Church and the Fiction Writer," published in the Jesuit journal, America, O'Connor explained the problem for the man (or woman) seeking either indulgence:

By separating nature and grace as much as possible, he has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliché and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene. He would seem to prefer the former, while being more of an authority on the latter, but the similarity between the two generally escapes him.

He forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment, usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence; and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite.

In our tendency to ignore the "slow participation" of our salvation in the flesh-and-blood sacrifice of Christ on the cross, O'Connor said, modern Christians too easily gloss over the pain of that sacrifice in order to arrive quickly at the pleasurable parts. We do this with sex and with emotions, in our art and in our lives. O'Connor explained:

Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite. Pornography, on the other hand, is essentially sentimental, for it leaves out the connection of sex with its hard purposes, disconnects it from its meaning in life and makes it simply an experience for its own sake.

Both sets of covers—those of the sentimental Christian books and those of the exploitative Playboy magazines—reflect parallel illusions of easy indulgence. Bad Christian art that reflects a lack of investment of time, commitment, craft, or skill presents the illusion that the Christian life is not worthy or requiring of the same. Pornography offers a similar illusion about sex.

We know from the Bible how much God cares about art, from the painstaking, detailed directions he gave about the adornments of his tabernacle to the varieties of literary art crafted within the scriptures. God's human creation is designed to imitate him through creating. Given this reality, no one more than Christians should be wary of art that is easy, cheap, or careless in either form or content.

When we repeat that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," we are avoiding objective judgment about the beauty of anything—or anyone. It just seems too mean. Or too hard. Or too both.

Never mind that beauty—like its counterparts, truth and goodness—has for most of human history been understood primarily as reflective of objective qualities, not subjective feelings. This idea might seem like one best suited for the art history or philosophy classroom, but the church's abandonment of the classical understanding of beauty has reaped consequences that affect all of us. The cultural belief that truth is relative, in fact, followed the widespread acceptance that beauty is merely subjective. Those of us who believe in objective truth would do well, therefore, to reclaim an understanding of the objective qualities of beauty—no easy task, but an important one for believers nevertheless.

This notion that judgments about beauty are as subjective and individual as taste in colas has produced a degradation of beauty that has spilled out of the museums and into our everyday lives wherever we see bad art mistaken for good. While there is a place for bad art—on the waiting room walls of the dentist's office, for example, or on the television at night when you just want to unwind—no longer being able, or even willing, to recognize the difference is a problem.

Perhaps, then, as Christians, we should be no more accepting of art that diminishes the weight of God's glory than that other kind of obscenity that diminishes his gift of sexuality.

(Photo by r2hox / Flickr)

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