Lecture questions historical concepts of beauty
Jennifer Flanagan | Sunday, February 8, 2015
David O’Connor, an associate professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, encouraged audience members Friday to think more broadly about the history of concepts of beauty in his keynote address at the 10th annual Edith Stein Project Conference in McKenna Hall Auditorium.
“What I wanted to do, to start out the conference, was to think in a pretty broad and historical way about how there have always been tensions surrounding the status of beauty,” he said.
There is both a biblical and philosophical history to the tensions of beauty evident in two formative passages found in both disciplines, O’Connor said: the creation story in Genesis and Plato’s Phaedrus.
The creation story in Genesis is biblically the most formative passage about beauty because it shows the connection between God’s creative power of man and man’s creative power of beauty, O’Connor said.
“God is the absolute creator, and so when we reach the passage in Genesis that God will create humans beings in the image and likeness, the primary reality is that we will share in God’s creative power – we will be procreative,” he said.
O’Connor said the Genesis passage emphasizes how the creative power humans possess as images of God is best expressed by humans’ ability to procreate.
“It is actually through our sexuality that we image God,” he said. “The ability to bring a human life out of love from the point of Genesis is the power that shows us most immediately what God is giving us by letting us be created in his image.”
Forgetting the divinity ingrained in sexuality would corrupt the definition of beauty that is expressed as sexuality, O’Connor said.
“To reduce sexuality to something purely human would cut us off from something of which we are an image,” he said. “Imagine being an image and no longer remembering … of what you are an image.”
O’Connor, who next referenced the philosophically derived tensions of beauty evident in Phaedrus, said beauty is proposed as a dangerous power. He said Plato describes beauty as a privilege that other great goods such as courage are not because beauty is immediately powerful to our senses.
Plato toys with the philosophical idea that human life can be improved without beauty, O’Connor said. Beauty, and the sexuality connected to beauty, is a power and therefore dangerous.
Although he said he agrees with Plato that beauty is a power, O’Connor said he warns against giving the power of beauty a negative connotation or avoiding it for fear of exploiting it.
“It’s a false simplicity to think that beauty is a bad thing,” he said. “Now, it’s equally a false simplicity to think that beauty is a always a good thing and to embrace the beauty of images.”
O’Connor said the example of religious art shows how people have always struggled to find a balance between the two poles of avoiding beauty for fear of exploitation or exploiting beauty.
Guido Reni’s painting “Saint Sebastian” was removed from a church after women confessed to sinning at the sight of it, O’Connor said. The painting was an example of how, despite religious intent, beauty can become an occasion of sin.
“The power of an image is not fully contained by the religious or moral narrative that it means to illustrate, and what escapes the frame is our response to physical beauty,” he said.
The examples of Reni’s “Saint Sebastian” and other similar paintings are proof of a need to find a way to live with the power of an image that we cannot contain, O’Connor said.
“We are created male and female in the image in God,” he said. “It is a great power and gift, and we cannot simply refuse the gift – even if we fear or know that we will misuse it. And those, for me, are the anxieties of beauty.”