The False Idol of Beauty: Bl. John Henry Newman's Critiques of Aesthetics and the Challenge of Evangelization
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The False Idol of Beauty
Bl. John Henry Newman's Critiques of Aesthetics and the Challenge of Evangelization

Charles Taylor has shown how, in the romantic period, there arose a need to discover and express, on an individualistic basis, one's authentic human life. For the romantics, "nature as source" meant finding meaning and identity within the individual, and the most authentic experience of nature was the experience of sentiment. As Taylor notes, the romantics gave "a central and positive place to sentiments in the moral life," such that they took "the centrality of sentiment to unheard-of lengths."1 The need to construct an identity from the inner source of nature required attentiveness to one's sentiments or emotions. "Fulfilling my nature means espousing the inner élan, the voice or impulse," and this "expressive view of human life went along naturally with a new understanding of art."2 Throughout the late eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, continuing still today, argues Taylor, is a dissolution of "the distinction between the ethical and the aesthetic."3 The definition of aesthetics likewise changed in this time, so that, "along with a new understanding of natural and artistic beauty," aesthetics "focused less on the nature of the object and more on the quality of the experience evoked."4 If we accept Taylor's narrative and description of the modern person's [End Page 54] understanding of beauty, art, and aesthetics, then there are serious challenges to the possibility that beauty can serve as a useful source of evangelization. If the experience of beauty is merely about my experience of sentiment, and the creation of the beautiful is about the manifestation of individualistic and subjective sentiments, then it need not draw a person towards wonder, questioning, or search.

In this article, I argue that Bl. John Henry Newman came to view aesthetics in the way that Taylor describes, but that he also recognized the pitfalls of art as sentiment in cultivating Christian faith, virtue, and devotion. I argue that Newman understood artistic production, most often spoken of in relation to poetry, as the expression of sentiment, or the release of sentiment. Since the goal of artistic production was the communication of sentiment, the experience of sentiment was likewise the primary purpose and effect of viewing art. This led Newman to be very cautious about the experience of beauty as a means of evangelization, or, to speak more in his terms, as a means for growth in virtue and religious duty and devotion.

To show this, I would like to give a brief account of what we might call Newman's aesthetic theory. Of particular importance is Newman's assertion that beauty is self-sufficient, in that it does not point beyond itself, which is consistent with Taylor's account of expressivism. This then, as I will argue, has a formative impact on the imagination, so that depending on the perspective one brings to his or her experience of beauty, the imagination may be prejudiced against Christian faith. In this sense, taste or aesthetics becomes the standard for truth or goodness. In other words, something might be considered good or evil, true or false, based on the criteria of emotional experience caused by the perception of beauty in the object, action, or event. Newman's concern for the effects of beauty on an individual's religious commitments still hold today if art, in its production, but more importantly, in its reception (the way it is viewed) is about merely the experience of sentiments. The challenge is increased today, when a whole range of experiences of beauty are available through print and social media. [End Page 55]

The first point to note is that Newman and his fellow Tractarians received from the romantic movement the conception of art as the expression of personal sentiment. One of the main sources of Newman's aesthetic theory was John Keble, whom Newman called "the true and primary author" of the Oxford Movement.5 Keble published a volume of poetry, The Christian Year, in 1827, which gave the Oxford Movement its spiritual ethos.6 Over a decade earlier, however, Keble had already articulated what...