Editors’ Note: This week, we will be running a four-part series of essays on the necessity of beauty across contexts: art, homemaking, architecture, and education. This series examines the role of beauty in renewing culture. The first essay explores the role of beauty in art as a contrast to the subjective self-expression that defines so much creative work today. 

Many young people today feel pushed to authentically express themselves while simultaneously being pulled into groupthink and thoughtless imitation. Our culture promises fulfillment to those who “find themselves” through a creative passion, asserting their uniqueness and giving voice to their inner selves. Yet young people also yearn for acceptance and belonging within their peer groups, a dynamic that can breed conformity and imitation without a deeper purpose. 

What does this cultural moment have to do with competing philosophies about art? Why does art (real, beautiful art, not just self-expression) matter to the renewal of our culture? Why do most people who visit Princeton University’s campus think that the Gothic chapel is objectively more beautiful than the new art museum, which reminds some viewers of a portable air conditioner hanging out of a window? How does a view of art as self-expression give way to being transgressive in art—creating ugly things and holding them up as worthy of collective admiration?  

In this essay, I argue that there has been a shift from traditional conceptions of beauty, which saw art as participating in and revealing divine order, to more modern, romantic views of beauty that reject tradition and celebrate self-expression. Modern art and architecture reject traditional harmony and form, intentionally breaking with the past. This revolution in art is a sign of a more profound revolution in the understanding of the human person and the desire to change civilization as we know it radically. Recovering art as a participation in God’s governance, and as co-creating with God, is crucial to the healthy formation of young people, our places of worship, and our everyday lives. 

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The Romantic View of Art Rejects Metaphysics 

A romantic conception of creativity has taken root in modern Western culture—one that sees creativity as a pure form of self-expression, unfettered by universal principles, rules, or traditions. For the Romantics, each work is self-contained—it contains its rules and animating principles. This ethos of art as self-expression makes the viewer of art also look to find his (or her) self, not to truths beyond oneself. 

What did Romantic writers and artists believe about creativity that differed from previous eras? Sometimes, it is hard to know exactly, as words like transcendence and universality appear in their writings. As The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, “most of the romantics were poets and artists whose views of art and beauty are, for the most part, to be found not in developed theoretical accounts, but in fragments, aphorisms, and poems, which are often more elusive and suggestive than conclusive.”

What are some fragments of Romantic thought? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s review of Romantic aesthetics points out that Friedrich Schlegel asserted that “not art and artworks make the artist, but feeling, inspiration, and impulse” exemplifies the Romantic view of art. In a similar vein, William Wordsworth famously proclaimed, “poetry is passion,” and that “all good poetry [originates in] the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”  

For the Romantics, creativity was positioned as a raw, untamed force erupting from the depths of the individual psyche, disconnected from any externally imposed guidelines or structures. Feeling and emotion reigned supreme, with the artist’s ethos being one of pure, unrestrained self-expression. Any imposition of tradition or adherence to established forms was seen as a hindrance to the authentic creative impulse. 

The Romantic perspective fundamentally neglects the crucial roles that discipline, virtue, and tradition play in cultivating genius and fostering substantive creative works of art with lasting value. The Christian intellectual tradition about art, grounded in metaphysics, contrasts with Romanticism, as it sees creativity not as an act of pure self-expression detached from objective reality but rather as a way for the human person to participate in the ongoing creative work of God.  

Romantics, like empiricists and rationalists, focus on human experience but separate it from divine revelation. Romanticism claims that we can find the divine or the absolute within human creations or nature. The Romantic view of beauty has lost sight of the fact that we can know something about being as such—the field of metaphysics, the study of universal truths that transcend all human experience. 

But if being human is an inexhaustible mystery, we should use our intellect to illuminate this mystery further, including by pondering human nature. One view sees artistic creation and contemplation of art as part of the intellect—part of knowing the very mysteries of being human, including communion with God. The second view stops at talking about human experience at only the historical or psychological level, with no grand vision of a purpose or a direction. Whereas the first view of art is noble and profound, the second view lacks any notion of art as unveiling a transcendent truth.

Art as Participation in God’s Creativity 

The Fathers of the Church, such as Augustine, knew that material things and pleasures, even the most beautiful things in the world, don’t satisfy us for long. Our desires point to a wound within us, an incompleteness that only God can satisfy. God is intimate and immanent within us, but also transcendent and other. We can know the truththe unchangeable, perfect Godfrom the material. We can infer the existence of a creator from the creatures. Without a guide, our passions can distract us. There is an attractiveness, an allurement, to evil. We need God’s grace to discern true beauty. 

In her dissertation, The Training of the Imagination in the Published Works of Conrad Pepler, OP and Gerald Vann, OP, the Dominican scholar and educator Sister Thomas More Stepnowski argues that there is a great danger of the “hindered imagination”—one that is cut off from reason’s governance and the transcendent “cosmic harmony,” either blocked by a succession of distorted sense images or driven solely by disordered passions and appetites. In such a state, the human imagination loses its grounding and common sense, descending into a “fundamental break with reality” itself. 

To counter this fundamental break, Thomas Aquinas helps us understand how true art gives intelligible and material expression to the principles in nature that we perceive with our senses. As the great twentieth-century Thomistic thinker Jacques Maritain wrote in Art and Scholasticism, “artistic creation does not copy God’s creation, it continues it.” He continues, explaining that “the ancient maxim ‘ars imitatur naturam,’ does not mean: ‘art imitates nature by reproducing it,’ but rather ‘art imitates nature by proceeding or operating like nature, ‘ars imitatur naturam’ in sua operatione.  

For Maritain and others in this Christian philosophy of art, the artist’s task is not mere copying or photographic representation. Instead, art is a rational endeavor to manifest nature’s intelligible forms, principles, and radiant beauty. “What is required is not that the representation exactly conforms to a given reality,” Maritain explains, “but that through the material elements of the beauty of the work, there truly passes, sovereign and whole, the radiance of a form.” The profound delight and sense of satisfaction we derive from great works of art do not stem from their ability to mimic the surface appearance of things, “but from the perfection with which the work expresses or manifests the form, in the metaphysical sense of this word.” 

As the Romanian-American artist Ioana Beleca attests in an article in Dappled Things, “mindful copying” can serve as “a way of understanding not only the technical aspects of an artist’s work but how artistic decisions impact meaning and how successful the artist ultimately is in communicating it.” 

In this light, the creative act is not an exercise in pure novelty or radical self-expression, severed from any grounding in objective truth. Instead, authentic creativity is a way for the human person to participate in the divine craft of creation, by giving material form to the transcendent order and beauty undergirding the cosmos. As Fr. Bradley T. Elliott writes in his book The Shape of the Artistic Mind, “Art and morality are two aspects of the human participation in the reason and creativity of God. Art and morality are both ways that humans imitate their divine creator.” 

This vision of artistic creativity, as oriented toward the discernment and manifestation of intelligible reality, starkly contrasts with the Romantic idealization of the artist’s subjectivity and the viewer’s emotional response. Properly understood, the Christian vision calls for fully integrating and forming the imagination in harmony with reason and wisdom. Acknowledging tradition does not stifle creativity. The mark of the artist’s spirit will be in each work of art, but in a dynamic interplay with tradition. 

The antidote to this malformation is cultivating what Stepnowski terms (borrowing from St. Thomas Aquinas), the “graced imagination”—an imagination that has been formed, healed, and elevated by divine grace. This graced faculty results in a “wholeness of vision”—that harmoniously synthesizes the sensory impressions of the embodied imagination with the rational intellect and the splendors of revealed truth. Far from oppressing or stifling creativity, this graced imagination provides the fertile soil and well-ordered capacity required for true artistic genius to flourish. 

The work of forming young people capable of participating in the divine craft of creation extends far beyond the classroom. Families and churches must raise creative, grace-filled young people open to truth and wonder.


Forming the Imagination

Could it be that young people find it challenging to endlessly express themselves creatively, or to always find a profound emotional response to every work of art, apart from any criteria of universal beauty? One student in my recent high school seminar on revolutions in art commented that Romantics often talk about contemplation but are detached from objective truth. Thus, he remarked that returning to a Christian understanding of art led him to see that “the question is not: Does this work of art make me contemplate? The question is: What does this work of art make me contemplate?” 

Hearing this question reminded me that many young people want to hear something more profound than that skills, money, or pleasure will satisfy them. They lack a capacity for attention, not just attention to the books I might assign in a class. The so-called search for authenticity, or mindless groupthink, has dulled their attention to the fullness of reality.

My experience in education has led me to various ways in which our culture must recover and nurture the conditions for the graced imagination to thrive. First and foremost, there is a pressing need to reintegrate the imaginative and rational faculties at all levels of education so that students can connect their physical, sense-based experiences of the world to the underlying metaphysical principles and universal truths.  

Tyler Graham, a former student of René Girard and a long-time high school teacher, has written about the tension between mimesis and freedom among young people. In his book, Modeling the Master, Graham argues that the crisis of identity formation among young people is because “romanticism and totalitarianism are two sides of the same coin of disoriented mimesis: the romantic imitates a desire for uniqueness, and the totalitarian follows the crowd in ideology.” 

However, in many forms of classical and Catholic education, copying teaches the true imitation of beauty. As Graham writes, students must learn that “the mastery of form yields the production of content (and not vice versa, as the Romantics might say).” Students must be given sustained exposure to works and ways of life that embody the artistic and intellectual virtues, the acquired techniques, and the honed craft that allow for substantive creative renewal. 

What are some formative activities that can feed the imagination? Nature walks, memorizing poems, learning Gregorian chant, and studying art, music, and architecture masterworks can awaken the students’ creativity to the patterns of order, beauty, and meaning suffusing the created world. Carried out with intentionality, such pursuits can begin to attune young minds to perceive the radiant forms and universal laws that art and science alike strive to manifest. 

Mindful copying is not a call for superficial mimicry or thoughtless regurgitation. As Maritain affirms, “nature is thus the first exciter and the guide of the artist, and not an example to be copied slavishly.” However, it is to recognize that creativity of any depth springs forth from a debate between respectful reception of tradition and daring innovation that builds on that foundation in an organic, life-giving way. 

For this formative process to take root, teachers must willingly embrace their indispensable role as moral and intellectual exemplars worthy of studious imitation. Students intuitively know imitation leads to participation. Students need moral exemplars to imitate, not just credentials or social belonging. Exemplary teachers demonstrate intellectual and spiritual virtues in action. They spark students’ creativity. 

Some students experience education as mostly a clinical transfer of data or skills. But teachers who embody the integration of reason, imagination, and virtue that they hope to instill provide a compelling witness to the realities they propose. Students long for those teachers who spark their intellectual and creative faculties. By living the virtues of truthfulness, wonder, perseverance, craft, and dignity in their work, educators offer an inspirational model that engages the graced imagination of students, inviting them into a more expansive creative vision. 

The work of forming young people capable of participating in the divine craft of creation extends far beyond the classroom. Families and churches must raise creative, grace-filled young people open to truth and wonder. 

The rich inheritance of the liturgical and sacramental life of Christianity affords unique opportunities for the reintegration and elevation of the human faculties. Components like lectio divina, sacred art and music, pilgrimages, the liturgy of the hours, and the Eucharist awaken the imagination from its slumber and reattune it to the true, the good, and the radiant. At a recent celebration at the Princeton University chapel of Sarum Vespers, a 500-year-old rite from England, art, music, architecture, and prayer all came together. Many young people filled the crowd of nearly 1,000 people at this event. One young woman commented, “Being surrounded by astounding music, architecture, and works of art brings such wonder; you can’t help but feel inspired and joyful.” 

Another young man wrote, “I felt at peace. Any struggles or problems all fled my mind. My focus was directed at one thing only: the Divine. It felt as though it was impossible to think about something else amidst something as beautiful as that ceremony.” 

Practices of contemplative silence and stillness, such as the liturgy of the hours, play an equally vital part by allowing space for the soul to resonate with the divine. The mindfulness movement or other modern therapeutic techniques often promote a vacant “silence.” Still, those experiences differ from the pregnant stillness of contemplating God—a silence that clears the noise of distraction and creates an openness to the in-breaking of transcendent truth, goodness, and beauty. 

The openness to rich traditions of culture and liturgy that can transform hearts and our nation is evidence that cultural and spiritual renewal is underway in America.  By immersing themselves in this integrated lived tradition, which feeds the senses and stimulates the intellect, young people of all ages can rediscover the vision that sees all created realities as revelatory expressions of the Logos made flesh. Their graced imaginations will be expanded and shaped by beauty, allowing them to press more deeply into the forms animating the cosmos, the radiant archetypes reflecting the Trinity’s self-giving love. 

By recovering a sense of art as participating in God’s governance of the world, we can become like living icons—communicators of a truth that transcends us. Whether as artists, architects, poets, philosophers, scientists, politicians, parents, or pastors, cultivating a graced imagination will open new frontiers of creativity through which we can all impart new expressions of beauty upon the world, ever ancient and ever new. 

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