The Seduction of Beauty

Sunday 3rd August 2014
The Seventh Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
1 Kings 10:1-13
Acts 13:1-13

When I was a child with very little vision, I used to like to crawl round the floor so that I could enjoy the colours of our living room carpet; it seemed to me then very odd that people walked on the carpet with dirty shoes. Later I realised that something useful could also be beautiful. Many years after I bought a jug in Minnesota from a potter of the utilitarian school who said that his pieces might be very beautiful but that they must be used for the purpose for which they were created and not used merely as ornaments, in consequence of which we almost immediately chipped the spout. From different standpoints, these are examples of the useful and the beautiful being combined.

It is, perhaps, more than any other aspect of wealth, its power to procure beauty which complicates our attitude to it such that we hardly ever question the way people collect beautiful things although we sometimes flinch at the price, except when objects such as great works of art are hoarded - there is a loaded word - in private collections only revealed by one connoisseur to another; and this was surely what happened when the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon. The two monarchs were anxious to establish which of them had the more valuable collection of beautiful objects. And both monarchs could enjoy their wealth without a pang of conscience because they believed, as do some Christians, notably in the 'deep South' of the United States, that wealth is a natural reflection of personal holiness. Our equivocation arises because that quintessentially Jewish outlook has been more than tempered by the teaching of Jesus on wealth and poverty.

Our second reading, from Acts, shows us a much more direct threat to integrity. No sooner are Paul and Barnabas sent out from their base at Antioch to preach in Cyprus than they are confronted by a false prophet or, to put matters more explicitly, they are confronted by a self-styled prophet whom they diagnose as false. Bar-Jesus is also described as a magician and this is important precisely because the incarnation is not magic but, rather, it is the most powerful token of personal responsibility.

During this weekend when we are remembering the outbreak of the First World War a century ago, you might perhaps think it far-fetched of me to connect the massive slaughter in the trenches with our love of beauty but, as we have noted, a love can soon turn to possessive lust. There are many theories about the precise causes, and particularly the timing, of the outbreak of the First World War, but much less controversy about underlying causes. The tensions between the 'Great Powers' which were damped down at the Conference of Berlin in 1884-85 which divided up Africa, were bound to become inflamed sooner or later; although the globe might seem big enough, it was not big enough for competing empires; and, when we think about it, empires are collections of places and things which are, in essence, not necessary to the empire builder but are desired because they bring, among other things, wealth, variety, power, ownership and exclusivity. Some people at the time, not least all the different Christian churches on both sides, were much more inclined, however, to characterise the enemy as a false prophet rather than attributing the slaughter to their own imperial ambitions. But whether it was the plunder of ancient objects or the craving for spice and sugar, empires became self-perpetuating necessities, their cravings incapable of satisfaction, behaving, so to speak, like addicts.

And I believe that if we think of it carefully enough, we will understand the intrinsic seductiveness of beauty which can inspire us  to religious devotion, as in the pictures of Fra Angelico, in the King James Bible or in the Passion settings of JS Bach, can move us to human compassion, as in the pictures of Gericault, the novels of Dickens and Zola and the music of Alfred Schnittke but, I think we must admit that, setting aside our understandable preference for moral art, we are still deeply entangled with the seduction of beauty, particularly in popular culture. Farewell the horns and tail, the pitchfork and the fire, our devil lives in the beauty that speaks to our individual and collective desire; and it is not as if our loss of empire is about to change our view of personal and social entitlement in an increasingly crowded world. We will, as a society, always want just one more éclair, jug, sweater, holiday flight, glass of wine, upgraded phone, new car or house extension. We will have temporary moral panics about textile workers in Bangladesh, cut flowers from Kenya or coffee from Columbia but these concerns will soon subside; and how more comfortable will we feel if the object of our desire is beautiful rather than merely being vulgar and utilitarian.

Not that we should become ikonoklasts, in the literal sense, nor even ascetic, but our acquisition of beauty, in the physical sense, should come at a cost, just as our grasp of mental beauty comes at an intellectual cost, the essence of beauty, surely being, to inspire in us a spirit of generosity. Surely we think that there is something deeply paradoxical about a beauty that inspires greed, indifference, or mere self-satisfaction. I often wonder, surveying the lawns of Glyndebourne, how the punters are weighing up the moral questions put to them in operas!

Thus, as we remember the fallen of the First World War, the least we can do is to be honest with ourselves about the possible causes of future conflict. The precise cause of the Great War will never be isolated but we have enough self-knowledge to see that our way of life is already inflicting damage on the earth and the majority of its people and if we continue our way of life that damage will increase. Sooner or later, crowded and desperate people will fight for land and water. By then we will be firing at them from drones in asymmetric conflict; but if nobody dies on 'our side' then how will we ever feel chastened? The ultimate seduction of beauty is that we want to enjoy it simply for its own sake and for our personal and exclusive pleasure, devoid of moral and social content. It is what some self-indulgent people call "art for art's sake" but that kind of beauty is the most dangerous of all. The warning of the Queen of Sheba is much more difficult to apprehend than the warning of the false prophet bar-Jesus. For a child there may be an other-worldly magic in beauty but for us it must generate responsibility.