The Wounds of Beauty
By Margarita Mooney Suarez.
Cluny Media, 2022.
Paperback, 232 pages, $19.95.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Bittner.
What is beauty and why is it so important, particularly in the realm of art and education? Margarita Mooney Suarez delves into this topic in her latest book, The Wounds of Beauty. Through a number of probing questions, she uncovers the crisis of beauty facing our world today. Enlisting the help of fellow scholars, artists, and educators, as well as drawing upon such titans as Jacques Maritain, she shows how irreverence and divisiveness have eroded the sense of beauty. But more importantly, she points towards the path by which beauty can be recovered and restored in our institutions and society, as well as our homes and hearts.
In these dialogues, we hear from Peter Brown, historian of late antiquity; George Harne, educator and scholar of musicology; Sister Noëlla Marcellino, OSB, contemplative nun as well as artisan cheesemaker; James Matthew Wilson, renowned poet and editor; David Clayton, writer and teacher of sacred art; Francis X. Maier, senior fellow of ethics and public policy, and screenwriter; and Dana Gioia, former poet laureate, and editor. Through this broad array of knowledge, Mooney Suarez shows that beauty is not superfluous to living a good life, it is essential to it. And though society may only validate a skin-deep appreciation of beauty, true beauty wounds us so that we may be brought beyond ourselves, even unto God. Each interview concludes with thought-provoking discussion questions and references for further study. It is a call to action where the reader is invited to participate in the important work at hand.
Our author recognizes that her undergraduate studies in psychology and sociology ignored beauty or treated it superficially. In taking a test for character strengths in 2013, Mooney Suarez was not at all surprised to score high on rationality. What did surprise her was her low score on appreciation of beauty. How could this be? She realized that though she loved art and sunsets, there was a disconnect between her sense of beauty and her intellectual pursuits. There was something more to happiness than focusing solely on one’s strengths. Mooney Suarez began to see that the cultivation of beauty is an education in itself, a discipline that must be practiced in daily life. She asserts that “Our intuitive love of beauty can and should be formed, purified, and connected to our vocations.” Appreciation of beauty is not the sole preview of the artist or philosopher, but also of the priest, the laborer, the parent, and the child.
From Peter Brown, we learn that the Greeks and Romans understood beauty to be something created by man. Genius was an idea that was present in antiquity, but there was an aura of magic and danger to it. Starting with Plato through Plotinus and on to Augustine, the idea emerges that beauty points to something higher, the Good with a capital G. Man is drawn out of himself. Yet the idea that beauty somehow rescues the individual is a form of vulgar Platonism, according to George Harne. Fine art and other such works of beauty are not simply, nor solely, about the individual. Harne, citing Etienne Gilson, believes it is just this absorption with self that is the pathological illness of our time. Art now attempts to fill a void that it never sought before. It has become aggressive, pushing a political agenda and worldview. Harne offers a way to fight back against this encroaching tide. Follow the inexorable tug of beauty! Introduce “two minutes of beauty” into your family life. What might this look like? Memorize poems; take walks in nature; listen to beautiful music; view picture books. Harne emphasizes this as the practical and accessible education that both parents and children need to cultivate an appreciation of beauty.
Particularly enlightening is what an artisanal cheesemaking nun has to offer on the topic of beauty. Sister Noëlla Marcellino is both a contemplative religious as well as an intellect, holding a Ph.D. in microbiology. Cheese, especially during WWII, was deeply connected to charity and love of neighbor. It was a way of sharing one’s life and handiwork with others in need. Cheese is a mold that comes to perfection in dark caves. There is a death that is always being observed in microbiology and there is a lesson to be learned here. “Don’t be afraid of the tomb!” Sister Noëlla exhorts. Daily changing and dying to self is part of life, whether monastic or familial. Even the act of chanting reveals that though the individual is present, beauty arises when each individual melds together to create a community. This kind of singing, she claims, joins heaven and earth in a very real way.
When beauty is divorced from truth, the consequences are disastrous. James Matthew Wilson describes this divorce as an appreciation of art, but no understanding of being. When a man views his particular expression as the highest good then he is no longer a true artist, but rather, in the words of Aldous Huxley, a “propaganda engineer.” This accurate assessment by Wilson underscores how frustrating human life is for those who have not encountered beauty. It is uncomfortable for mankind to desire without knowing that which he desires. It is uncomfortable for him to sit in the unknown. This is exactly why beauty is so crucial. It does not, as Mooney Suarez rightly points out, erase pain and loss. Our wounds are still there. Our unease and discomfort are still present. What beauty does, however, is come to meet us in these wounds and painful experiences and lead us to transcendence. Pope Benedict XVI suggested that the encounter with beauty “can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart.”
The heart struck by beauty is a theme that David Clayton picks up in his discussion with Mooney Suarez. A teacher of sacred art, Clayton sees beauty as having a central role in the summoning of man to motion. It is not a passive force, but one that inspires action. He claims that “our work must bear the beauty that pierces the hearts of those who see it.” Mere self-expression in art is unable to achieve this heart-piercing. Yes, the individual counts for something, but not everything. Similarly, Francis X. Maier maintains that depression and nihilism are rampant today because of the excessive emphasis on the word “I”. It is a turning inward while doubting the goodness of the world and one’s place in it. Beauty has been lost when reality is abandoned for abstractions. Abstractions, Maier says, are anti-human. They are utopian, and thus rob life of meaning.
One antidote to the loss of the sense of beauty is poetry. Dana Gioia, a former poet laureate, describes poetry as capable of imparting a magic moment of focus. It is enchanting and mesmerizing. For him, beauty is a “legitimate means of perception.” Indeed, it is man’s natural means of perception. It delights and enlarges the experience of man in this world. That is why totalitarian regimes seek to control art and train artists as if they were academics. Art has an incredible power to inspire people. Gioia reminds us that beautiful things can be terrible as well. Think of the martyrs of the Faith. They encompass a kind of beauty and moral authority that few attain. Far from dehumanized and bloodless, this kind of art is rooted in the earth. It is organic, messy, and bloody. Gioia powerfully describes it as “holistic.”
As Mooney Suarez realized in taking her character strength test, productivity is not the highest good. The highest good is love. That is the true measure of success. In this book’s very dedication, she recognizes beauty as that which “helps us express love – the human person’s ultimate end.” Beauty’s role is not superficial. It is crucial to living and dying well. She writes, “we need beauty to spark our imagination, form scientific intuitions, remember our beloved dead, and pierce through ideology.” For a culture to be beautiful, she proclaims, it must be free. Artists must be co-creators, not mouthpieces for politics. This restoration of beauty to the present culture requires work, discipline, and education on the part of individuals. Thankfully, The Wounds of Beauty offers practical avenues by which to start reclaiming beauty. It is a call to action and like most challenging things in life, the goal is worth the pursuit.
Elizabeth Bittner holds a B.A in Political Science from The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts and a Masters in Humanities from the University of Dallas. She resides in Northern California with her husband and two young daughters.
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