Perhaps the greatest contribution Aristotle left behind for Western Civilization was the idea and hierarchy of the three trancedentals: beauty, goodness, and truth.
These three transcendental ALL have to do with ethics and how an individual and society ought to conduct themselves even though it may seem only one of the transcendental (goodness) has anything to do with ethics. We often overemphasize goodness over the other two, when goodness is only the 2nd-step in these three principles and exists poorly in isolation from the other two transcendentals.
Our very legally based and now justice-oriented Western Society concerns itself almost solely on the transcendental of goodness. Worse yet, post modern thinking has diminished the value and even existence of the other transcendental, claiming everything is subjective to the observer. No longer is it widely accepted that there are objective standards of beauty or truth, but rather the proper standard is defined by the perspective and narrative of the individual.
But for now, let us focus on goodness and beauty and the need their necessary relationship to one another.
Recently, two climate change activists vandalized Van Gogh’s painting.
The motivation for their actions was clearly out of their own perception of the transcendental of goodness, perceiving this act of iconoclasm as a step towards justice, specifically, to raise awareness of the injustice upon the environment. The act runs along the same vein as the tearing down of statues of unseemly historical figures, the vandalism of corrupt institutional buildings, etc.
Idol smashing and iconoclasm are close cousins of which even Christianity is quite familiar with when it considers the hundreds of accounts of saints destroying pagan monuments and totems which today we might even call “art”. The destruction of “art” has been used for centuries as an act of justice, of obliterating a perceived evil item, all its affiliations, and the proving of that item’s powerlessness before good.
But Van Gogh wasn’t a petrol mogul, wasn’t a climate change denier. His sunflowers painting wasn’t at all a threat to the health of the earth…in fact it only brought out the earth’s beauty.
Was the act of these Gen Z activists meant to serve an ironic point? Did they vandalize an oil painting to make a commentary on our oil production today? Was their vandalizing of the image of the sunflower a reenactment of humanity’s assault on nature? I don’t care to know the reason, and neither should you.
At the root of this act is not true goodness, but human neuroticism. The activists’ vandalism of an innocuous painter’s harmless painting to an unrelated cause is no more sophisticated than my toddler throwing her toy up against the wall because she wants attention and is struggling to find an appropriate means of addressing such a need. The message screaming in my face at this is not of injustice or peril of a dying world, but of attention-starved youths who are living out unmet needs of their past by gaining their 5-minutes of fame on every news site. (They’ll be forgotten in no time, trust me. The rest of you have probably already moved on.)
But to the activist who sees some value in this iconoclasm (or any iconoclasm), I believe there is more work to be done. You see, one does not earn disciples in one’s own cause by raging against what must be destroyed. You all have been working out of a void, unable to tell yourselves or each other what’s actually beautiful. These actions, therefore, reflect to the rest of the world more of childhood unmet needs rather than any actually communicated utopia or transcendental to work towards.
The movement will die because it’s unmarried to truth and unconcerned with beauty.
Take it from a disciple of idol smashing. Christianity has been breaking stone, wood, and even written word for centuries and has not stopped. It’s unabashed in its dismantling of pagan religion and the way that that religion has informed babylonian-esque societies. Even during times of persecution, the saints and martyrs destroyed pagan art but not out of petulance or even a social cause. It did so knowing it had a beautiful image that stood triumphant to all other art, a wisdom to shame all other wisdoms. Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word/Logos of God.
Activists, where is your beauty? Perhaps you assault art because you have nothing beautiful to celebrate, because you deep down know you’ve espoused yourselves to a subjective one. Therefore, there is nothing eternal, nothing deeply moving that you can carry in your pocket, to display on the wall of your home, to close your eyes and reflect on in your heart. You attack beauty because, like Cain, you feel insecure not having it.
There is more work to be done, activists, and I don’t mean that by more iconoclasm. You can try all you want, you can even try to attack the beauty of the most proactive idol smashers in history (the Church) but one glimpse of history will see that such unsuccessful attempts of iconoclasm will leave your movement buried in history while the Church continually elevates our beautiful images.
There’s more work to be done, specifically that each and every one of you reconciles that you are on a boat without a rudder, nothing to hold your own course. Each one of you is your own arbiter of beauty and truth, and therefore, surely, your movement will run ashore or sink suddenly. Admit the subconscious religion that you elevate, the invisible gods that you pay tribute to and kneel before. You’d have a fighting chance to look more sophisticated than a child in tantrum and leave an imprint upon the world if you actually had some aim, an image ready to replace the things you burn and vandalize.
Activists, none of you are martyrs, none of you are saints, not even in your own religion that you find it impossible to define. Your actions are not lasting, because you have no beauty to leave behind, no real truth to tell. You are amiss to both.
Go back to the drawing board, and before you have your next fuss, stop yourself and ask what you actually believe in, what you actually believe to be beautiful or true.
I’ll be waiting once you’ve come back from the drawing board, eager to hear what you come up with.