Beauty in the Everyday: Living Aesthetically
For anyone who grew up with a religious background similar to mine (Southern Baptist with a Reformed bent), art was considered as either dangerous or irrelevant to one’s spiritual life. Imagination and experience and creativity were little regarded, while discipline and right-belief were considered the important things for spiritual thriving. But somewhere along the way someone suggested to me that truth, goodness, and beauty all go hand in hand. How, exactly, the three relate I still have not fully grasped, but one thing that has helped me think about beauty in my life as a Christian is Søren Kierkegaard’s The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage.
While Kierkegaard’s essay revolves around the topic of the aesthetic within marriage, marriage will not be my focus here. I will only use Kierkegaard’s illustration of marriage as an example of how we can find beauty throughout our lives. Kierkegaard’s idea which caught hold of my imagination is this: the truly aesthetic is not what we see or hear, but what we participate in. Furthermore, the truly aesthetic, the truly beautiful, is not what we experience in a single moment, but something that is stretched out through time. The true way to represent the aesthetic is by living it.
Art must be “represented in the moment” (138), within a frame, so that we can experience it. The symphony is framed in the concert hall, the painting within the mahogany square, the sculpture within the museum walls. Art is concentrated into an artificially small piece of time or space, which arbitrarily excludes any part of the aesthetic, any experience of beauty, that cannot itself be placed within a condensing form. Imagine the sorts of beauty we overlook or disregard because they cannot be squeezed into frames small enough or, periods of time short enough, for us to sit quietly and observe them!
Kierkegaard’s subject of marriage is the perfect example of living aesthetically across time, or creating art without a frame. A marriage, stretched over ten, twenty, fifty years, is too lengthy for anyone to observe satisfactorily enough to judge it aesthetically. The only people able to “observe” the marriage are those experiencing it from the inside. But I think we can agree that if we were able to somehow observe closely all aspects of a good marriage over the full course of time—from youthful passion to old-aged faithfulness—with the joys, triumphs, defeats, hardships, conflicts and renewals in between, we would say that it is also a beautiful marriage. Many paintings and songs have tried to capture the beauty of a good love, and though they may create something beautiful, they fail to fully reflect the beauty of marriage because they are restrained by the mediums of time and space. In a similar vein, Kierkegaard describes the aesthetic value of marriage in relation to time:
At the end of fifteen years [of marriage the lover] has apparently got no further than he was at the beginning, yet he has lived in a high degree aesthetically. His possession has not been like dead property, but he has constantly been acquiring his possession. He has not fought with lions and ogres, but with the most dangerous enemy: with time. He … has preserved eternity in time (141).
Kierkegaard sees beauty in marriage’s resilience against time. Constantly striving for love and constantly acquiring love lends beauty to marriage. There is beauty when we must strive, when we dance among tensions, when we resolve conflicts in time through living. Yet living aesthetically by nature cannot be observed by others in its fullness, and art is intended to be viewed. But what if aesthetic experience was not about viewing a thing, but about the living? Then no audience is necessary but the artist.
Marriage is Kierkegaard’s example of living life aesthetically, and it is a good one. Yet we can pursue living aesthetically in all areas of our lives. Friendship, work, ministry, play, and leisure; all of these can be pursued in a way that is beautiful, yet invisibly so as it is stretched across the timelines of our entire lives. The experience is hidden from everyone else, but
to the one who lives it, it is sublime. Like marriage, the simplest things in life commend themselves to us as truly aesthetic, and we are invited to live them.
The aesthetic is in everyday life. Good Christian, be free to live simply, live beautifully. Be free to seek and to strive, and know that what you are in pursuit of is not just goodness, but beauty. We live aesthetically, we take away the artificial frame that imprisons representative art in a single moment, and we stretch art out across our lifetimes. If we do live aesthetically it may be seen by no-one else, or only a close few, and to strive and not be seen demands integrity. But to live aesthetically is its own reward, for to live in beauty is also to live in goodness and in truth. Good Christian, strive, strive, strive, and do not give up. It is beautiful to fight for such a life. It has been said often that art is what makes life worthwhile. But I think too that living life is what makes worthwhile art.
Jesse Childress has a deep appreciation for good food, philosophy, theology, and literature. He completed a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies at Houston Baptist University and intends to pursue graduate work in either literature or philosophy. Jesse’s recent adventures have included spending a term at the Francis Schaeffer-founded L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland and becoming an online English teacher for students in China.
Work Cited: Kierkegaard, Søren. Either/Or, Vol. II. Translated by Walter Lowrie. Princeton University Press, 1994.