Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Blues and the Beautiful

*Toward the end of February, I bonded with a group of individuals I had never met before. Together, we escaped this troubled world and reached a state that can only be described as spiritual ecstasy. Our leader in this heavenly ascent was blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa. For three hours, we were immersed in the transcendent beauty of the blues. From the heart-wrenching groove of "Sloe Gin" to the crunch of "The Ballad of John Henry," Joe led us down a road of self-discovery. Not only was he an exemplar of raw, human emotion, but also a reminder of our roles as spiritual beings. His SRV bends and Eric Johnson-inspired runs cried out for something beyond the temporal abode we inhabit. His intimacy and virtuosity were the essence of a true artist.

The late aesthetics philosopher Denis Dutton wrote, "The admiration of skill is not just intellectual; skill … can cause jaws to drop, hair to stand up on the back of the neck, and eyes to flood with tears. The demonstration of skill is one of the most deeply moving and pleasurable aspects of art."[1] He further argued that art and beauty are not in the eye of the culturally conditioned beholder, but are in fact cross-culturally universal.

One of Dutton’s major examples is what he calls the Hudson River Biedermeier landscape: trees, water, animal life and a road leading off into the distance. This type of landscape is generally preferred by various cultures, including those from countries that do not have this particular setting. The prehistoric Acheulian hand axes display little evidence of wear or usage, demonstrating perhaps mere aesthetic appeal. Their teardrop shape can be found in most jewelry stores today. The cave paintings and sanctuaries of Lascaux reflect an early, ritualized appreciation for the natural and supernatural worlds.

These examples led Dutton to see artistic beauty as an evolutionary trait developed to display attractive qualities like intelligence or skill. In other words, beauty is built into human nature. This includes, as Dutton also suggested, the beauty of music.

Though theologically inconsistent, the biblical texts nonetheless speak of music as a part of early temple worship and a method for communicating with the divine. It could ultimately be traced back to the creation "when the morning stars sang together" (Job 38:7). Thus, to the ancients, music was an act of renewal and embedded in the nature of the cosmos. Modern temple worship reveals that the diversity found within the creation was divinely sanctioned for the purpose of beautifying and giving variety to the earth. Following the fifth creation period, Michael declares the earth to be "glorious and beautiful." Philosopher Roger Scruton recognizes, "The current habit of desecrating beauty suggests that people are as aware as they ever were of the presence of sacred things. Desecration is a kind of defense against the sacred, an attempt to destroy its claims. In the presence of sacred things, our lives are judged, and to escape that judgment, we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us...[Christians] understand the sacred as a revelation in the here and now of the eternal sense of our being. But the experience of the sacred is not confined to Christians. It is, according to many philosophers and anthropologists, a human universal."[2] Sacred beauty is the experience of redemption. Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) argued for two kinds of aesthetic experience: the harmonious order and serenity of the beautiful (which brings comfort) and the majestic power and overwhelming vastness of the sublime (which brings fear). It is within the sacred act of redemption that both can be found:

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:9-11)

Regarding the music of the blues, journalist Mark Judge explains, "In hearing the existential alienation in … the sadness of the blues, humans are reminded of their fallen nature and the brokenness of the world. Yet the same music, in the beauty of the sound created in those same songs, points to the beauty of the eternal … [I]t creates a sensation of experiencing a kind of holy sorrow — sadness at the state of things yet a consciousness that there is truth and goodness and beauty beyond the world." Beauty can be found in a variety of styles, expressions, and systems. "One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism," taught Joseph Smith, "is to receive truth, let it come from where it may." And that truth may come from music of the baroque era or that of the Deep South.

Whether Bonamassa has been blessed by the hand of the Almighty or sold his soul to the devil at the crossroad, he touched the universal nature within us all that night.

And it was absolutely beautiful.

*This is a slightly expanded version of a North Texas Daily article I published. Both Bonamassa links are from the actual concert I attended at Fair Park in Dallas on Feb. 26, 2011.


1. Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), pg. 53. Also see his “Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?The New York Times (Oct. 15, 2009). On conceptual art, see A. Barton Hinkle, “But Is It Art? (April 5, 2011).

2. For a more thorough treatment of the subject by Scruton, see his Beauty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) and/or his BBC special "Why Beauty Matters." Also see Christopher Haley's thoughtful piece at First Things: On the Square.

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