God, the Great Artist – August 2010

Question: I wonder if Dr. Cobb would care to comment on God and the arts from a process perspective. It seems that God’s Initial Aim is always toward the beautiful, the peaceful, the sustainable and the harmonious. I have heard God described as the Great Artist.

Publication Month: August 2010

The questioner is certainly on the right track. Recently Roland Faber, professor of process theology at the Claremont School of Theology, published a book entitled “God as Poet of the World,” picking up from Whitehead’s own language. Whitehead gives to beauty a special status among the values that God seeks to realize in the world.

In Whitehead’s views, God has ordered the world of potentials in such a way as to evoke in or from the world of actual occasions as much value as possible. This expresses itself in the fact that each occasion is initiated by God as an aim to attain some value in itself and in its relevant future. As the questioner rightly notes, this immediately attained value is described in terms of beauty.

There is not, however, a straight line from the centrality of beauty to the importance of the arts. Whitehead is not saying that artists are the best of all people or necessarily doing the most important work. A politician helping to enact a law that will give justice to homosexuals may contribute more to beauty as Whitehead understands it than do artists. On the other hand, it may well be the work of artists that has helped him appreciate the destructive effects of many aspects of our society and its laws on the quality of the experience of homosexuals.

The beauty of which Whitehead speaks here is the beauty of individual experiences as such. It may be closer to the beauty of holiness than to the beauty of the sunset or of a painting. When we speak of a person as beautiful, we may be speaking of the impression they make in the visual experience of others, but sometimes we are talking more about their character and the overall quality of their lives. The latter is much closer to what Whitehead’s means by “beauty.”

What Whitehead so prizes is what he calls “strength of beauty.” Beauty is the harmony of elements constitutive of an experience. But if the elements are few and readily harmonized, the resulting beauty is of modest value. Strength of beauty is attained only when the experience contains elements that are complex and even, in some way, discordant. Harmonizing elements that are in marked tension with one another is the achievement of strength of beauty.

A painting or a sunset Whitehead calls “beautiful,” and although this is not identical with beauty as the especially important value, there is a close connection. That which is beautiful contributes to the beauty of the experience of those who see or hear it. This indirect relationship helps us to understand that artists do not aim only at harmonies. They seek to contribute to the strength of beauty of those who hear or see or read their work. This may require an assault on simple achievements of harmony in the audience. Nevertheless, great works of art typically create some kind of larger harmony that incorporates the assault and helps the audience also to incorporate it.

Whitehead takes much of his language about value from aesthetics. One key term is “contrast.” A harmony that contains few contrasts is a minor contribution to value. A harmony that contains many contrasts contributes significant strength of beauty. In infancy pain is incompatible with harmony. As we mature some kinds of pain, for example, empathy with those who suffer, may contribute greatly to the strength of beauty of experience.

Artists are often interested in truth, and so is Whitehead. Here again there can be a certain beauty of experience that excludes much of the reality of the world. The artist may seek to break through resistance to acknowledgment of that reality. This may not be an immediate contribution to the beauty of experience. But the strength of that beauty is limited as long as it omits relevant matters. The destruction of harmony for the sake of a stronger beauty is a worthy cause for the artist.

For Whitehead in his most elaborate discussion of values, the one in Adventures of Ideas, strength of beauty is virtually identical with intrinsic value. In other words, that is what gives value to any actual occasion of experience. But this does not belittle the importance of morality. Affirming the reality of intrinsic value and describing how it can be increased provide the basis for morality.

Morality has to do with contributing to the intrinsic value of others. For Whitehead every occasion of experience constitutes itself not only so as to realize value or strength of beauty in itself but also so as to contribute to the intrinsic value of other occasions. Here the focus may be on future occasions of one’s own life, but it can be on occasions in the lives of others. Morality is largely defined by the scope of one’s concern for future occasions both in one’s own life and in the lives of others, that is, for the strength of beauty of these future experiences. Artists, like Whitehead, typically oppose legalism, but they may be as concerned about what Whitehead considers true morality as about contributing to the immediate value of the experiences of the audience. This is not a reduction of the concern for beauty but rather an extension. A person who lives chiefly for the realization of value in the immediate present cannot represent the inclusive ideal for one who truly cares about beauty. This does not mean the celebration of delayed gratification. That would be rare for an artist. It may mean instead that the expectation that present beauty can contribute to future beauty adds to present beauty.

Nevertheless, Whitehead understands that there can be a profound tension in life between the desire for one’s personal, if not necessarily immediate, satisfaction and one’s recognition of the needs of others. He sees the overcoming of this tension as a more inclusive value even than strength of beauty itself. He calls it peace. This overcoming occurs when one’s genuine personal desires become desires for the strength of beauty of all rather than simply one’s own. This is a value that may be more central to religious literature than to the work of most artists, but it is certainly present in many forms of art as well.

Whitehead adds one additional value: adventure. He notes that an entire culture may achieve a certain perfection of beauty of a certain form. If this is simply repeated, its achievement no longer has the zest and intensity with which it was originally accompanied. There is value in change even if the new form of beauty is not better than the old. Although his discussion is primarily on the cultural level, presumably this has its bearing on individual life as well. Exploring alternatives adds to the zest of life. This is certainly important for artists much of whose work is geared to the discovery of new forms of beauty.

In summary, Whitehead’s discussion of beauty is not directed to art alone. Religious leaders and scientists, and indeed human beings in general, seek strong beauty in their own lives and to contribute to that in others. Yet his use of aesthetic language is not trivial. And artists play a special role in producing works that contribute to the strength of beauty of those who read, see, and hear.