United Church of Christ

Beauty without Utility

There is a Latin phrase: ars gratia artis. It means art for the sake of art.  

Sometimes, we are struck by the beauty of something such that our breath is taken away. There is nothing utilitarian about it – no useful purpose to the piece we are enjoying other than its beauty.  

I remember once I was at the Chicago Museum of art. Tin one small room, all by itself, was a smallish painting, no bigger than 2 feet by one foot – including the frame. It was one of Johannes Vermeer’s lesser known paintings: not “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” but not unlike it. There was a young woman doing wash next to a window which let in the light. Neither the subject matter nor the scope of the work was in any way impressive. But it took my breath away. I stood there for a long time and just stared at it. I wasn’t alone – others were doing the same thing. No one spoke – it seemed irreverent to do so. I finally left, and about an hour later went back and repeated the same ritual – simply staring at this work of art and taking in its beauty. I left, only to come back a third time before I finally had to go.

That is ars gratia artis – art for the sake of art - beauty with no utilitarian purpose other than to please us.

Darwin believed animals could appreciate beauty for its own sake. He was ridiculed for it. He observed the mating rituals of many species, and concluded that what attracted some females to the males of their species wasn’t their strength or their endurance or their good genes – it was their beauty. They found them attractive. Darwin was ridiculed by his peers for believing the animal kingdom would waste its evolutionary urgency on the mere whims of taste over utility; or that the higher order of thinking that went into appreciating beauty merely for the way it pleased the eye would be endowed in a species less intelligent and noble than the human.

New studies have taken up Darwin’s theory of beauty. Though not yet widely believed by all evolutionary scientists, those who make the same observations and draw the same conclusions as did Darwin are less ridiculed than they used to be.

So, what of it?

Can it be that God’s creative hand, evident in the splendor of sunset and the majesty of mountain, the grandeur of starry night and the radiance of a child’s smile has adorned this world with beauty to be appreciated by those other than we who walk upright on two legs?

The Psalmist wrote:

O Lord, our Sovereign,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    mortals[a] that you care for them?

Beauty without utility, art for the sake of art: these are the hallmarks of a God who adorns the created world with splendor and grace for all to see and enjoy.

Gentle soul, may your eyes take in all that God hath wrought in splendor, and may your soul and spirit delight in the pleasures of a hand that fashions beauty for the eye of the beholder on this, your journey Into the Mystic.