Barbara Nicolosi on beauty

This is another excerpt, courtesy of David Taylor’s blog, from the up and coming For the Beauty of the Church. She applies a few terms from a Thomas Aquinas quote regarding beauty that I’m still processing.


    Thomas Aquinas gave a definition of the beautiful that is still helpful and relevant seven centuries later. The beautiful, he said, is “wholeness, harmony, and radiance,” and these define the terrain of the artist.

    Wholeness means nothing is missing. All parts are present, suggesting completeness. No one looks at the Pietà and says, “You know, Mary needs just a little more fringe around her veil. Oh well.” Or, people don’t listen to Mozart’s Ave Verum and say, “Needs another high G in there. Oh well.” There’s something about these works that suggest completeness. Wholeness also means there is nothing extra, nothing gratuitous that isn’t an essential part of the whole. Isn’t that one of the primary complaints about so many movies? “Gratuitous sex and violence.” That is, too often there is no context for these things in a project, so it feels to the audience like they were just slapped in there to try and distract from some flaw in the storytelling. A beautiful work has nothing gratuitous . . .


    The first thing we’ve done to wreck art is make it serve the political instead of the beautiful. I don’t necessarily meaning left or right, but statement-making, which is an utter perversion of the concept of radiance. The goal of statement-making is to manipulate, to coerce, to get people to vote a certain way, to propagandize, to merely change behavior.

    I can’t think of a better example of this than in the awful statue of Mary that stands over the outside door of the $200 million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. It’s just dreadful. The statue is of completely uncertain gender, with a female torso, but harshly cropped hair and distinctly masculine arms and hands. In fact, my students call her, “Man-hands Mary.” But it’s worse than just androgyny. The image has black lips, Asian eyes, a Latino face, and other scattered Anglo features. When I first went on a tour of the new Cathedral, our guide said, “This statue was conceived so that people of all races would see themselves in it and feel welcome in this place.” And I said, “But it’s kind of ugly. I don’t know about you, but if you saw that kind of freak inviting you into its house. . . .” Well, the tour guide sniffed at me, waved her hand, and said, “The church is not about that anymore.”

    It begs the question of whether Japanese people really do look at the Pietà in Rome and shrug, “Well, that’s okay for the white people.” But my point is that the goal of the statue was not to make something that would deliver the beautiful. The goal of the statue was to communicate a political message. The fact that it is ugly and makes my students mock it indicates that it has been a failure as a political vehicle too. In politics, you lose wholeness because the political only tells its own side of the story. As a result, people lose a feeling of rest.

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About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

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