In his book Reforming the Liturgy, John F. Baldovin, S.J. responds to a number of critics of the post-Vatican II liturgy who argue for a “reform of the reform” from theological, philosophical, historical, social and anthropological perspectives. Baldovin notes in his introduction that aesthetic elements in the liturgy including art, architecture, music, gesture and movement are inescapably linked to any approach to the reform since it is inherent to the lived experience of the liturgy (Baldovin, 8). It would thus make sense that many of the critics’ arguments end with proposals for aesthetic reforms.
What is curious about the various critiques, however, is the point at which many of them converge — that is in the specific style of liturgical aesthetics — despite the wide-range of approaches used to critique the reform. The style upheld is one of grandeur and ornate details, often inspired by gothic architecture from the high Medieval Ages to early Renaissance, along with the period’s elaborate rituals, processions, unutterable words and polyphony. The flaunting of the cappa magna, a surge of interest in Gregorian chant and renaissance polyphony, and the return of elaborate gothic chasubles are just three visible trends among many that reflect a growing adherence to such ideas of liturgical reform.
Whether the scholarly work of the critics has had a direct influence on the aestheticization of the liturgy and its increasing mainstream appeal is debatable. What is apparent is simply the increase in preference for a particular style of liturgical aesthetic accompanied by refrains espousing “beauty,” “transcendence,” “more reverence” and “evoking the sacred.” These mantras certainly have overtones of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics. But I suspect that they reflect, rather, performatism — an emerging cultural reaction to postmodernism that falsely objectifies chiefly subjective aesthetics through coercive means. In performatism, “beautiful,” “transcendent,” “sacred,” and “reverent” are descriptors that attach themselves to a culturally endorsed medieval aesthetic, which in turn provide a speciously objective meaning to primarily subjective art forms.
Performatism is defined by Slavist literary scholar Raoul Eshelman as an emerging epoch beyond postmodernism and its theoretical adjunct, poststructualism. To understand performatism, it is first necessary briefly to establish an understanding of postmodernity, the cultural milieu out of which it stems. For this purpose, Eshelman draws from Derrida’s deconstruction of Kant’s philosophy. In Derrida’s critique of Kant, Derrida shows “that any talk of intrinsic aesthetic value depends on that value being set off from the ‘extraneous’ context around it by means of a frame.” (Eshelman, 1) The frame is a subtle, but crucial and constantly deferring precondition; it is that place where the text and context meet in a way that is both absolutely fundamental to the work’s makeup but impossible to determine in advance. Any piece of artwork that claims to be unified and closed is trapped by this frame. Eshelman describes the irony deconstruction prescribes:
Through the frame, the presumed closure of the work is always already dependent on the context around it, which is itself everything other than a coherent whole. The frame is always already dependent on some aspect of the context around it. (Eshelman, 3)
From the standpoint of the dominant postmodern and poststructualist mindset, prospects for creating a new, autonomous monist aesthetic are nil. Postmodern artwork is thus continually undermined by a narrative frame that creates a state of recursive irresolution regarding the truth of some part of that work. Any form of objectivity is inconceivable.
Performatism reacts against the uncertainty of postmodernism in its attempt to re-empower the frame. In performatist framing, “a blend of aesthetic and archaic, forcible devices” are used to establish a new monism in an attempt to re-establish some kind of objectivity (Ehselman, 2). Eshelman describes the phenomena in the following way:
Performatist works are set up in such a way that the reader or viewer at first has no choice but to opt for a single, compulsory solution to the problems raised within the work at hand. The author, in other words, imposes a certain solution on us using dogmatic, ritual, or some other coercive means. This has two immediate effects. The coercive frame cuts us off, at least temporarily, from the context around it and forces us back into the work. Once we are inside, we are made to identify with some person, act or situation in a way that is plausible only within the confines of the work as a whole (…) On the one hand, you’re practically forced to identify with something implausible or unbelievable within the frame — to believe in spite of yourself — but on the other, you still feel the coercive force causing this identification to take place, and intellectually you remain aware of the particularity of the argument at hand. Metaphysical skepticism and irony aren’t eliminated, but are held in check by the frame. At the same time, the reader must always negotiate some kind of trade-off between the positive aesthetic identification and the dogmatic, coercive means used to achieve it (Eshelman, 2).
The forced, artificial unification of a work takes place in what Eshelman calls double framing. The inner frame provides the originating context, while the outer frame imposes some sort of unequivocal resolution to the problems raised in the work on the reader or viewer. Implausibility in a work results in two possibilities: some sort of irony could undercut the frame from within and break up the artificially framed unity, or an inner frame simply confirms the outer frame’s coercive logic (Eshelman, 3 – 4). Eshelman concedes that a certain amount of tension between the frame is inevitable, but notes that the difference between postmodernism and performatism is in the fact that “one is now being offered a specific choice as to the outcome of a reading or viewing, rather than being condemned from the start to a misreading or misprision.” (Eshelman, 4) Double framing as such can be summarized as a specific way of creating aesthetic closure; allowing an opaque or dense subjectivity, governed by an authorial mode of organizing temporal and spatial relations, which in turn promotes a false sense of objectivity.
Within a postmodern context, the liturgy is constantly in flux as communities repeatedly discern the “right” way of doing liturgy while fearing the slip into relativism: postmodernism is likely a key cultural catalyst behind the many post-Vatican II “experiments” that have understandably been criticized heavily. Performatism reacts to the uncertainty of postmodernism and attempts to ascertain objectivity in liturgy by appealing to arbitrary authoritarian sources such as tradition. The result is a false and shallow objectivity that manifests itself through partisan support for particular interpretations of liturgical aesthetics and obsessions over the letter rather than spirit of the law.
Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics offer an alternative notion of aestheticization that places the subjective experience against the ultimate objectivity of divine beauty, in unity with truth and goodness. When autonomously constructed subjectivity is constantly countered by objectivity, subjective expressions reign freely without the risk of slipping into a sea of relativism. For von Balthasar, such true aestheticization is found in the Christian experience.
In a true aesthetic experience, the object initiates the relationship while the subject relinquishes its will entirely, in surrender to the object. The subject first becomes fully passive, allowing the object to move actively towards the subject and expand within it. Von Balthasar describes the block of appropriation by the subject in theological terms, with God as “being” that can be discovered in the beautiful:
The quality of “being-in-itself” which belongs to the beautiful, the demand of the beautiful itself makes to be allowed to be what it is, the demand, therefore, that we renounce our attempts to control and manipulate it, in order truly to be able to be happy by enjoying it (Balthasar, 153.)
Such is the first of two phases in theological aesthetics. Von Balthasar calls the first “the theory of vision (or fundamental theology): ‘aesthetics’ in the Kantian sense as a theory about the perception of the form of God’s self-revelation.” (Balthasar, 125)
The second phase of theological aestheticization moves beyond a one-sided initiation by the object. Phase two requires the participation of the subject in the relationship so that the subject is truly immersed in the objective experience. Von Balthasar calls this second phase “The theory of rapture (or dogmatic theology): ‘aesthetics’ as a theory about the incarnation of God’s glory and the consequent elevation of man to participate in that glory.” (Balthasar, 125) Von Balthasar expounds on this essential interaction between subject and object and its importance in doing theology:
In theology, there are no “bare facts” which, in the name of an alleged objectivity of detachment, disinterestedness and impartiality, one could establish like any other worldly fact, without oneself being (both objectively and subjectively) gripped so as to participate in the divine nature (participation divinae naturae). For the object with which we are concerned is man’s participation in God, which from God’s perspective, is actualized as “revelation” (culminating in God’s manhood) and which, from man’s perspective, is actualized as “faith” (culminating in Christ’s Godmanhood). This double and reciprocal ekstasis—God’s “venturing forth” to man and man’s to God—constitutes the very content of dogmatics, which may thus rightly be presented as a theory of rapture: the admirabile commercium et conubium between God and man in Christ as Head and Body (Balthsar, 125 – 126).
Von Balthasar’s theory of theological aesthetics forms the foundation of his theology. He uses multiple examples of aesthetic experiences in his writings as analogies of the ultimate Christ experience — one that culminates in the transformation of the human person. For example, von Balthasar describes the aesthetic experience of a subject that allows itself to be incorporated by the aesthetic form: by letting one’s senses fully engage with a painting that “opens itself” to the subject, the captivated person enters into a “state of vibration and becomes responsive space, the ‘sounding box’ of the event of beauty occurring within him.” (Maeseneer , 103) A parallel to this aesthetic experience can be found in von Balthasar’s exposition of the Christ experience as
the progressive growth of one’s own existence into Christ’s existence, on the basis of Christ’s continuing action taking shape (Sicheingestalten Christi) in the believer: “until Christ has taken shape (Gestalt) in you” (Gal 4:19) (Maeseneer , 104).
For von Balthasar, theological aestheticization is accomplished in the mutual kenosis of the divine and human person that enables an ultimate spiritual transformation.
Theological aesthetics and performatism share the aesthetic gene but are intrinsically incompatible. In performatism, the double frame traps the subject in a recursive loop of false objectivity by way of the outer frame, preventing true interaction with the ultimate divine “object.” The subject never attempts to break the frame, choosing instead to bounce back and forth between the inner and outer frame, for fear of drowning in a sea of relativism. When theology is done within a performatist context, authoritarian strategies reign. Hierarchical ecclesiology, authoritative documents, rule-based catechesis form both the inner and outer frame, allowing one to appeal to any of its aspects to reaffirm one’s stance, without having to confront intellectually contradicting scenarios.
Within the liturgy, a performatist insists on rigid obedience to rubrics and monist interpretations of ritual elements, even when the nature of aesthetic interpretations is allegorical and highly subjective. Particular temporal and spatial aesthetics in music, art, and language form a coercive frame through which communities determine if something (or someone) is Catholic or not, inadvertently ignoring broader cultures outside its frame. Imperfection and creativity are threats to beauty; tradition, uniformity, and select interpretations of ritual are deemed authoritative in an attempt to bookend expressions of beauty. The sacred risks being idolized in narrowly defined ritual performances. And when aesthetic trends change, the divine encounter could be shaken up or lost to the participant. True kenosis is only possible in performatism when the community recognizes the contradictions keeping the fabricated frames together, and chooses to explore alternatives by allowing the artificially framed unity to be undercut. For the performatist, the Christ experience as von Balthasar describes it, is thus, greatly limited.
In contrast, von Balthasar’s theological aesthetic framework allows for both subject and object to undergo a kenosis from the start. The passive reception of an aesthetic is only a beginning; a single frame (or object) can thus be said to eventually dissolve into to the subject and vice-versa through a mutual interaction. This mutual interaction admits imperfection and questioning, which in turn allow a breaking-in of true beauty; multiple interpretations of liturgics are in fact celebrated as expressions of the absolute divine beauty. Aesthetics speak beyond the senses, through error, creativity, and across cultures transforming those who participate fully into the Beautiful. Unlike performatism, Von Balthasar’s aesthetics ultimately allows the Christian to find Beauty amidst mundane everyday tasks, rubbles of a disaster, and the humor of creation.
Audrey Seah is a 2012 graduate of Saint John’s University School of Theology•Seminary with a masters degree in theology, concentration in liturgy.
Baldovin, John F. Reforming the Liturgy: a Response to the Critics. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008.
Balthasar, Hans Urs Von. The Glory of the Lord: a Theological Aesthetics. Edited by Joseph Fessio and John Kenneth. Riches. Translated by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis. Vol. 1. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983.
De Maeseneer, Yves. “The Art of Disappearing: Religion and Aestheticization.” Edited by Graham Ward. In The New Visibility of Religion: Studies in Religion and Cultural Hermeneutics, edited by Michael Hoelzl, 99-116. London: Continuum, 2008.
Eshelman, Raoul. Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism. Aurora, CO: Davies Group, 2008.