“Only in theory do we begin to suspect the power of aesthetics to shape our lives.”

I was in the doctor’s office waiting room this week, and I happened to pick up an old issue of The New Yorker from back in June. I was pleasantly surprised to find an essay by Tobias Wolff about a time when he saw Bergman’s Winter Light at a church screening in Oxford. I really liked Wolff’s optimistic reading of the film:

Bergman takes care to show that Tomas and the fisherman are not alone in their suffering, and that others, equally afflicted—the fisherman’s wife, the pastor’s steadfast lover, his hunchbacked assistant—are able to bear their pain into a still deeper faith and capacity for love.

This is how I want to read Winter Light. It is an unexpected affirmation of faith, not a rejection of faith as it is normally read.

But the point of the essay is not really about Winter Light. It is about the importance of art and beauty. After seeing the film, Wolff says he “felt harrowed, crust broken, buried things churning to the surface.” At that point in his life Wolff was an atheist, but he was open to hearing what the minister might say about the film. Until the minister put up a slide of William Holman Hunt’s painting “The Light of the World” which Wolff found “garish, melodramatic, cloying in its technique and sentimentality”. Wolff ended up continuing in his life as a disbeliever until, years later, he discovered the poetry of George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and T.S. Eliot.

Wolff concludes:

We like to think of our beliefs, and disbeliefs, as founded on reason and close, thoughtful observation. Only in theory do we begin to suspect the power of aesthetics to shape our lives.

But he notes that not everyone experiences beauty in the same way. A friend of his who was with him at the Winter Light screening was converted by the Holman Hunt painting that put Wolff off. His encounter with the painting put him on a path that eventually led him to being a missionary in Africa. Peggy Rosenthal over at the Image Journal interprets this as a lesson about the power even bad art can have to point us toward truth:

We must admit that in our popular culture plenty of bad art stirs people to genuinely good religious faith, a faith that issues in loving actions and a Christ-like spirit.

I’m not sure that’s quite right. This is a lesson about the importance of context. Wolff writes that “the contrast between Bergman’s severe, honest art and this painting, on the same screen, chilled me” (my emphasis). I actually don’t hate the Holman Hunt painting. I think it does have a (perhaps simplistic) kind of beauty. But I can see how in juxtaposition to Bergman’s film it would come off banal. So why didn’t Wolff’s friend notice this jarring juxtaposition? The context of film appreciation is not entirely external. It is internal and subjective, too. We bring our own context to the work.

If all we look at is the objective context of the chapel in Oxford on a night in the winter of 1970, then all we see is the contrast between Winter Light and Holman Hunt. But if we could see into the heart of Wolff’s friend, we could see why he was able to experience the beauty of the painting while for Wolff that small beauty was outshone by the brilliance of Bergman’s film. Every object has some beauty in it, and every beauty has some truth. And the power of beauty’s truth is so strong that it can work even through less than brilliant artworks. I guess I’m ultimately saying the same thing as Rosenthal: even lesser art can shape our lives for the better.

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