Beauty as Playful, Symbolic, and Festive

According to Hans-Georg Gadamer, beauty is described by three characteristics. Beauty is playful, beauty is symbolic, and beauty is festive. Beauty as play seems to be a central focus of Gadamer’s hermeneutic thinking and acts as the basis for his account of art and understanding. Play can be understood as movement and reason together. Play has intentionality and is ordered towards an end goal. There is play between the work and the beholder. The work demands to be understood and brings forth a challenge for the beholder to provide an answer. Beauty as symbolic defines the character of art as presenting something more than what is literally being shown. Symbolic character allows the subject to experience a holistic encounter. Through the symbolic character, the world of the art and our own world are brought together as we encounter the artistic image. The artistic image completes us in this holistic experience. Furthermore, there is a task of appropriation within this scope in which the artistic creation provokes us to listen to the particular language of which the work speaks and to further make this language our own. Additionally, the symbolic character demands interpretation in which each encounter with a work of art will be different within the past, present, and future. Because the beauty of art demands our interpretation, beauty is a festival. Instead of just a moment viewing the art, the festivity of beauty teaches us to contemplate art and allows us to dwell along with the work. Thus, while we dwell, we enter a time outside of pure technical time in which we are introduced to the possibility of community. Beauty as festive describes how one becomes captivated by the beauty of art and this further takes one’s time and attention. Josef Pieper describes festival in relation to the workday, whereas work is an everyday occurrence, festival is something special, unusual, and an interruption to the ordinary passage of time (“In Tune with the World”, 3). However, Pieper recognizes that festivity is not just not working, it is looking, wondering and gazing upon something leading to a contemplative orientation. Pieper believes that one can celebrate anything only if they recognize that reality is good and that life is worth living. Pieper states that “to celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole” (“In Tune with the World”, 30). In relation to art, the invisible aspects of festivity, such as joy and gifts, must take a physical form and festivity can be made perceptible to the senses only through the medium of art.

An encounter that I have had with a beautiful piece of art includes my experience viewing the mural, Word of Life, on the Hesburgh Library. The mural depicts figures representative of Christian saints, thinkers, teachers, and writers which work to connect the topics of the library. The figures depicted are representative of different centuries and places in order to project the historical continuity of the Catholic Church. A resurrected Jesus Christ is depicted as the central figure, and as the great master, teacher, and a fountain of knowledge. Because of the grand scale of the work, 41 m tall and 21 m wide, it effectively manifests the three characteristics suggested by Gadamer. The work is playful as it portrays movement and reason and is intentional in the representation of the movement through historical time with its various scholars. The work is symbolic as a holistic experience occurs, as the viewer completes the work. I personally have felt challenged to listen to the language of the work while making it my own through exploring what is meant to be seen and what is left to be seen. Each experience with the mural is a different encounter for me as more becomes understood and seen. To me, the beauty of this work is festive because the viewing experience challenges me to contemplate the art, dwelling along with the work as I enter a time outside of pure technical time. The mural also relates to Pieper’s explanation of festivity as the aspects of joy and gifts take the physical form through the depiction of a resurrected Jesus Christ and his flowing knowledge to the great scholars of history. Festivity becomes perceptible to the senses through this work. As described by Gadamer and Pieper, Word of Life, manifests play, symbol, and festivity.

Junior at The University of Notre Dame, majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior. South Bend native and avid baker.