Mona Lisa, Taylor Swift, and Metaphysics

As if to prove the point I made last week about woke iconoclasm, the Mona Lisa has suffered a vicious attack.

“On Sunday, two women defaced the Mona Lisa, splattering the masterpiece with pumpkin soup,” I reported in my Salvo column. In my article on the attack, I try to look beyond the immediate circumstances of the attack (the vandals were trying to make a political point about agricultural reform) to consider the larger trend toward leveraging art for political agendas. The politicization of art ignores precisely why we should be invested in defending our great art and literature.

There are many reasons to defend our artistic heritage. Art humanizes us through offering a respite from the problems of the present. Art connects us to the permanent things which buffer us from whatever chaos may be raging in our own time. Moreover, meaningful art—whether paintings, symphonies, poems, novels, or beautiful architecture—links us to the past and thus grounds us in something far deeper than our contemporary political woes. But above all, art is valuable not because of what it can do for us, but simply because of what it is intrinsically…

The intrinsic value of beautiful art is precisely what we are in danger of losing through the revolutionary mindset that would reduce art to mere fodder for activism, whether that mindset is reflected in the creative process (making art only to advance an activist agenda), or the destructive process (destroying art to make a statement), or the interpretive process (critical theories that interpret the liberal arts through the lens of grievance studies, post-colonialism, diversity and inclusion problems, etc.)

You can read the rest of my thoughts at my article, “Mona Lisa Attacked: How Radical Leftists Are Set on Destroying Our Artistic Heritage.”

Now let’s talk about the Swifties. The music sensation just made history with best album award. There are many reasons why Swift has been so successful, but one overlooked factor may be her image as someone in whom physical beauty is blended with a certain weakness of character. At least, that is what I’ve argued at an article I published this last weekend at The Circe Institute. I note that:

The songs of Taylor Swift present an organic link between beauty and badness. Consider her 2015 hit, “Wildest Dreams,” which integrate a man’s physical attractiveness with his bad character:

“He’s so tall and handsome as hell
He’s so bad, but he does it so well”

Even Swift’s own brand of female attractiveness is due, in a large part, to her image as a woman in which physical beauty blends with a certain weakness of character, as reflected in her 2022 hit, “Anti-Hero.” In this song, Swift confesses to “covert narcissism I disguise as altruism,” while returning to a refrain:

“It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me

It’s me, hi, everybody agrees, everybody agrees”

I’m not trying to pick a fight with the Swifties. I understand why many find it therapeutic to hear Taylor Swift openly acknowledge her insecurities and weaknesses, even if her authenticity is highly curated. My larger point is simply that Taylor Swift is an emblem of a much larger trend toward romanticizing dysfunction—one which ultimately hinges on a world picture in which beauty is disintegrated from goodness.

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The larger point I’m making in my Circe article is about the role of the transcendental attributes of being in education. In the tradition of Christian metaphysics, the transcendental attributes of being (Goodness, Truth, and Beauty) are seen as integrated and inseparable from one another. Our goal as educators is to resist the devilish bifurcation between goodness and beauty. And in that, we find an unlikely ally in the poetry of Lord Byron, and his classic poem “She Walks in Beauty,” written in praise of Mrs. Anne Beatrix Wilmot. From my Circe Institute article, “She Walks in Beauty: Lord Byron, Taylor Swift, and the Teacher’s Vocation“:

One of the reasons [Byron’s poem “She Walks in Beauty”] has resonated with so many people is that it encapsulates a truth we all know in our bones, that goodness is beautiful. What impressed Byron about Anne was not just her dark hair and soft visage; rather, he was struck by how her physical charms integrated with a rightly ordered soul, as reflected in serene thoughts, a peaceful mind, an innocent heart, and days in goodness spent. The gentle beauty of night becomes a metaphor for this woman’s loveliness, which comes not from the gaudiness of ostentation and display, but in the enchantment of her serene character.

Throughout the ages, Christian have taught that beauty is the splendor of truth and the radiance of the good. Together the triumvirate of goodness, truth and beauty make up what philosophers have called the transcendental attributes of being. Rightly understood, these transcendentals are inseparable from one another. Byron’s poem integrates the transcendental attributes of being in the image of a person who is not only beautiful and good, but who is beautiful as a result of her goodness. As such, she is an image of Christ’s character, in whom goodness, truth, and beauty are all perfectly harmonized.

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