A Sacred Look: Television as Art
With Sr. Nancy Usselmann on March 21, 2016

Each month throughout 2016, we are proud to feature regular articles from two of the most spiritually aware and keen thinkers in the discipline of theology and film we know – Sr. Nancy Usselmann and Avril Speaks. We have commissioned both of them to write new series considering particular questions pertinent to those of us who are interested in how Christians can contribute positively to the world of cinema. In the third and fourth weeks of each month of this year, we will feature the next article in each of their series. These articles will remain on our website throughout 2016, but at the end of the year, we will remove them and publish a reworked, edited version of their series in a pair of books available thereafter for purchase.

Sr. Nancy Usselmann is the newly appointed director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA, a position formerly held by Sr. Rose Pacatte. Believing Christians of all catechisms can learn from each other, we're excited to feature Sr. Nancy's distinctly Catholic vision for how we can all become more spiritually aware movie-goers and how we can share that experience with the world. You can find her entire series archived here. - Editor

When I want to relax and watch television, I often find myself watching re-runs of Everybody Loves Raymond. Ray Romano, writer, director and principle actor as Ray Barone in the series, shares about everyday experiences and the dysfunctions in family life. Being from an Italian background, I laugh heartily at the interaction with his mother, Marie Barone, played by the effervescent Doris Roberts. Somehow I can relate to all the realities of relationships, the struggles and desires that are expressed in the series. They touch upon ultimate realities but in such a comical way that the observer cannot help but smile at these blunders of humanity. There are elements of beauty, truth, and goodness of human interactions present in the scripts that kept the series on air for over nine seasons and formed a generation of Americans. It teaches that sometimes we just take life and situations a bit too seriously. It was a creative and artistic way of helping me think deeply about life, relationships, and beauty through the gift of laughter. It made me consider the theological aesthetics present in television drama and comedy.

Aesthetics is a way of perceiving through the senses. It refers to the use of the faculties of imagination and intuition whose products are often poetry and art.[1] Alexander Baumgarten who coined the word said that aesthetics is, “the art of thinking beautifully.”[2] The word aesthetics is often referenced in regards to the beautiful or art that conveys a transcendent sense of beauty present in nature or in the human experience. Yet, is the natural end to aesthetics beauty? Is the end of all art to necessarily communicate beauty, as some may suggest?

Some art is the pursuit of beauty but some art is about communication, expression, playfulness[3], and representation of the deeper realities of human existence, and these are not always beautiful but can be painful struggles, intellectual angst, and existential yearnings. Many modern artists were in pursuit not of the beauty of life, but the ugliness. Such artists as Picasso were pursuing a shock value that forces viewers to look deeply at the issues of the modern psyche.[4] Picasso, as well as Hirst and Pollock, have in some ways brought out the ugliness in art. Barry Taylor, in A Matrix of Meanings, says, “that ugliness served as a great metaphor for life in the modern world.”[5] With all the horrors of war—the brutality of human beings toward other human beings that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have produced—art often expresses this in rough, distorted figures and strokes.[6] It is an avenue of communicating the human angst and desire for the more. In this way, aesthetics can be a locus for theological reflection. There is beauty in art, and that must be recognized and celebrated. Yet, how is grace present in the world? How does art represent the hungers of humanity for the spiritual? How is it a conscious expression of the transcendental tension between grace and sin? This is the role of a theological aesthetics.

Theological aesthetics is the study of God and religion in relation to sensible knowledge, that which is art and the beautiful. In pursuing God, who is Beauty itself, the human being longs for the true and the good. These transcendentals, or modes of being, are what lead us to a relationship with God. As Hans Urs von Balthasar notes, if theology ceases its connection to and pursuit of beauty it then loses any ability to convince and persuade.[7] Augustine sees beauty even when its opposite is present, saying that everything can be seen as beautiful if is it perceived in God as the ultimate source. God, he says, can even be praised in darkness.[8] It requires an inner journey to perceive true beauty. However, Bruno Forte explains Augustine’s perspective by saying that an ambiguity is always present when we perceive creaturely beauty, because this can distract us from the true beauty of our Creator, to which all creaturely beauty should point. He continues to expound that we can have a “deformed vision” blinded by sin, and so it causes us to not see the beautiful harmony in the divine plan.[9] Yet, God pursues us through the beauty that is his divine essence, so that everything becomes beautiful, since everything is touched by this Beauty who is Love. Forte says, “everything is beautiful, because supreme Beauty touches everything it loves, even when weak eyes or a heart wounded by evil are unable to perceive this Beauty’s mysterious and fruitful presence.”[10]

An entire network of interconnectedness exists in the world through this relationship of every created thing to the Creator, which, as Augustine relates, beauty comes to us and we move toward the Supreme Beauty.[11] The ultimate revelation is the eternal beauty becoming flesh, becoming perceptible to human senses. The Word made flesh offers the superabundance of life making a way for us to gain access to the Supreme Beauty, the Trinity who is the source of perfect joy and beauty and the way to salvation. Forte says that, “The beauty of ultimate Love evokes the love of beauty, which little by little draws our inner selves to travel the path that leads to perfect joy in God, who is all in all….in beauty everything is made one, and all things find their ultimate meaning.”[12] God’s self-communication in the Word made flesh points us to an other-worldly beauty, an eternal beauty offering the complete fulfillment of every human desire. The pursuit of this eternal beauty nudges us on to see beyond the penultimate to what is of supreme attraction, that which fulfills all our deepest longings. Beauty is the very communicative dimension of love in the Trinity.

Theological aesthetics shows how the very realms of imagination, feeling, emotion and art are where faith is expressed and so must be a locus of theological reflection. Popular culture, too, is the embodiment of religious experience and is the place where the popular and mythic dimension of life contains the symbols and rituals of modern existence. It requires, according to Karl Rahner, the hermeneutical task of interpreting the use of symbol and art as a theological source.[13] Popular culture is not only the realm of religious experience but also is an expression of the human spiritual dimension that embodies transcendence.[14] It is part of the human DNA to seek the supernatural, the ultimate Beauty, the Divine. Art, Rahner explains, can be truly inspired and be a bearer of divine revelation, of God’s self-communication, through grace.[15]

Aesthetics of Popular Culture

If we understand popular culture as a means of God’s self-communication and grace present in the world, then we can apprehend culture’s artifacts as a pursuit of that ultimate Beauty. Are these cultural artifacts truly art? If art can express the beauty and ugliness of humanity, the supernatural desires and the overwhelming struggles, the lofty hope and crushing anguish, then can it not also be present in popular culture? Many often consider television as cultural art subordinate to the cinema. Yet, cultural sociologist John Storey considers television to be “the popular cultural art form of the twenty-first century.”[16] Art is creative storytelling, and television is storytelling that brings the audience into intimate connection with characters living through complex scenarios and human experiences. Some go so far as to call this era “the second golden age of television” or “the golden age of TV drama.”[17] The twenty-first century is witness to a vast development of television as a form of art, good art that brings a cinematic drama to its storyline. Some cultural critics, including Storey, see that cinema is no longer the defining cultural art form, but television has taken over and become a main influencer in popular culture.

If we consider the television drama of the current century with the likes of Suits, House of Cards, The Sopranos, Madame Secretary, Grey’s Anatomy, The Walking Dead, NCIS and all the spinoffs of these types of dramas, we can appreciate the influence they have had on popular culture. Television, many critics will say, is a business, with the advertisers as the deciding factor of whether a show begins, continues, or ends on any network. Since it is controlled by business, it has not proven to be a medium through which artists can truly express themselves or their craft. Armond White from the New York Times goes so far as to comment that, “Film is art, television is a medium.” Yet, can the cultural artifacts of television still be considered art? Is television art that inspires transcendence and beauty?

There is no doubt that television creates some of the most iconic images of our times. It used to be only cinema that produced posters with images of the film, giving it cultural iconic status. Television, beginning with The Sopranos, now has movie-style posters for each season, thereby creating defining commercial images. One commentator notes, “The days of television as a secondary artistic medium, in the literal sense—in terms of generating iconic pieces of art and design—are clearly long gone.”[18] Popular art is art that reaches the masses. If we are to consider popular culture’s art, what medium reaches the largest number of people other than television? Television has the unique cultural contribution of connecting people from diverse cultural backgrounds and generations. It has a continuous storyline that becomes topics of conversation and creates communion. There are groups that had Downton Abbey tea parties as they gathered to watch the latest episode. We must also consider the over 52 milliion people who watched the final episode of Friends. The social media connection to television has also increased its popularity. People can tweet their comments and votes during telecasts for competition shows such as So You Think You Can Dance and The Voice, while shows such as The Good Wife have tweets going out during the episode.

Popular media art is multi-dimensional. There are several art forms being utilized in television. The length of the story is similar to reading a novel. The various episodes are like chapters of a book that keep us interested in the development of characters and involved in their lives, such as in Grey’s Anatomy. We follow the personal and professional dramas of Dr. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and her interactions with the other surgical interns, surgeons, and various patients at Seattle Grace Hospital. Her on-again off-again relationship with Dr. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) made her character relatable especially to women who look for that “perfect relationship” that will be the answer to all their longings. The soundtracks of television shows draw us in emotionally to the drama and allow us to experience the depth and feeling of the characters, especially in crime dramas such as NCIS and NCIS: LA whose crime investigators solve murder cases involving military personnel often with intense theatricality. The artistic sets and acting all draw the viewer into the story and make one think and feel with the characters. Some cultural critics say that the complex narratives of contemporary television can now provide an enriching alternative to literature. Gary Holmes of calls television, “the most vibrant and exciting art form of the 21st century.”[19] Julian Fellowes, creator of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, says of television, “Those who reject the medium of their time are doomed.”

Perhaps the question is not whether television is high art or low brow entertainment but rather is it aesthetically pleasing and does it provide insight and deep questioning of the human experience? People today are discerning audiences and look for the art as well as the story. Granted, there is a lot of poor quality art and storytelling on television. However, there are quite a number of programs that wrestle with very serious issues and questions in society in profoundly compelling ways. Many television dramas express “life-affirming inquiries into the human condition,” as Gary Holmes from would say.

Madame Secretary tells the story of Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) who is Secretary of State as well as wife and mother. The show, produced by Barbara Hall, pursues ethical issues that politicians face daily and considers those who take the high road response to crisis situations with the least amount of casualties while emphasizing that truth is always the best response. The same considerations are in The Good Wife, with Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), a high-powered Chicago lawyer, who confronts legal issues with moral integrity. Yet, there are moments of hesitation and weakness. The “God issue” often comes to fore in dialogue with her daughter who is Christian while she remains atheist. The increasingly popular show House of Cards shows the extent corruption and revenge can do to a person when congressman Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) pursues those who have overlooked him, including the President of the United States. He is on a climb for power that demeans, as opposed to power that seeks the common good. Will it eventually overtake him and consume him?

When The Sopranos aired its final season some critics regarded it as the greatest television series of all time. This American crime drama, created by David Chase, follows the mobster, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), in his everyday experiences and lifestyle. In one episode, his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) struggles with her husband’s constant infidelities yet she is unwilling to risk the loss of the affluent lifestyle that his business status brings her. It becomes an ethical and moral dilemma in her character. With narratives such as this, The Sopranos won over twenty Emmys and five Golden Globe Awards. David Remnick of The New Yorker called it, “the richest achievement in the history of television,”[20] while Peter Biskind of Vanity Fair says it is, “perhaps the greatest pop-culture masterpiece of its day.”[21]

Theology, according to Karl Rahner, needs to take account the aesthetic dimension of life, of the feeling, emotion, beauty and art as the primary religious language so that images and emotion are integrated into its discourse. This allows us, he says, to go beyond concepts and enter into the experience of the mystery of God.[22] Art is an expression of these human experiences that have profound meaning of themselves, and an even more transcendental connotation when taken from a theological perspective. Art, says Andre Gide, is a “collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.”[23] So, can popular culture be a place for a theological aesthetic? In reviewing the art of television through its creative and sophisticated storytelling this cultural artifact can indeed be a place for theological aesthetic reflection. The human experience is the place of encountering grace, of encountering the Divine. It is the realm for creatively articulating the human realities and transcendental modes of being. Within this, artistic beauty gives voice, vision, understanding to those desires, emotion, and experiences that cannot be articulated for the masses except through the sound, symbol, color, and visual art that is television.

[1] Richard Viladesau, Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty and Art, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 6.
[2] Ibid., 6.
[3] Ibid, 10.
[4] Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor, A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 275.
[5] Ibid., 276.
[6] Ibid., 277.
[7] Valadesau, Theological Aesthetics, 12.
[8] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty: Towards a Theology of Aesthetics, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 9.
[9] Ibid., 9.
[10] Ibid., 10.
[11] Ibid., 10.
[12] Ibid., 11.
[13] Viladesau, Theological Aesthetics, 17.
[14] Ibid., 18.
[15] Ibid., 18-19.
[16] John Storey, Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture, Second Edition, (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2003), 9.
[17], March 15, 2013.
[18], March 15, 2013.
[19] Gary Holmes, Can Television be High Art?,, March 5, 2013.
[20] David Remnick, “Family Guy: The End of the Sopranos”, The New Yorker, June 4, 2007.
[21] Peter Biskind, “An American Family,” Vanity Fair, April 2007.
[22] Viladesau, Theological Aesthetics, 12.
[23] Detweiler, Matrix of Meanings, 278.

Sr. Nancy Usselmann is a Daughter of St. Paul and the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA. She has over twenty-five years experience leading retreats, teaching workshops, and giving presentations helping spiritually-minded media creators and consumers understand media relative to their faith and vice versa. You can follow her on Twitter and read her regular musings on media on her website.

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