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April 1, 2020 · 9:35 pm

What is Beauty?


Dr. Lawrence Feingold speaks in the Chapel of Mercy Feb. 18, 2020.

Is beauty subjective or objective? Does it reflect man’s reality or reach higher?

On Feb. 18, Dr. Lawrence Feingold, Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy, Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, visited Mount Mercy to give the annual Aquinas Lecture sponsored by our religion and philosophy program. The speech was the first in the annual spring lecture series on faith and reason, this year centering on the “The Good Life.”

Feingold shared interesting ideas and his thought-provoking history. Growing up as an atheist, he converted to Catholicism while working as a sculptor in Italy, and went back to college to earn graduate and undergraduate degrees in theology.

He argued in his speech called “Beauty and the Good Life” that beauty is an objective ideal, not subjective. “Beauty is the seal of truth,” he said, quoting Pope Benedict.

Perceiving beauty in art, he said, is enhanced by experience and by education—it’s identified most clearly with the “well-formed mind’s eye.”

I am not educated in art, so my mind’s eye is probably not all that well formed. I liked Dr. Feingold’s talk, but I also found myself standing apart from it, a little. For one thing, his authorities on beauty were Catholic saints and popes—and what they mean by “beauty” probably has something to do with godliness. I think those are important voices to listen to, but I don’t know they are the only ones I want to hear on the topic of beauty.

And to me, “beautiful” and “good” can sometimes be confused, at least in human terms. That which is most pleasing to the eye is not always that which has the greatest depth of meaning. The old hag witch with the warty nose can sometimes have a purer heart than the most gorgeous super model.

Feingold wasn’t talking about strictly human physical beauty, or surface beauty, and I understand that. Yet, at one point he showed a painting by a teenage Picasso, who was portraying a scene with some Catholic religious themes. Later, as an atheist adult, Picasso’s art became less representational, and Feingold contrasted the teen Picasso’s work with a disturbing image painted in the 1930s by the adult Picasso.

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And that’s where I most resisted his thesis. The vibrant colors, the disturbing mix of parts, the many small figures in the adult work—to me, in some ways, the second paining was more creative, more interesting, had more to say and, yes, was to my ill-formed eye, more beautiful partly because I enjoy art that is provocative and well as evocative.

Which is not to say Dr. Feingold was wrong. After all, he’s studied the question in much more depth than I have and has an eye is much more formed. And when he said “beauty,” it was a shorthand for a whole intellectual structure, whereas I’m reacting more emotionally just to how I view the images. I concede that he has more expertise.

And, as a writer, much of what he said about beauty resonated. Writing is a creative endeavor, too, and makes more sense when it hangs together, when it has some sense of unity and is about something. A poet once noted that “poems should not mean, but be.” I disagree. Writing both is and means something, if it is worthwhile, and I think my point of view is more consistent with Dr. Feingold.

Yet, in my church, there is a relatively new crucifix over the altar, installed not long after a recent renovation. The figure of Christ in it is a bit abstract, almost faded into the background metal. At the time it was installed, it was a bit controversial, but I have always liked that particular crucifix. In being slightly abstract, in making the human figure suggested rather than literal, I feel like it invites me in and makes me think in a way that the more common representative figures seen in Catholic art don’t always do.

Abstract isn’t always bad. It can be beautiful. Anyway, having heard Dr. Feingold’s speech, I’m looking forward to the others in the spring series. I’ll still like a modern Picasso painting, but I appreciated the chance to hear an interesting rumination on what beauty is and what the Good Life means from a provocative thinker with a well-formed eye.

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Two Great Things to Say Thanks For

Thanksgiving 2019—I’m a day late with this post, but Thanksgiving Day was busy and long, in a good—playing with grandchildren, eating way too much dinosaur meat and pie—way.


Craziest wine contest, Thanksgiving day. Apple wine at the right won–it was crazy.

I have a lot to be thankful for this year, and I’m grateful to be writing this blog with no deadline—it’s OK to say thanks the day after Thanksgiving, I think. And this Thanksgiving, I can be full of gratitude for many things, but to me, two things that brighten my life stand out: Family and work.

He’s only 3, but he’s in a hurry to grow up and take on the world. At meals, he pauses regularly to stand by the table and indicate to us how tall he is growing. It wasn’t that long ago that he was the youngest grandson, but now in England he has a male cousin more than a year behind him, and in California, another cousin is on the verge of taking his first breath.

And I don’t value grandsons more than granddaughters—it’s proximity puts this young guy in front of my camera more often than his female and male cousins. So I’ll let his image stand in for the third generation:


Wiping his mouth after Thanksgiving morning hot chocolate break with his cousins.

Family—siblings, cousins, children, grandchildren—we can be a prickly bunch, we tease and tussles and disagree, but there is a deep well of love there, too. So thanks for family.

My job can make me weary at times. I’ve a mountain of projects to try to get done during this Thanksgiving “break” as the end of the semester is coming. But even as I’m buried in student worksheets and papers, there is also so much to be grateful for. I had the good luck, partly due to a timely nudge from my sister Cate, to land a faculty position at a small Catholic college some 18 years ago.

And it continues to be wonderful. Just in the past fortnight, I’ve been able to participate in some delightful events at Mount Mercy University:

I saw a nursing faculty member give an interesting presentation on the health implications of modern agriculture. Some 70 percent of antibiotic use in the U.S., she said, is for livestock. It was a sobering and eye-opening presentation.

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And then, on a recent Friday, several colleagues on the faculty reported on their summer research projects. One has written a book that is coming out in the spring. A math professor did things with numbers and charts that my youngest son would have to explain to me. A biology professor drilled into the mysteries revealed by chemical analysis of human teeth that are thousands of years old. One takeaway—apparently you can fly with a suitcase full of human jaws, even if you can’t take a decent sized bottle of shampoo.

Later, on that same Friday, my wife and I attended an Improv festival at Mount Mercy’s McAuley Theatre. MMU students, high school students and a visiting troupe from the University of Northern Iowa all reminded us of how energetic, bright and funny young people can be.

I’m glad to have been there, and thrilled that Karen, the staff member who leads the Improv group, is planning to bring the festival back next year.

So, I can be grateful for working at a place that keeps me in touch with young people and lets me labor to try to make some positive change in some of their lives. It’s a place that provides all kinds of mental diversions that help keep an old man curious and learning.

A loving wife, a large and active family, a job at a place with a mission I love …

Life is not perfect and has its share of heartaches and struggles, and mine is not perfect, either. But on the whole, it is darn good. All I can say is thanks.

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California Day 5: Walk on the Wild Side

Walking in Balboa Park.

Zoo day. If you have not visited Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo, I do recommend both.

Memorial Day was cool and pleasant in sunny San Diego. We arrived at the zoo at opening time, and met our native guide, Katie, a grad school friend of Nalena’s. With her easygoing manner and infectious laugh, she was the perfect zoo guide.

There was a lot to see, monkeys and snakes were, for me, among the highlights. We also ate lunch at the zoo, and I was pretty impressed at the quality of zoo chow in San Diego.

After visiting the elephants, we rode a suspended cable car across the zoo. For a man with a fear of heights, it was a death-defying feat, and I am happy to report death was defied.

Our crew at zoo, image by Katie.

Once done at the zoo, we strolled a bit at Balboa Park and paused for drinks at a bar in the park.

After that, Katie dropped us off at Extraordinary Desserts, where we enjoyed some decadent afternoon refreshment. There is a location very close to where we were staying, but our guide had taken us to another over a mile away. No matter, after cake, we decided a walk was a good idea.

Another pleasant California day. Flying back to San Francisco today!

Extraordinary Desserts time!

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California Day 4: Four Acres of Flight Deck

On the bridge of The Midway.

History was the theme of Sunday…maybe even transportation history, since planes and trains feature prominently.

We spent much of the day touring The Midway, a giant aircraft carrier launched in 1945. It serves for half a century, and was reconfigured from a WWII flight deck to a modern angled one.

The hanger decks and flight decks were packed with historic aircraft, and I may add a gallery of those in a few days when I download my camera.

While I liked the aircraft, I think the tour of the carrier island, even if it meant standing in line for a while, was the highlight.

That took a good part of the day. Later, we visited the Old Town area. An odd and entertaining diversion there was an anachronistic “train museum,” set up with models in a faux imagined 1950s town. At a model drive-in movie theater, “The Blob” was showing.

Later, we ordered Chinese food delivered and played spades.

Another historic day on the West Coast.

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California Day 3: All the Shacks

Why “The Crack Shack?” Well, their logo is a chick peeking out of an egg’s crack, and it is a chicken restaurant.

As we Lyfted away from the San Diego airport, Nalena told the driver we were changing addresses.

We ended up at The Crack Shack for a hearty feast…fried chicken, slaw, fries smothered in stuff, biscuits. It was hearty and grand and all inspired…with the possible exception of the biscuits, which were fine but a bit dry and nothing special.

After that was a sightseeing hike. I had been lukewarm to visiting the Midway, an aircraft carrier turned museum…but then I saw it and now I’m on board with exploring it. That may happen Sunday.

We walked around Little Italy and later met one of Nalena’s friends at a brewery. Then we planned a lighter supper of fish tacos, but the internet lied and the place was closed. So we had feast two at an Irish restaurant.

Not sure I have lost weight this trip, despite the walking. But day one in San Diego seemed to portend a pleasant visit. If you are not a chicken.

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Bad Political Ideas

The Gazette recently ran an editorial that resonates with me. “Iowa Senate Should Drop Flawed Election Bill” ran the headline.

The Gazette is right. The bill that prompted the editorial is truly terrible. It would end any satellite voting at state universities, and also ask all college students to sign an affidavit attesting intention to live in Iowa in order to not be dropped from voting rolls.


Front page of March 14 MMU Times. I hope all Iowa college campus newspapers are full of outrage over this awful law.

The first idea is not just voter suppression, but doubly damaging since it is directly counter to the need to draw young people into political life. It’s not as if college age people are over voting.

And as for the second idea—say what? When I retire, they won’t ask me if I plan to stay in Iowa. And suppose I do plan to move—that does not justify taking away my vote.

I’m not often moved to contact my state lawmakers, but I’m planning to, on this issue. It seems some elected officials in Des Moines are on the attack against the very foundation of representative government. Shame on them.

Speaking of shame, the Iowa king of shame, Rep. Steve King, has been at it again, posting a weird meme that seems to promote civil war–and that identifies Iowa as being on the liberal side of that conflict. Well, at least the crazy Congressman of western Iowa and I can agree on one thing–I would like to see a more blue Iowa, too.

Seth Meyers does a good takedown of King’s terrible moment:


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