What is Beauty?

I will be posting several articles related to aesthetics and the nature of beauty. The following is a review of a book I picked up a few years ago and will serve as an introduction to the topic. Enjoy!


toad-beauty


art-and-music

Crossway Press

What is beauty, and how do we identify it? While the nature of beauty has perplexed philosophers for generations, perhaps the problem is best illustrated by turning to children. In every home occupied by toddlers, there are likely numerous “works of art” hanging on the refrigerator door. What mother wouldn’t consider such pictures beautiful? But can a shaky, barely identifiable image, drawn by a three year old hand, actually be considered beautiful? Would a curator declare such a drawing beautiful enough to replace a Rembrandt or a Picasso in an overcrowded exhibition? Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake utilize this scenario in their book Art and Music: A Student’s Guide, to point out why so many in our society find it easy to accept aesthetic relativism. The idea that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” helps us understand how a mother genuinely finds beauty in a child’s drawing, while a curator does not. It helps explain the wide variety and dissimilarity that exists in people’s preferences of beauty. But is this thinking correct? Munson and Drake’s purpose is to prepare Christians to think Christianly about art and music. How does the Christian faith and scripture inform our understanding of art and music? What constitutes beauty in these mediums? The authors are convinced that how we come to view beauty, has a direct impact on how we view truth and goodness. Munson and Drake propose a distinctively Christian conception of beauty, that is both objective and absolute, while at the same time accounts for our apparent subjective differences in taste.

drake

Joshua Drake

In fleshing out this proposal, the authors begin with an analysis of the two major approaches to defining beauty. First, is the classical approach, which views beauty as objective and uniform. Beauty is seen as a characteristic of the object of perception, and can be empirically studied and measured. At first glance, this would appear to be in line with the Christian view of beauty that Munson and Drake are putting forth. In fact, the traditional perspective of Christians has been predominately classical. But the authors view this conception of beauty as inaccurate  and dangerously idolatrous.

munson

Paul Munson

But make no mistake: not only were the masterpieces of classical antiquity made in the service of idols but also the classical vision itself, at its purest, is an idol. When form is made absolute, when—like the media-bewitched teen starving herself before the mirror—we devote our lives to the pursuit of some created formal standard, the result is not beautiful at all, but wicked and ugly.[1]
Here, the authors connect this idea to C. S. Lewis’s warning against aestheticism. In The Weight of Glory, Lewis poetically cautions that the classical view of beauty can lead to idolatry, hinting at a more accurate conception (something the authors delineate later in the book).

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.[2]

Lewis is correct in his observation that the classicist conception has often led to the misguided notion of equating beauty with the object of perception. Perhaps, it is precisely this adoption of the classical approach that has led to the internal struggle that many Christians have with beauty. Why does God makes things beautiful, if beauty only serves to lead us away from him? Augustine, who clearly echoed Plato in defining beauty in terms of symmetry and proportion, writes of his own struggle in The Confessions:

Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved Thee! And behold, Thou wert within and I was without. I was looking for Thee out there, and I threw myself, deformed as I was, upon those well-formed things which Thou hast made. Thou wert with me, yet I was not with Thee. These things held me far from Thee, things which would not have existed had they not been in Thee.[3]

The authors maintain that the classical view is a mistake, not simply because we are sinful and inclined to abuse it, but because it is inherently idolatrous.

But idolatry is not the sole reason for rejecting this approach. The classical view tends toward uniformity, which seems to be at odds with our experience of beauty. If all things are beautiful in exactly the same way, how do we account for the diversity of tastes and the variety of perceptions regarding what is beautiful? It is precisely this phenomenon that has led to the second approach, which has become the most dominant. The postmodern approach maintains that beauty is not to be considered a quality of the object of perception, but rather a quality of the one perceiving. Beauty has essentially become synonymous with preference. It is precisely this kind of thinking that has led many to abandon the debate on what constitutes beauty. For the postmodern mind, there is no need to define what is relative to the individual and essentially undefinable.

It is at this juncture, that Munson and Drake begin to delineate a proper Christian conception of beauty. Building upon the teachings of scripture, the authors assert that beauty must be viewed as objective, rooted in the very nature of God.[4] A key verse for them is Mark 14:3-8 where Jesus commends the woman who has anointed him with oil. Jesus declares that she has done a beautiful thing. Instead of commending her for doing a good thing, he commends her for the way (or form) in which she worships him. Hearkening back to Lewis’s quote above, the authors then define beauty as the forms through which we recognize the nature and ways of God.[5] To make this clear, they juxtapose two scriptures discussing God’s creation. In Ecclesiastes 3:11, creation is referred to as beautiful. In Genesis 1:32 it is referred to as good. From this they infer that beauty is a form of communication. Beauty is the means through which God communicates truth and goodness. It is the means through which he communicates himself.

The authors are quick to distinguish this objective view from that of the classical approach. Yes, beauty is objective, but this does not mean that it is uniform. It also does not imply a cookie cutter approach to beauty where everyone must like the same things. Beauty is endlessly diverse. But how can this be the case if beauty is rooted in the unchanging nature of God? Beauty is endlessly diverse because it reflects and communicates the infinite glory of God. Because no mind can comprehend beauty in its fullness, we all see different aspects of it. Because we all have different backgrounds and experiences, we all have different perspectives and preferences. It therefore becomes necessary to view beauty as transcendentally objective.[6] In this regard, the authors believe that the Christian view of beauty is the only view that can properly account for both objectivity and subjectivity.[7]

The authors also assert that this is not a relativistic approach to beauty. The postmodern, relativistic approach implies that no one preference for beauty is better than another. When we are left with such a predicament, it leads to indifference. When no one’s view of beauty is better than anyone else’s view, then there is no need to learn from others or attempt to expand our understanding of beauty. Each person’s perception of beauty represents an objectively knowable facet of the overall concept of beauty. If we are going to come to a better and more complete understanding of beauty, then we must learn from others. “If we are going to see as much of God’s glory as possible, we have to learn to see through others’ eyes.”[8]

Returning to the illustration at the start of this essay, we can easily see how both the mother and curator are merely seeing different aspects of beauty, and to different degrees. In her child’s drawing, the mother rightly perceives beauty. The child’s picture communicates several objectively good things, namely love, imagination, and the development of fine motor skills. But the curator is also making a correct assessment of beauty in not including the child’s picture in his exhibition. He is trying to find the highest and best examples of beauty, and certainly the child’s work does not compete with those of Picasso, although some might feel otherwise. Munson and Drake conclude that to a certain degree, beauty is present is all art. Both the child’s drawing and Picasso’s painting are beautiful. However, this does not mean that all art reflects the same degree of beauty.

. . . the beauty of any object is its capacity to proclaim truth and to realize goodness. The ugliness of any object is the sum of all the ways in which it obscures truth and impedes goodness, which means that everything in this cursed world is both beautiful and ugly. Some things will be mostly beautiful, and some will be mostly ugly, but everything will be a mix.[9]

Munson and Drake next consider the question of art and music for the sake of enjoyment and leisure. Too many Christians believe that pursuing aesthetic pleasure is a waste of time. The authors provide several reasons, based upon general revelation, why this attitude is mistaken. Most notably, is the idea that Christians ought to start thinking of the artist or musician as expounding upon God’s natural revelation much in the same way that a preacher expounds on God’s special revelation. Just as not every Christian is gifted as a pastor, with the ability to exegete scripture, not every person is gifted as an artist, with the ability to observe and communicate through art the often obscured truths of general revelation. By means of color, symmetry, exaggeration and even abstraction, the artist draws our attention to the details of God’s revelation through the created order. The artist helps us see truth and goodness more clearly. She communicates a message, much like a pastor. And just as there are bad pastors, those who fail to communicate appropriately or clearly, so also there are bad artists and musicians. While Hegel is certainly not coming from a Christian perspective, I think he perfectly illustrates this when he talks about art being “born again.”[10] There is truth that is communicated via the created order, which receives added emphasis and clarity as it is reborn through the artist’s work. The artist should be seen as highlighting, elucidating, and communicating things that fallen men and women might not have seen, or might have glossed over in the busyness of life. Beautiful art and music reminds us that we need to stop, look, listen and read God’s works. Seeing it in this capacity, the Christian needs to understand that avoiding art would be disastrous. Those who fail to take the time to enjoy and appreciate beautiful art and music, or even worse focus solely on bad art and music, will inevitably become desensitized to truth and goodness.

The book concludes on a very practical note, providing the student with guidelines for judging art and music, and then asking the student to make applications. Every Christian’s goal ought to be identifying those works of art and selections of music that best communicate the true and the good, that best exemplify beauty. Here the authors once maxresdefaultagain turn to C. S. Lewis for insight. In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis challenges the Christian to seek out art and music that reveals new ways of thinking, and enriches one’s life. We can either use art and music to reinforce what we already believe, or we can allow it to teach us, imparting truth and goodness. Ultimately, this means judging art and music on the basis of its purpose. Does it promote an evil use, or the reception of ideas that are evil? If so, then it should be considered ugly art. In this sense ugliness should be understood as a form that “poorly realizes a good purpose, whether it be a good use or the reception of something good.”[11]

In applying these ideas, the authors ask the reader to evaluate three separate works of pictorial art, spending at least fifteen minutes alone in contemplation before reading the author’s own analysis.[12] These instructions are repeated in the final chapter, with three separate musical compositions. In each case, the reader is looking for ways in which the artist or musician is communicating truth and goodness. Several study questions are provided for further reflection, along with a glossary of key terms and a list of suggested resources.

While I found this book to be a compelling introduction to discerning the nature of beauty in art and music, I believe it comes up short in two areas. First, in the area of providing a distinctively Christian approach. Art and Music: A Student’s Guide, is just one volume in an eleven volume series entitled Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition. And yet, while the authors are clearly influenced by C. S. Lewis, they fail to significantly incorporate any other representatives from the long tradition of Christian thinkers writing on beauty. While I am fascinated by the position that the authors take, I am not sure this represents what Christians have traditionally held. In what is arguably the most important chapter of the book, when the authors are delineating their definition of beauty as transcendentally objective, there is more hints of Immanuel Kant and Werner Krieglstein, than there is to any distinctively Christian ideas. If one is hoping to learn about the rich tradition of Christian thought on art and music, this is not the book.

Second, the authors fail to provide any strong reasons for accepting the position they are asserting. Regarding the connection between beauty, truth and goodness, the scriptural argument is weak. This seems more of an assumption inherited from the classical approach, rather than anything based upon clear passages of scripture. Regarding their definition of beauty, if the authors are going to completely redefine how most people intuitively define beauty, then they will need to provide greater biblical and philosophical support. I found the proposal very intriguing, I just wish they have made a more convincing case. In the end, it comes across sounding more like a postmodern approach to beauty (everything is beautiful, everything is ugly), nuanced slightly to retain the appearance of objectivity.

Ultimately, the book did not provide the definitive clarity I had hoped. I am still unsettled in my views about the nature of beauty. However, the book did engage me enough to make me want to study this question further. What truly is the traditional Christian view of beauty? Do we need to re-think our understanding of beauty and settle on a view that somehow bridges the gap between the classical and postmodern approach, as Munson and Drake attempt to do?

As a fun activity until the next posting, how do you think Munson and Drake would respond to the Voltaire quote at the top? How would you respond?

[1] Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake, Art and Music: A Student’s Guide (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 23-24.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 29. Italics mine.

[3] Augustine, “Augustine, from Confessions,” in Theological Aesthetics: A Reader, edited by Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen (Grand Rapid, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 1.10.5, Kindle.

[4] The biblical argument presented by the authors rests solely on Psalm 27:4.

[5] Munson and Drake, Art and Music, 35.

[6] Munson and Drake, Art and Music, 37.

[7] The language throughout this section seems to echo that of Werner Krieglstein and his thoughts on transcendental perspectivism. However, it should be distinguished that the authors are not making the argument that man can know nothing of the beauty of God, or that what defines absolute beauty is somehow relative to each individual’s own context and perception. Each individual has a tendency to hone in on certain aspects of beauty, on the basis of upbringing and personal experience. But each perceived aspect is still objectively discernible.

[8] Munson and Drake, Art and Music, 38.

[9] Ibid., 40.

[10] Arthur C. Danto, The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2003), 12-13. Of course, the Christian would not go as far as Hegel and claim that the artist’s work speaks with greater clarity and truth.

[11] Munson and Drake, Art and Music, 91.

[12] The authors do not provide a clear delineation of “things” to look for when contemplating these works. They more or less challenge the reader to take a disinterested approach and allow the works to speak to them. When reviewing the analysis of the authors, it is clear that they are employing knowledge of artistic style and art history. The student interested in getting more specific details on what to look for might find Joshua C. Taylor’s Learning to Look: A Handbook for the Visual Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) exceptionally helpful.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: A Freak No Longer: An Analysis of Christ & the Disciples at Emmaus | Wrestling with Truth

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