Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder?
What is Beauty? Is it objective or subjective? Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder?
It has been said that we fear what we do not understand. We grow to hate what we fear. And we destroy what we hate. In many ways we do not understand Beauty, and we have tried to destroy it. We try to destroy Beauty by robbing it of power. We do this by trivializing it. We make beauty something "pretty" with no power to speak to us. Theologian Hans Urs VonBalthasar put it this way.
"We no longer dare to believe in Beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it."
Then we go further by claiming that beauty is subjective, that everyone determines for themselves what is beautiful. We say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
The problem is, no one really believes that. Certainly there are differences in taste. But deep in our hearts we know what is beautiful.
David Clayton, provost of Pontifex University, has demonstrated this in some of his classes. He will show his students pictures of two different churches and ask which of the two is more beautiful. Invariably he will get a majority, if not a unanimity, of students preferring one church over the other. Beauty is not as subjective as one might think.
Beauty is a transcendental. Transcendentals are properties of being that transcend the limits of time and place and are rooted in existence or reality. Transcendentals do not depend on culture, religion, or personal ideologies. Transcendentals are objective features of everything that exists, they are in a sense attributes of God.
As God has revealed Himself and Hs creation to us over time we have come to recognize three transcendentals, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. These transcendentals, as properties of being, can teach us about God.
In theory we speak of these transcendentals as being complimentary. If something is Good, it is also True and Beautiful. Likewise if something is True, it is also Good and Beautiful. But when we consider Beauty, apart from her sisters, things begin to get complicated.
We are all drawn to Beauty. It is part of our nature. It is a spark of the Divine imparted to us by the Creator. Beauty is a part of God, and as such, it is a way in which we are connected to Him. It is a connection that leaves us feeling incomplete until we are completed in Him.
"My heart is restless, O God, until it rests in Thee." - St. Augustine of Hippo
Archbishop Cordileone of the archdiocese of San Francisco has pointed out that "Beauty is important because it's one f the ways in which we can be in touch with the divine and draw others to be in touch with the divine.
The Power of a Sunset
Have you ever been so struck by he beauty of a sunset that just for a moment you lose all sense of time? Everything else just fades away and just for that instant, the only thing that mattered to you in the entire world, was that sunset. It was a moment that transcended the mere passing of seconds. You may even have felt something that you could only describe as homesickness. That feeling is a longing for God, the ultimate source of all that is True, Good, and Beautiful.
We long for the beauty of the place we were created for, a place where we can walk with God, side by side. We spend our existence trying to recapture Eden. In our efforts to rediscover Eden, that place of Joy, we are continually creating new revelations of God through that spark of creativity that God has imparted to us.
Because of this longing for the Beauty of God, art is an inevitable part of what man does. We are created in the image and likeness of God, with the capacity for imagination and thought. It is natural for us to have art. We see this in all ages and in all cultures.
Beauty and Art
Some of the earliest human art we know of is found on the walls of a cave in Lascaux, France. No one knows for certain why they were painted. Some of the paintings are in places that are difficult to get into. You have to squeeze through narrow fissures and and climber immense boulders.
I should say that scientists and archaeologists cannot tell us why they were painted. Theories include everything from shamanistic ritual magic, to the paleolithic equivalent of teen graffiti. But is it really so far fetched to believe that 17,000 years ago, man still pursued revelations of the Divine through works of Beauty?
The Eastern View
The eastern fathers of the Church have contributed much to our understanding of the connection between Beauty and the Arts. We owe much to their thoughts and meditations on the place of beauty in our lives. And as the East and the West, the "two lungs of the Church," have shared much of their respective cultures in recent years, western scholars and theologians have come to recognize the value of a theology of Beauty.
What we learn from the eastern tradition is that Beauty has the power to draw us beyond itself and point to its source. When we consider a beautiful painting we are initially drawn to its superficial aesthetics. But then it should draw us beyond the painted surface to contemplate the Truth and Goodness behind the image.
Of the three transcendentals, Beauty is the one we seem to understand the least. It is easy to see how the pursuit of what is True can lead us to a greater understanding off God. The same applies to Goodness. When we act rightly, we learn more about God and the reality of creation. This is no less true with Beauty. Beauty speaks to us through our imagination, allowing us to perceive reality on an intuitive, a poetic or connatural level.
There is objective Beauty in the world. It can tell us about God, and it can also tell us much about ourselves and our place in creation.
this article originally appeared at www.DeaconLawrence.org
Pontifex University is an online university offering a Master’s Degree in Sacred Arts. For more information visit the website at www.pontifex.university
Lawrence Klimecki, MSA, is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog at www.DeaconLawrence.org