Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

By Scott Keith

Recently, I had a discussion with a good friend regarding the nature of beauty. He recalled a frequent argument he has had with another friend. The nature of their argument sought to answer if music can be categorized into bad, good, better, and best. In other words, can it be said that Bach is better than the Beatles or that the Beatles are better than Bach?

For my part, I cannot speak directly to Bach or the Beatles as I am not familiar enough with either to speak intelligently about the content or composition of their artistry. But I can say that I think there is an objective character to beauty and goodness. In fact, I think that there has to be.

What I am discussing is, of course, not a new argument. C. S. Lewis dealt with it, at least to some degree, in his classic text The Abolition of Man. Therein, Lewis begins his argument by explaining the state of things in his time, which I believe are certainly the state of things now.

“There is a widespread modern assumption that value judgments do not reflect any objective reality. For example, the authors of a textbook on English ‘for the upper forms of schools’ tell their pupils that language as we use it involves continual ‘confusion’ because, as they say, we often ‘appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.'” Lewis brings the argument back down to earth. When I say that something is sublime, or that something is beautiful, am I stating what I perceive to be reality, or am I stating my opinion?

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My perception is that the standard answer from our current societal milieu is to believe that all judgments of value––good, better, sublime, beautiful, ugly––are subjective and personal. But, by claiming that all value judgments are subjective, we seem to put ourselves in a situation where we are faced with an irreconcilable set of choices. Either we reckon that those around us will hold to at least some value judgments to be objective; or we reckon that they will not.

The first alternative seems to hold on to outdated modes of thinking not only regarding ugliness and beauty but right and wrong as well. Those who claim that this or that is beautiful, or good, or right seem to do so only because they think that it is. How do I objectively ground that I believe my wife to be beautiful? Is this not a subjective assertion?

The second alternative seems untenable. That is, do we expect that people will go through their lives believing nothing of value to be objective? The musician who believes this will have no reason to attempt for good music. The artist who believes this will have no reason to strive to make great art.

Now, we are left with a third option. Perhaps some things are good, true, and beautiful because God has declared them to be thus; and thus, they are. When I say this, I recall Romans 10:15, “And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!'” Having worked in the shoe industry for some time, I can tell you, feet are not beautiful. They are more often than not ugly, mangled, sore ridden, bacteria and fungus infected extremities. They are, perhaps, the ugliest part of any body.

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Yet, in the text, we are told that when they bring the Gospel, they are beautiful. So does the Bible lie here? No, feet, as they are referred to in this portion of Romans are covered with and overshadowed by the Gospel of Christ. They are beautiful because, in the Gospel, the bearer has been declared righteous––more beautiful than gold or silver––and his feet are part of his new man in Christ. They also are supplying the mode of transport so that the truth that is Christ can be shared from mouth to ear. Beautiful!

The objective character of beauty seems to be part of God. We share in it when He shares it with us. Through His creation, we see His created beauty. Through His Law, we see His created goodness. Through His Gospel, we see His sublime sacrifice for us.

“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) When God declares something to be right, good, or beautiful, it is. It is not good only because He declares it to be so. Rather it is in the declaring that His creation is covered with part of Him. So, though we are yet sinners, He reckons us righteous. In His declaration, on account of Christ, we share in who He is; good and beautiful. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3)

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo Sistine Chapel

Good writing, great art, and sublime music, are all attempts to tap into the beauty of God which we recognize all around us. Just as the idea of right and wrong, good and bad remain even in the unregenerate man (Romans 1:20), so to do ideas of beauty. Thus, any man can drive through the tunnel upon first entering Yosemite and say “that is beautiful.”

Too, we recognize good art, that which taps into the beauty God first created and declared. We discern that some people are gifted by the Lord with the ability to be great artists. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills––to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.’”

Our final task, when it comes to art and beauty, is to do just that. That is, to make every attempt to discern what is good, true, and beautiful. We may never find the rubric that definitively tells us that Bach is better than the Beatles, or that the Beatles are better than Bach. But, it does not serve us well to believe that an answer should not be sought. If all goodness, truth, and beauty are from the Lord, then it seems that goodness, truth, and beauty are in the eyes of one beholder. Those eyes are the eyes of the Lord. We simply attempt to tap into and recognize what He has left for us here and yearn for the day when His beauty will be revealed to us completely. For the sake of His Son, we will see Him face to face, and we will know fully goodness, truth, and beauty.

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9 thoughts on “Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

  1. Beauty is absolutely in the eyes of the beholder. My wife and I have been looking at literally hundreds of potential art canvases to place above the fireplace of our new apartment. These are relatively inexpensive and in the 100 to 300 dollar range, including abstracts, impressionistic, and pastoral scenes. Of course, each of us has an opinion on what grabs us. In some respects we agree a painting is bad, or not up to our individual taste, but sometimes we each like one which the other dislikes. In the end, I told her to pick what she wants, as I am not overly concerned. Like most guys, after awhile I won’t even notice the painting or the color of the sofa throw pillows when I come into the Living Room. It is a common “blocking” syndrome we husbands nurture since the first cave woman had her spouse move the rocks around their mountain habitats. Besides, I love my wife and what makes her happy makes me contented. “Happy wife equals happy life.” As for taste in music, we both are eclectic. In politics…both conservative. In our faith….the best part. We both love the Lord, and He loves us too,

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    1. John,

      Thank you for your comment. I have to say, I think we all run into a particular difficulty when it comes to the subject of art and beauty. The difficulty is that we seem to equate our appreciation and discernment, or lack thereof, of bad, good, better, and best to the actually good. At the end of the day I’m asking: Is there such a thing as objective beauty, even if I don’t appreciate it as such? If a piece of art is truly good, or great, and I simply don’t appreciate it as such, does that negate its greatness or beauty? If so, most art sucks because I appreciate little of it. Though I actually believe it is my discernment and level of appreciation that are off the mark, not the art. (At least in most cases.) Something to consider.

      On another note, I think that the phrase “happy wife happy life,” is overused and degrading. It makes men the subjects of their brides (if they want to be happy they better do what she wants), and women unjust dictators’ rules by their emotions (he better make me happy or I’ll make him miserable). Better to say, as you did, “Besides, I love my wife and what makes her happy makes me contented,” and leave it at that. I should have just let that go. Sorry.

      Thanks,

      Scott

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      1. Scott, too much psychoanalysis will drive one nuts. “Happy wife equals happy life” is not a degrading statement to women. Many women today use it themselves. We all know that men and women are different. Most men have displeased their wives and received “the look” and if a wife is unhappy about something, her boyfriend or husband will quickly learn how the mood changes quickly. It is not a big deal. I saw my mother and father relate to one another, and how my mother could push the old guys buttons when things were not as she liked. I watched my three sisters in action, and my wife of 45 years, as well as listened to my male friends discuss the reality of male-female relationships. We usually laugh about these things and honest women will admit that they do like things to go their way in a relationship. As men, we need to assert ourselves in important things, lest we become henpecked and too compliant.

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  2. You cannot conflate the “goodness” or beauty of an artistic expression or human aesthetics with that which is “good”, that is, moral. Attractiveness has no moral dimension. What is good in the eyes of God is both morally good and beautiful to behold, yet sin obscures that .

    Also, consider that, with artistic expression, time and place can be relevant. There are times when “Plan 9 from Outer Space” is a better film for the moment than “Citizen Kane.” Who hasn’t has a blast with MST3K? I recommend the RiffTrax “Sharknado.” If you’re a voracious reader, you know that you can’t always sit down to prize-winning literature. When “The Magic Mountain” gets dense, you flip to a Sherlock Holmes mystery or some such light fare. Again, there’s a quality that is good for the moment. Perhaps, in painting, we can find more objectivity – do Ad Reinhardt’s “Study for a Painting” pieces convey the truth and beauty of Monet’s water lilies? Quick, who’s better and why?

    For the record, I believe there are objective standards – Bach is better than the Beatles and Beethoven is better than both. Of course Orson Welles is better than Ed Wood. I think much modern art is a hoax and Versailles is a far more beautiful structure than the Freedom Tower. But I doubt any of these are heavenly concerns.

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  3. HLewis brings up a good question, at least for me. Can we look at a piece of secular art, or listen to a secular song, and say that it is beautiful, even if it doesn’t point us to the truth of God?

    Would we maybe filter that through a rubric of “reflecting the order inherent in God’s creation?”

    What about art that taps into human pain and suffering? I believe that can be beautiful as well, as we see in movies like Schindler’s List, or Picasso’s “Blue” paintings.

    What are your thoughts on how we, as Christians, can make judgment statements regarding art that is not explicitly based on God’s goodness in Christ, or His eternal order?

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    1. Actually you can tap into the order of God’s creation as you watch artistically rendered documentaries, for example, which show close up pictures of the beauty, danger, chaos, and raw emotion of the sea, the natural world, the life cycle of a butterfly, plants, soaring birds, predators and prey. And yes, some artists connect us to our own unspoken passions and feelings.

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      1. I think we run into a conundrum when we set a standard like “artistically rendered”. There is powerful truth confronting us when we walk into places and are confronted with unrendered, uninterpreted suffering. It is not pretty and we cannot identify the beauty of it in human terms, but God ordained this a place for Christ to be – a place for us to serve Him and for Him to serve through us. That truth is beautiful, even if it is covered in filth and we want to avert our eyes. If we see, instead the evil and degradation, the short view of the situation, we see ugliness. If we see what the situation could be with love brought to it, even if the love won’t completely fix it, we still see the beauty that is love (another difficult term to pin down). When is God’s love not beautiful?

        It is easy to be a saint staring at a sunset, enjoying a walk in the woods, admiring God’s creation. I am an avid outdoors person. I look for moments and have been treated to a small island filled with a flock of migrating bluebirds, seen acres of dry grass sporadically covered with dewy spiderwebs at dawn, watched spiders spin, turned over rocks to see the abundance of life in a small space, set up two telescopes with Jupiter and several moons on one side and Saturn on the other and spent hours moving back and forth between them. God and I enjoyed creation together in those moments. Unquestionably beautiful things. Easily perceived gifts of God. Art can touch these things and be objectively beautiful.

        But there is mission in cancer, drug abuse, loneliness, domestic violence, inner cities, young vets with PTSD – where there is mission, there is Christ, where there is Christ, there is truth and beauty. I think it is reasonable for art to show the evil that is in need of love’s healing, to show us where God needs us to go. Beautiful because it is truthful art can make us want to avert our eyes from it or close our ears to it. It could be howls of pain and confusion, anger and depravity, images of suffering, the effects of greed, the result of our poor stewardship of creation, our failure to love as we are loved. Anything that points us to Christ is a beautiful thing.

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    2. First, I guess I am linking good art to the idea of good generally. This may be a stretch. Also, I am not sure that the only thing good is that which is ordered, but I would say that which reflects God’s goodness. I should also say that I think that this can go too far in either direction (good is good becasue God is good, or alternately, God is good because He relflects goodness). I think we should be careful with extremes. I think that God is good. I think He created things as good and then declared them to be such and in so doing shared some His goodness with them. But I’ll go no further.

      Yet we all, pagan and Christian alike, see reflections/shadows of God’s goodness in what He has created, whether or not we or they admit that the core of the goodness whose shadow we see is from God. This is getting to be way too deep for me. Pagan and Christian alike, when they try for good art, whether they know it or not, are aiming for that which they recognizes as goodness which is ultimately from God. Thus Aristotle acknoweledges some art as “good” and some as “bad” and to be avoided.

      I’m not sure I answered your question, but I gave it a go.

      Scott

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  4. Those are some great insights and reflections. Its an interesting topic that I think needs more consideration. Its easy to dismiss every artistic expression as “worldly,” and by the same token I think its dangerous to simply consume, uncritically, all of the “worldly” art without any attempt to understand it on a deeper level.

    Good stuff to think about!

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