Beauty in the Eye

It has become a repeated theme among Christians, particularly those bent toward philosophical constructs, that beauty is not subjective, but objective. The reasoning behind this is that God is the supreme object of beauty, as He is also the supremacy of being, love, grace, justice, righteousness, and all other virtues. So if God is the ultimate origin and manifestation of beauty, then levels of beauty can be defined by their adherence to or parallel to God Himself. Makes sense, right?

This provides a very useful argument against the unrelenting march of post-modern thought into realms of art. A piece of obscene “art” can be denied as beautiful because it runs contrary to God and His design in creation. A stark example would be the work of Andres Serrano, where he photographed a crucifix submerged in urine. This cannot be defined as “beautiful” because it is defying the God who is the definition of beauty.

To be clear, there are certainly objective elements to beauty, like symmetry. The ability to accurately represent God’s creation in an art form is truly the science behind the art. Yet if we only define the beauty of an artwork in terms of symmetry, order, proportions, and harmony, then it could be posited that Piet Mondrian’s paintings (the ones with black lines and squares of white and primary colors) exceed the beauty of Michelangelo’s David. No one in their right mind would actually claim that, though.

The whole discussion of beauty in art was much simpler before technology. A painter or sculptor was largely valued by their ability to recreate what occurred in nature. Picasso’s work would have stood no chance in the 1600’s amid portrait painters (though Picasso actually had the skill to paint realistically). Yet photography changed the landscape of art, and now with the advances of science, a precise recreation can be made which no artist can mimic with paintbrush or chisel. Art shifted from imitating an objective reality to capturing subjective emotion and experience, impressions upon the heart and mind. And before you dismiss that notion, would you rather see a photograph of a lily pad or Monet’s paintings?

This conceptualization of purely objective beauty does not really function in a world that has real subjectivity. When we use this word in our everyday lives, not a philosophical vacuum, it is connotative and subjective. The beauty of a thing is enhanced or diminished by both knowledge and experience. Durer’s painting of the praying hands becomes more beautiful to the viewer when the history behind it is known. Certain songs may be more beautiful to me than to you because of the memories I have attached to them. I can even say that my wife is more beautiful to me than to others because of what I have learned about her in 14 years together and the experiences we have shared.

While God and truth are objective matters, we are still subjective creatures in a largely subjective world. Because a major component of “beauty” is the emotional experience of something, it will always have an inherent subjectivity. It is true that the full-blown post-modern, hyper-subjective view of the world is destructive and wrong, but that does not mean that the subjective baby should be thrown out with the Derridean bathwater. There is a reason we commonly distinguish between the “art” and the “science” of a thing.

I am not raising this issue simply because of personal preference or pet peeve. It has repercussions for our understanding of God’s decree of history and our relationship to Him. Had God decreed a history without free will in the Garden of Eden, where no Fall occurred and sin never entered the world, God would still have been glorious and worthy of endless praise. That is the science. But what makes God, specifically Christ, beautiful to us is enhanced by the revelation of mercy and grace in our lives. That is the art. God’s glory is an objective thing, neither increased nor diminished by the creation, and yet we speak of glorifying God to describe the unveiling and contextualizing of God’s glory. Is God’s perfection changed by His decree of my salvation? Absolutely not. Is God’s beauty in my eyes increased by the love He has shown me when I was unlovable? Absolutely.

After all, what do we say when we see or hear a piece of art that speaks to our soul? “I love it!” It was not until God drew me out of death and into life to experience His grace and love that I was able to say, “I love Him!”

Chris Marley is the pastor of Miller Valley Baptist Church in Prescott, AZ. Chris has a M.Div. from Westminster Seminary California (from the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies). He is the author of Scarlet and White.

Related Links

Podcast: "Christians and Lit"

"Beauty Embodied" by Pierce T. Hibbs

"Critiquing Art and Music" by Greg Wilbur

"What About B.O.B.s?" by Josh Irby

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman

The Messiah Comes To Middle Earth by Philip Ryken