Now here’s a vast subject. Any point you make about beauty can be probed and discussed endlessly, always with considerable profit. Any point can also be argued endlessly, often with considerably less profit. And there are a great many points to be made. The difficulty with the subject is that beauty speaks primarily to the heart, not to the mind, so it does not lend itself to the rigorous laws of logic as do its siblings, goodness and truth.
Starting at the Bottom
The true, the good and the beautiful are classically considered three transcendentals, categories that have universal application, that go beyond the contingent and “accidental” (philosophically) elements of human experience but not beyond our ability to know. We could start here, near the top—and why I say “near” the top rather than “at” the top will become clear in due course. But insofar as I am any sort of philosopher at all, I am a realist (like that other great philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas). So naturally I prefer to start with the contingent and the accidental; I prefer to start at the bottom.
One reason I am a realist is that I am a parent, and there is almost no human experience which forces philosophical realism upon us more convincingly than raising children. The whole process makes us abandon preconceived notions and assumed categories in favor of observing and reflecting on what is being taught through daily experience. With respect to the question of beauty, most parents will find their theories challenged as their children grow into their teens. Very likely, this will start with music. Indeed, I will go so far as to state (categorically) that any parent who survives the raising of multiple teens will have a revised understanding of the beautiful before he is done, for the simple reason that he loves his children deeply enough to ponder their disagreement with him about what is beautiful and what is not.
For example, many Christian adults of my generation (myself included) don’t like a great deal of modern or contemporary art and music. We are inclined to condemn as ugly or disordered many things which the next generation finds comfortable, pleasant, attractive, moving, or exciting. This occasions not a few serious arguments. Sometimes it even stimulates deeper reflection—on both sides.
The Problem of Defining Beauty
After reflecting on countless discussions with my six children over the past twenty-five years, hard personal experience has taught me two important truths: First, beauty and “prettiness” are two different things; second, beauty and attractiveness are two different things. Not everything that is pretty is beautiful, and not everything that is beautiful is pretty. Similarly, not everything that is attractive in various ways is beautiful, and not everything that is beautiful is attractive, neither immediately nor to all.
Consider “kitsch” art—for example, the ubiquitous paintings of Thomas Kinkade, who specializes in well-marketed pictures of “saccharin, soft-focus paintings of Cotswoldy cottages, glowing gardens, misty lighthouses, and quaint villages,” as critic Gregory Wolfe aptly describes them. Kinkade styles himself “The Painter of Light”, and if either money or wide distribution were light, his trademark would be accurate. Wolfe more accurately calls him “The Painter of Lite”. His images are technically highly competent, they are pretty and attractive to many, and a few people love them, but they fit very well the definition of “kitsch”: “Something of gaudy, cheap or tawdry design, appearance, or content created to appeal to popular or undiscriminating taste.” However pleasant it may be to many, and whatever gushes of sentimentality it may produce, to call Kinkade’s work “beautiful” is a significant stretch.
In fact, human works of art (taken here also to include music, and using the term in a very wide sense) can fall considerably short of the beautiful for a variety of reasons. A pornographic image, insofar as it is producing its intended erotic effect, is not received as “beautiful”, nor are musical compositions which do nothing but grip our bodies rhythmically. In fact, any work of human art which does little or nothing but stimulate the senses or sensibilities in some way falls short of conveying beauty, though it may be highly effective in other ways, either strongly attractive or repulsive. Sometimes, too, the would-be artist simply lacks the technical skill to effectively produce the expression of beauty which he conceives as art in his mind.
Obviously, part of this depends on the receiver. We can and often do respond to works of art in ways unintended by the artist simply because of our own lack of integrity, or interior harmony. It is also true that something beautiful might meet with indifference on our part because we are not prepared to appreciate it. Our reception of the beautiful can be impeded by mood or passion, unfamiliarity or ignorance, preoccupation or absence of contemplation. Moreover, it seems that no two persons respond to any given work of human art in the same way. One loves it and another hates it. One thinks it brilliant, the other dull. So it is very difficult to explain what constitutes art, or to describe its essential connection with beauty.
So, Beauty Is . . .
Now this emphasis on the “receiver”, which appears to lead us to a dead end, is actually quite important. For the artist, insofar as he is striving to produce what we typically mean by the word “art” in its nobler sense, is attempting to express beauty. To strive to express something else is a subversion of art. But this expression is received as beauty in one way and one way only, and it is precisely here that the artist and the receiver come together. This “one way”, this impact of the reception of art which proves the art beautiful, consists in the fact that beauty tends to lift a person out of himself, to touch the heart in a way that moves the person from what we might call his routine existence, in and for himself, toward that which is more than himself. Just as the true and good have this impact in more cerebral ways, this ability to directly produce a movement in the person’s inner life from self to “more than self” is the defining note of beauty, which all true art serves.
In a very interesting recent document entitled The Via Pulchritudinis (The Way of Beauty), the Pontifical Council for Culture put the matter this way: “The work of art is not ‘beauty’ but its expression, and it possesses an intrinsic character of universality if it obeys the canons, which naturally fluctuate for all art is tied to a culture. Artistic beauty provokes interior emotion, it silently arouses astonishment and leads to an ‘exit from self’, an ecstasy” (section III.2, The Beauty of the Arts). It is for this reason that beauty is indeed a transcendental, like truth and goodness (beauty has been called “the splendor of truth”), and it is the definitive note of the beautiful that it directly opens our hearts in various ways to the universal. Ultimately, but not necessarily completely or all at once, it opens us to God.
In contrast, any use of the artistic crafts which tends to turn the receiver in upon himself, closes him to the universal, concentrates his attention on apparently disjointed particulars, and tends to stimulate a sense of meaninglessness or despair is not an expression of beauty, no matter how pretty or how brilliantly executed it may be. Hence all materialisms and ideologies invariably subvert art. Since beauty is indeed an objective universal which the artist serves, his work is ugly in the deepest sense insofar as he fails to serve it. It is necessary to note, however, that many great artists have a special capacity or gift for serving this transendental despite their own private distortions and inner weaknesses. The true artist possesses a special kind of vision into reality which he often finds it difficult not to express. Moreover, insofar as the receiver fails to perceive an artist’s work as an expression of beauty, this failure may be the fault of the artist, or the receiver, or both.
I think it may also be necessary to dispel two unfortunate myths that sometimes take hold among those of us who are deeply religioius. First, it is false to assume that art cannot be beautiful unless it specifically represents a religious theme. Second, it is equally false to assume that a religious theme is sufficient to make art beautiful (to make it true art). To the contrary, there is a great deal of religious “art” that is either kitsch or even ugly, owing to the artist’s incapacity, his lack of integrity, or his own lack of understanding of the wonder of God. No, there are innumerable ways in which human persons can be opened to the universal, to be transported, as it were, beyond themselves in a flash of beauty. Nor must an artist be a believer to express beauty. After all, creation itself is a powerful school. As the Pontifical Council for Culture again expressee it: “Beauty speaks directly to the heart, turning astonishment to marvel, admiration to gratitude, happiness to contemplation” (section II.3, The Way of Beauty, Pathway towards the Truth and the Good).
One of the ways we typically experience the impact of beauty, perhaps when encountering nature or the work of a great artist, is as an intensified yearning for what we dimly glimpse just beyond our grasp, a pang of deep desire not just for this or that beauty but to be made whole through immersion in the Beautiful itself. This human trajectory from the concrete to the universal, which is also a deeply religious impulse, can of course be misdirected or even counterfeited. Thus someone might seek to fulfill that yearning by immersion in the senses alone, through drugs, through sex, or through a series of stimulations provided by wealth. In every era there have also been some who explicitly seek to substitute art for religion, attempting to find a satisfactory resting place in what is not beauty itself, but only its particular expression.
Nonetheless, this yearning is typical of our response to beauty and it is one of the preeminent signals that point us toward God. This is what I meant at the beginning when I described the transcendentals as merely “near” the top. Ultimately we know from both personal experience and philosophy that man is so constituted as to yearn for spiritual fulfillment, for immersion in and total transformation by Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Through Revelation we also know that Truth is a Person (“I am the truth”), that Goodness is a Person (“One only there is who is good”), and Beauty is a Person – the good shepherd, the transfigured Lord, the Crucified.
Perhaps I have passed over too much too quickly. Certainly there is much more that could be said, so many more connections to make, so much fruitful discussion—and undoubtedly fruitless argument! But this last thought, this image of the Crucified, permits me to return to what, for human perception, must remain the astonishingly paradoxical character of beauty, namely, the power of its expression even in the midst of ugliness. For the crucifixion was ugly, and everything that we can depict about the crucifixion must inevitably bear the unmistakable traces of this ugliness. Everything, that is, except the one thing that makes it possible for even a crucifix to be great art: The beauty of that love which triumphs over evil; the beauty of that Love which conquers death.
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!