Beauty: Subjective or Objective? Part I

Some Prelim. Thoughts

For over a decade, now, I’ve painted, charcoaled, sketched, and carved. I’ve written poems, short stories, and have even begun familiarizing myself with illuminated lettering. From a beginning in abstract surrealism and expressionism, to presently finding myself in love with the Medieval/Byzantine and Classical eras, I’ve come to be somewhat familiar with the art and its history. With all of that, though, I feel like I’ve only learned one thing…

I am not as much of an art theorist as I am an aesthetician.

Typically, a student of art theory will devote their attention to the modes of art, working on things like technique, style, ingenuity, etc. The aesthetician, instead, looks beyond the piece, toward one thing: beauty. I ’ve always been fascinated with this - idea of beauty - what is it? where is it? how do we know it? Now, you might be picking up on the fact that I probably believe that beauty is definable. If so, you’re right. You might also be thinking that you and I should go ahead and part ways. But wait for a moment. Remember… I’m still the same person that used to love such art as the surreal stylings of Dali’s paintings, and the disjointed syntax of Bukowski’s anthithetical poetry. Artists and their crafts are needed - in every era. And from that, an expectation of different crafts should be had as well. So, I agree with that as well. But should we let their autonomous extisence and ever changing nuances regulate how we contemplate the beautiful?

I know that it’s hard to consider the fact that beauty might actually be objective, and consist of objective properties. But consider for a moment how the solely subjective pursuit can, in fact, share the same hopes of objectivity, regarding direction and engagement. Subjectivity itself implies a contingency on an individual. So, if I paint a picture exclusively from a place of subjectivity, my completed work is then dependent on my definition of what’s “done”, “beautiful”, etc. My hope is to have what’s wrestling around in my heart be communicated through the means of paint and canvas. Art is not a monologue. It never has been. It begs for engagement. It’s a means for dialoguing with others, and even the self. Art is the piece of rope tied between two empty, repurposed cans that two naive, yet excited, hearts have concoted. It is a vehicle for conveying something. My heart clings to the theoretical painting, and by necessity, waits on a wall to be engaged. But what if it is engaged by someone not like me? Our culture tells them that if they don’t like it, then they can just as easily look at it and say “Nope. That’s not ‘done’.” or “That’s not ‘beautful’ at all.” Or… my favorite “That doesn’t speak to me.” Meanwhile, the canvas - from the author’s hopes - hangs there, yelling to be heard.

It’s okay to admit that we have high standards for beauty. That’s a God-given quality, I believe. As our imago dei cries out, part of it undyingly craves to be caught once more in the radiance of its Creator. We humans dohave high expecations for beauty - it’s because the One who made us imbedded an impression of His exellency, Eden’s hope, and freedom’s sublimity within our souls. We constantly long for something to stir those impressions. That’s what we want from art.

The hardest thing that I’ve found about engaging this possibility is that it’s scary. Out of those types of art mentioned above, I’m pretty sure that I’m horrible at a lot of them! And, so, the last thing that I want is for someone to tell me that a piece is not “beautiful”. That reaction is the worst. It stings. So, know that I’m not urging us to be some high-brow art critic, slamming one another by assessing things as “weak” or “ugly”. What I am proposing is that we engage art with the intention of finding a level of commonality with others. Listening to their art, in hopes of being stirred with zeal for God once more. If something doesn’t “speak” to us directly, then maybe we should listen a bit longer. Obviously, there’re a myriad of discussion points that this conversation could and should continue on to address (where do we draw the line?, can things ever be ugly?, can they distract us from God? etc.). For now, I’m merely wanting to bring to attention that there is a way to approach art objectively, and that way is rooted in the soils of Eden.

God has given all of us a taste for sublimity. However, like a child, as we begin to taste of something, and find it to be different than what our palate expected, we too quickly spit it out, not knowing that it actually could’ve been the best thing we’ve ever eaten.