Beauty: Are We Getting Enough

It seems like the discussion of beauty is everywhere these days. You really don't  have to search too long before you catch wind of it in some conversation. Just take a moment and listen; you'll notice it. You'll hear it in your church, your school, your work, and in any given prime-time sitcom, any night of the week. What's not so easily found in those conversations is beauty's inseparable correlation with patience, consideration, and propriety... all of which have actually been in most serious dialogues about what culture has deemed beautiful until roughly this past century.

An inevitable question should come to mind now - "Why exactly is that?" All I really want to say here is that many aestheticians (those with a formed appreciation of beauty) have marked this as a negative shift. However, another question might be more helpful for the purpose of this post - "Should we even take note of a shift like that?" In other words... what's the big deal? If you did take that moment to listen to your average conversation, you'd find that the unavoidable language of our day begs us to lay aside our "presumptuous standards", and freely engage whatever we find beautiful in any manner that we ought to, just as long as it makes us feel more deeply. 

But again, more questions [should] keep coming back up, like "What is beauty for?" and "How and where can we find it?" This, I believe, is the greatest disconnect within our culture's current dialogue. We actually engage both of these questions - whether we know it or not - on a daily basis. Actually, both are paramount for taking that step into the depth that we all - both the classical/traditional group and the contemporary/relativistic group - seek. Both questions require intentionality.  Both can be answered by looking at the three qualities mentioned at the beginning.


To be frank, the seemingly antiquated trait that is patience might be the most ignored today within people's relationship with beauty. In his work entitled The Instructor, Clement of Alexandria argues that, outside of God, the Christian is the most beautiful thing, as he is the most immediate and clear reflection of God. But the awareness of this beauty can only come from a life of growing in truth and knowledge. He writes

...the greatest of all lessons [is for a Christian] to know one’s self. For if one knows himself, he will know God...
— Clement

He carries on to juxtapose all of the material beauties of this world with a man who truly knows himself as he is in God. The gold and the ornaments fade, showing their temporality, but the man in God - which is an ongoing, drawn-out existence and awareness - is conscious of the true beauty, of which gold only slightly glimmers. He writes

But that man with whom the Word dwells does not alter himself, does not get himself up: he has the form which is of the Word; he is made like to God; he is beautiful; he does not ornament himself: his is beauty, the true beauty.
— Clement

The point argued is that the beauty that we perceive is only a nod to the source of beauty, which is the Word. If that's indwelling the self, then that person has found the source of the light that all other things only slightly reflect.

This doesn't suggest then that the person should stop looking at those beautiful things around him... but only that as he is moved by them, he should remember that they hold no true qualifiable measure. In other words, one movie can't truely be "better" or more beautiful than another, as that would be like calling one pile of dirt more clean than another - when, in the end, both piles ultimately testify that we stand on a deeply blue and gorgeously green planet.

The ancients, the medievals, the humanists, the romantics, the enlightened, and the revolutionists all argued that beauty can be found in near anything - even their lesser "liked" mediums - and more importantly, is worthy of our patience. We need only not to overzealously rush appreciation, as that polarizes people, creation, and - no matter how much someone might argue against this - one's own thoughts.


It should be no surprise then that the need for consideration and humility follows. If a deepeing of our appreciaiton of beauty would sincerely be grasped, then a simultaneous recognition of our limitations and others' insights should be somewhere in the front of our thoughts.

After artfully discussing how a hidesouly aging ape can still be deemed beautiful, in his writing Concerning the Nature of Good, Against the Manichaeans Augustine carries on to help the junior aesthetician appreciate what they might not want to, or in fact are blind to. He argues that the ideas of the

...lucid and obscure are called as it were two contrary things, yet even obscure things have something of light...
— Augustine

In other words, one person might watch a movie, stare deeply into a painting, or gaze out into an overcast horizon, and in the end walk away without any "clarity" of why his or her friend called that object beautiful. This is what Augustine calls the obscure. We might not always be able to see something with the clarity that another person does, nor recognize one novel as being as charming or beautiful as another, but that doesn't incontrovertibly mean that those "lesser" objects lack beauty. It only implies that you - the 1 of 7,000,000,000 others - have yet to perceive it.


So what then? Should we then allow anything, seeing as everything could be argued redeemable for the sake of beauty? No. The purpose of the first two ideas was to aid the over-zealous appreciator with the reins of their aesthetic-bridle. In other words, they were to call us to slow down in what might be a very ostracizing and compartmentalizing - and damaging - judgement of others.

So how can we apply a sense of aesthetic proprety without running into the same errors that many mock the Puritans, Quakers, and Amish for? Thomas Aquinas claimed that has a likeness to the property of the Son. For beauty includes three conditions, ‘integrity’ or ‘perfection,’ since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due ‘proportion’ or ‘harmony’; and lastly, ‘brightness’ or ‘clarity,’ whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color.
— Thomas Aquinas

This assessment might be frowned upon in our day, but it's been a standard and accepted definition of beauty for most of Western civilization's history. The recent push to "allow anything that can wake us from our 'restricting' and conservative slumber" is like most things rooted in immediacy: a false aesthetic gospel. Such a mentality inevitably (and necessarily) demands for the births of artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, whose art is so vile and irreverent that I can't even recommend you googling on your own.

Although each aspect of Aquinas' three-fold litmus for beauty serves as a timeless aid for the Christian aesthetician, I'd like to only focus on the first two for a quick moment: integrity and harmony. This pairing is rich with the heart of the Gospel, as they seek perfection and engrafting. The former attests to the goal that an artist has in conveying the beautiful, which is what he seeks to deliver to his audience. If we as Christian aestheticians are going to carry on in belief of the imago dei and being his workmanship, then a recognition of the artist's desire for and conveyance of perfection should be a common practice in our interaction with his works. The latter humbles the undeniably free volition of the artist to a place of respect for otherness, in that he should then aim to create something appealing both for the viewer's musings and the agreeability of content regarding the average soul and conscience.

In other words, there's a sense of propriety that art should entail that keeps it tethered to the beautiful, and subsequently keeps it from running wrecklessly out of control like some ill-mannered dog who runs away for the sake of "freedom". If beauty is honestly being sought after, and not audience-jarring dissonance for some "artistic-immunity's" sake, then respectable art will be suitable for the soul... not only the mind. I say that because too often I read and hear people bolstering a work of art that is riddled with pain, hurt, and shock under the pretense of how it makes one think. 

Aristotle did happen to argue that tragedy can be a profoundly influential artistic medium; he attested this because that how life is. I think though that the Christians who back this postion - like I did at one time - forget that Aristotle could not see the depth of beauty that Clement, Augustine, and Aquinas did. The Christian aesthetician should never take up social "relevance" and "honesty" at the expense of his hope. Also... within the non-Christo-centric circles of aestheticians, Aristotle's tragedy-proposal was never a majority stance. Nor did he think that it was the premier artistic medium.

Quick Last Thought

So, I ask - Are the t.v. shows, books, and movies that we find ourselves bastions of rich with integrity, harmony, and clarity? One way to tell is to ask whether or not we are being lead into patience, consideration, and propriety. Or, are all of these traits merely vague, minor rare occurence of what we spend time reading and watching. One way to tell is to ask whether or not we find ourselves arguing too hard for a connection that hasn't really triggered our soul, but merely our mind's intrigue. Many Christians, from many different theological paradigms (e.g. Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Edwards, de Lubac, Lewis, and von Balthasar), have argued that beauty triggers certain dispositions in the person that then guide him or her closer to a more rich understanding of the Beautiful. If this is the end-goal of the Christian aesthetician - which I think would be hard pressed to say is not - why then would we want to convolute it?

I still find myself arguing for such convolutions at times when I'm attracted to something that's not as redeemable as I try to let on. It's hard not to. We're fallen. So, I simply want to challenge all of us to take a week or a month and not simply be more artistically minded, but be more intentionally minded with our unavoidable interactions with beauty.


A Brief Addition

After considering some questions I received about this post, I thought it helpful to briefly reaffirm a couple of ideas.

The first is that this perspective does in fact have some idealism in it. However, I want to encourage that idealism is not our enemy; narrow-mindedness is. And sadly, yes, many idealistic worldviews are narrow-minded. But that correlation isn't inevitable. An idealistic view is one that strives for the near-unattainable; it's focused on the object it pursues. The narrow-minded view strives to attain its object only through a specific set of mean(s). Its paradigm is contingent on limitations and vehicles; it's (often) seen as focusing more on the subject.

Which brings up the second point brought to my attention. Although this perspective argues that certain avenues are more efficient at helping beauty affect a person, it does not necessarily say that some simply do not.

My earlier point was to show that if we don't apply a filter at all, regarding propriety, we'll find more and more artists like Andres Serrano, whose m.o. is to disturb and rock societal norms. Here's what I mean - take a character like Les Miserables' Inspector Javert (one of my all time favorite fictional characters, by the way), who's described as the one in a thousand or so pitbulls that is so vicious and mean, that shortly after his birth, he kills and eats his family. Dark, right? Through the course of the story, you don't stop having a fear of him, nor quit loathing his self-righteous wrath, but somehow, through the artist's mastering his craft, find yourself sympathizing with Javert's prideful failures, and thus recognize the educational qualities of an anti-hero. Compare that with Serrano's art display of a crucifix submerged into a glass of urine… yes… you read it correctly. And that's it. That's all there is. Sure, one might look at the latter, and find the same revulsion that certain aspects of Javert's character might've induce. But the difference is in the fulness of the “bad” character that is Javert. From beginning to end, his life is one of sinful actions… yet, he's palatable. 

And yes, because of our imago dei we have the intelligence (and for those that are saved, have the Holy Spirit) guiding us at times toward finding redemption in near anything we have time to, or rather, the stomach for. But no matter how much patience I offer, I personally don't have the time, nor the emotional resoluteness, to try and “redeem” pieces of art like Rob Zombie's movies. To be blunt, certain things are just too shrouded in sin to look into with hopes of catching a glimpse of light - which, again, I'm not saying absolutely can't be done.

Which brings me to the last addition: where this stance argues for beauty to exist. It isin the eye of the beholder. However, it's outside of his or. Her eye as well. Here's what I mean. Our current lingo is forsaking what aesthetics has always most aided and edified the given communities and cultures through: theologically grounded principles. If we maintain that beauty is solely an ambiguous object that we define (which is the recent push), then cyclically it is no different than a subset of itself. Like a book, it offers omniscient-esque guidance when we, the limited, subjectively want to apply it - we are over it, and use it to conversely put ourselves under its reader's appointed authority. 

Beauty should be placed on a more elevated platform from the slowly degrading place that it's set now. In doing so, it would be a more constant subject, rather than the “other”-defined-by-a-subject move that is happening right now. It should be allowed some transcendental trait, like other eternal qualities such as the “good”, wisdom, and power, which always exude from God, further anchoring them (and it) in some level of objectivity, and leaving behind the full-contingency view that we the perceiver make it.

I don't presume to have handle on this, so for the benefit of us all, please feel free to comment, add on, or question below. Your comments are most appreciated and encouraged!