Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder…Or is it?
Today’s culture, we as Christians can agree, is riveted by postmodern thought. Morals and truths are relative to experience and perception, one would claim. And in response, Christians, historically, have made efforts to combat this kind of thinking (although even this is now a subject of debate, sadly). But one problem I’ve always had, as an artist myself, was reconciling objectivism (or the view that universal truth exists apart from the mind) with art. “Who are we to ‘judge’ art as good or bad?” and, “Who are we to ‘judge’ art as ethically good or bad?” Even more importantly, what do we do about it?
Exploring creativity in art brings up the issue of trying to objectively critique one’s finished work. And it’s even harder for the Christian to objectively critique the work’s moral compass.
I first want to write about the objectivity of art in an aesthetic sense.
So… is art subjective? Or is it objective? Trying to write a full-fledged argument would probably be too ambitious. But let’s underline for the sake of this blog post that most Christians would tend to believe truth in general exists outside of mind. So truth isn’t determined by what we perceive or experience, but it is something we do discover and our existence is anchored by these truths.
To slightly go off on a tangent (I promise this will make sense later), there is a branch of philosophy that asks the questions of what makes something beautiful, tasteful, artful? This is called aesthetics and it helps us define what we see is good to our senses. There are many other sub-categories, but to focus more in a general understanding, aesthetics is important in understanding the truths about the nature of what we perceive.
But it must be asked, what are these truths? The Bible doesn’t explicitly tell us what we are supposed to see as beautiful. However, Philippians 4:8 tells us: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Something to gather from this is that aesthetics is something that we as humans practice as well as experience. What we know is lovely is something that we practice, like painting a picture or taking a photograph.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, who I had the pleasure of seeing at one of Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought seminars, argues in his book “Art in Action” that aesthetics is equally important as logic and that there is a necessary place in existence. It’s purpose is to enhance the human experience toward all facets of our lives. So what are aesthetic truths? They are Christian truths. They are the timeless and culture-less axioms consistently defined in the Scriptures. They are the Four Cardinal Virtues. There is a beauty to humility, a tastefulness to altruism, an artfulness to The Almighty.
However, as previously spoken, aesthetic truths are not simply experienced, but practiced. Such then, it would be fitting to argue that the objectivity of art is equally important as its subjectivity.
Some will say, “What? That’s such a cop out!” But how can it be? One will say that art exists only outside the self. If you do that, you remove the humanity behind it, as art will not be art, but be the result of creation with no human enrichment. Another will say that beauty in art is only defined by experience. And if you do that, then you remove its existence, as beauty must exist prior to human interaction.
So is art subjective or objective? Based on the understanding of the human need for these aesthetic truths to be practiced and to be experienced, I believe they are necessarily both.
But, if art is based on truth, this broaches a more difficult question- “can art be evaluated ethically?”
Thoughts (with more of my own to come)?
Justin Gum is a visual artist hailing from Miami, Florida. Much of his academic career was focused on the arts, graduating from a magnet art school and attending Pratt Institute in New York. He soon moved to California to pursue his artistic career in film and graduated Biola University with a B.A. in Philosophy. He now works as a freelance cinematographer and film maker. You can view some of his work at www.justineverettgum.com
 I would not go so far as to say that the Cardinal Virtues are all sufficient for defining Christian truths, but that they are necessary.