Monday, April 9, 2012

Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

During the recent TeenPact Iowa event, someone posed a question to me that I haven't been able to get out of my mind. It's continually come up in conversation and has taken on new relevancy with the recent death of painter Thomas Kinkade. The question is this: is beauty in the eye of the beholder?

Another way of asking it is this: is art and beauty objective or subjective. In a previous post ("Butterflies and Growingdown") I talked about the artistry of God. God is the great Artist who painted the cosmos and the grasshoppers and you with His voice. But He's more than that. He's the Source of all other art. The only reason you are artistic is because you're created in the Image of an artistic God.

All artists make things based on their personality. Likewise, God made things springing from His own divine character. Is that character beautiful or ugly? Naturally, He's beautiful. Everything about Him is objectively beautiful. More than that He is the Standard and the Sourse of beauty. The Beauty that is God can't be in the eye of the beholder for if that were the case He could not be soveriegn. Were that Divine Beauty subjective than God would be the mercy of His creature's personal tastes.

Thankfully, such is not the case. God is Beautiful. The Trinity is Beautiful. The Father is Beautiful. The Son is Beautiful. The Spirit is Beautiful. Likewise, all His attributes are objectively Beautiful. Love, mercy, justice, grace, compassion, holiness, righteousness are all objectively Beautiful because they spring from Beauty Himself. Even if every creature on the planet called those things ugly they would still be beautiful.

Furthermore, everything that reflects God and His attributes are also beautiful. Thus, everything that reflect God and His attributes are objectively beautiful. Just like love and justice, if everything single person in existence came together and decided sunsets were ugly it wouldn't matter. They'd still be beautiful. Thus, beauty is not the eye of a beholder but in the eye of the Beholder, the Lord. Everything He declares to be beautiful is objectively beautiful and everything He declares to be ugly is objectively ugly.

Now, I can see at least two possible questions that may arise from this assertion. One, how does this work in a fallen world? Two, what about personal tastes?

Firstly, how does this work in a fallen world? For example, are cockroaches beautiful? Most people would say no. But they were created by an objectively beautiful God weren't they? Well, here's the problem, sin has corrupted God's beautiful world. Therefore, we find ourselves in a mixed up world where beauty and ugliness often appear on the same canvass. However, this need not lead us to despair.

Since God is the standard of beauty, ugliness is anything opposed to Him. A similar definition could be used to describe sin. Sin is the Standard and Source of Ugliness, just as God is the Standard and Source of Beauty. However, God, though not the author of sin or ugliness, is such a good Artist that He can use sin to make Goodness more good and ugliness to make Beauty more beautiful. Every artist (whether your art is painting, music, writing, mechanics, drawing, landscaping, ect.) needs to apply a good dose of Romans 8:28.

Here's an example: I would call a painting that featured only black and gray splotches to be ugly. However, I would describe a painting that uses black and gray to draw attention to beautiful shapes and colors to be beautiful. Ugly things are only beautiful in as much as they draw our attention to true beauty. Thus, the "blacks and grays" of this world can be beautiful in their own way in that they point us to God. We'd better all be very thankful for this truth for we are ugly splotches of black and gray that are only beautiful in as much as we draw attention to our Beautiful God.

Second question: where do personal tastes come in? Well, let me first say that some personal tastes are just warped. There's a lot of people calling sunsets ugly and garbage dumps beautiful and they're simple wrong. Period. End of statement. However, within what God has defined as objective beauty, I do believe that there's room for personal tastes. The objectiveness of beauty doesn't limit creativity and personal artistry. It enables it.

In J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion, Melkor, the Lucifer figure, attempts to create creatures that are superior to God's creation and free of His influence. However, he finds that the farther away he gets from God's standard the less he's able to create. Eventually he can't create at all but can only corrupt that which is already made; turning Elves into orcs and Ents into trolls. Standards don't limit creativity but empower it.

Nor is objective beauty a monist one-size-fits-all mold. That would be ugly. Remember God is the Standard of Beauty and God is triune. In other words, within the Beauty that is God there's diversity. Thus, within the objective standard of beauty there can also be diversity as long as it remains true to the Source.

In closing, I would just like to point out that we all desire beauty. That pursuit may take different forms, but it's the same basic human desire in every case. That pursuit may express itself through art and creativity. However, the highest fulfillment of that desire is a relationship with Beauty's Source. Take some time today to praise God that through Jesus Christ you can stare into the eyes of Beauty Himself.