Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.Â There are few more profoundly atheistic statements as this.
However, most people are practical atheists when it comes to aesthetics–they view it as just a matter of preference.Â This is why people get so upset, even viscerally so, when someone suggests that their sense of beauty is not as developed as it should be.Â Because beauty is merely a matter of choice, for someone to regard one choice as inferior to another choice the discussion disentigrates into a power struggle of who gets to set the rules on what is beautiful and what isn’t.
But, to deny objective characteristics of beauty is a rejection of a Christian worldview.Â If one is an atheist then of course there is no beauty and each person is free to define it as they wish.Â However, within a Christian framework God is the definition of beauty and the death and resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate expression of it.Â Want to define beauty?Â Look to God’s own creative expression in the universe, look to his character, look to the cross.
When we do this we find a great many criteria with which we can discern true beauty. Â For example, in order for something to be beautiful it must be at the same time complex yet have an underlying simplicity or unity.Â We see this most clearly in the trinity–God is complex because he is three persons yet there is unity in one being.Â So, great art must be complex without being chaotic and it must be simple without being simplistic.Â This might sound easy, but it is far from it.
Another characteristic of beauty is timelessness.Â God is eternal, we will never become bored by contemplating his glory.Â In like manner, great art must cause deeper reflection and satisfaction through repeated or extended exposure.Â This is why pop music by its very design can never be great art.Â It is a product that is designed to gain instant appeal and gather a faddish following to be consumed and then discarded to make way for the next release.Â This is why fashion is fashion and not true art–the industry is designed to produce products that are consumed and discarded with every passing season.Â Now, this is not to say that every pop musician and every designer is not an artist; there are a few that do break the mold and courageously flourish in an industry structure that works against them.
Another characteristic of great art is that it incorporates joy, love, grace, and truth while at the same time also the suffering, messiness, destruction, and evil within the world.Â We see this most clearly in the cross.Â Art that only reflects one or another of these characteristics is not truly beautiful.Â This is not to say that an individual piece cannot focus upon one of these aspects–it surely can.Â However, if an artist’s entire repertoire only consists in a one-sided portrayal of reality then they do not have a sufficiently developed aesthetic.
These are only a few of the objective characteristics of beauty; there are many more.Â Other than a recognition that beauty is objective, another vitally important aspect of aesthetics is a realization that sensibilities and tastes must be cultivated and actively developed.Â We must train ourselves to appreciate and desire things that are truly of substance and beauty. Young children might desire Velveeta slices as opposed to well-aged Gorgonzola picante, but hopefully over time they will come to realize that Velveeta really isn’t cheese and they will fall in love with the smell and taste of the real thing.Â Make no mistake about it–this is not snobbery, it is renewing your mind.Â It is Romans 12:2 lived out in every facet of life including aesthetics. Â
There is much more that we could say about these things, but this is a blog and not a book.Â However, in the next post I hope to reflect on how scholars can incorporate a well-developed aesthetic sensibility into their writing.Â I am certainly a novice myself so I welcome suggestions.