Matt Bianco, my colleague on this blog, has argued that beauty is absolute and objective – that it is not in the eye of the beholder, but, in the eye of God. This perspective is much needed in our age: Darwinist thinkers do not accept a standard of beauty (or, indeed, of anything) that originates outside of man’s own mind, and they have very effectively taught Christians the heresy that human response to beauty is nothing more than social conditioning, or a convenient evolutionary trait – that, for example, a man is attracted to a woman only through a system of chemicals engineered so that the species can continue, and not because of any transcendent truth reflected in her nature. Darwinists succeed when Christians are gulled into believing that beauty is a matter of opinion.
I think a good place to continue Mr. Bianco’s discussion is by asking the question: if beauty is not a matter of opinion, why are there so many different opinions about art? Do these differing opinions mean that beauty is subjective? Following up his article about the origin of beauty, I wish to write about the effect that transcendent beauty has on the beholder’s eye, which is the receiver – not arbiter – of beauty.
Some Christians favor films or paintings that others find to be tiresome, and every individual favors some pieces of art over others. This wide spectrum of taste is not at odds with the objectivity of beauty. The answer can be found in the very nature of beauty; beauty reflects truth.
As a side note, this is why a man unacquainted with truth will be attracted to bad art: chaotic postmodern art and pornography are both examples – both reflect falsehood. Artists who portray ugliness and call it beauty do so because the truth is not in them. Conversely, the story of the crucifixion will be seen by the unregenerate reader as ugly, while the Christian will see it as beautiful: the story does not change, the beholder does. The greater the beholder’s acquaintance with truth, the more places he can see it reflected, and the more dazzled his eyes will be.
Does this mean that stronger Christians are able to enjoy more and broader kinds of art? Yes and no. Surely, the closer we become to God the more we see of Him, and the more places we see Him in. It should always be our goal to make our eyes sensitive to more kinds of art, because in doing so we discover new ways of meeting Him (more on this later). Mature Christians will be attracted to good art (art which reflects the truth) rather than bad art. However, even among these, there are still vast differences of taste; taste cannot be accounted for in terms of maturity alone.
Back to the main question: differences in taste exist because just as beauty in general reflects truth in general, each particular beautiful thing reflects some particular facet of truth. Christians (and the unbaptized too) inherently favor works of art which reflect the truths they themselves know best – and these are drawn from their experiences: a story about the struggles of a single parent will be most beautiful to someone who has experience in the area. More often, art can also resonate with us based not on things we have experienced, but simply on the way we view the world: someone who thinks about man as warrior will favor a movie about war and wilderness, while someone who thinks about him as lover will favor a romance. It is in this way that individuals can favor one movie over another (or even hate one of them), without changing the fact that both are good art (note that this does not mean, as the postmodernists say, that all things are true or that all movies are equally good).
There are certain “boring,” “bleak,” or even “disgusting” movies which I perceive to be very beautiful – because the truths they communicate are ones that deeply touch my soul. Thus beauty is not up to the individual – but every individual’s faculty for perceiving and enjoying beauty is unique, and shaped by his experiences and his outlook.
However, this is not to imply that beauty communicates truth to us only within the bounds of our own maturity and experiences. Beyond this, beauty acquaints us with truth. Most of us have had the experience of finding something beautiful without being able to explain why, rather like Solomon, who, because he was the wisest man alive, was able to see intense beauty in simple things – an eagle in the air, a serpent on a rock, and a ship on the sea – without attempting to explain them. We can no more explain them ourselves because we, like Solomon, are being taught by the beauty we are seeing. Beauty lifts us closer to Truth.
It should always be our desire to grow closer to God so we can see more of His beauty – and this is not done only through factual knowledge of God (though this indeed opens our eyes to more and better kinds of art), but by exposure to beauty. Understanding of beauty births understanding of truth, births understanding of beauty, forever – just as an inexperienced taster may not enjoy coffee or wine the first time he meets it, but learns to desire it more and more as he comes to understand. The more we understand, the more we are able to understand. Let us be like Solomon, surrender to beauty, and by it be conformed to Truth.