We live in a day of relativism. Such a doctrine ignores the observable fact that the universe has a moral dimension.
On the other side are those of us who seek to uphold the objective nature of human life in a creation built on moral and metaphysical standards. Yet when the discussion turns to beauty we often acquiesce. We quickly slip into the modern relativistic fashion that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
But even in the art world, such an idea—that the individual consumer is the only standard of excellence—is a recent development.
Robert Florczak, an American artist and illustrator, makes that point in the Prager University video course, Why is Modern Art So Bad? Florczak traces the decline of the classical standards that, for centuries, produced excellence and beauty. Today, these standards have disappeared, replaced by the modern absurdity that anything can be called art. This five-minute video is well worth your time.
I was first challenged by the concept of the objective standard of beauty by the late Fr. Thomas Dubay in his book, The Evidential Power of Beauty.
We have already noted in passing that contemporary science and theology (not to mention most of the human race) agree that beauty is objective—that is, that nature, art, and brilliant ideas are splendid in themselves and not mainly because some people think them to be so…. The opinion that beauty is nothing more than a subjective preference crumbles under careful analysis. 63-64
Another favorite is Tree and Leaf by J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In this wonderful essay, Tolkien writes powerfully about the erosion of art.
We do not, or need not, despair of drawing because all lines must be either curved or straight, nor of painting because there are only three ‘primary’ colours. We may indeed be older now, in so far as we are heirs in enjoyment or in practice of many generations of ancestors in the arts. In this inheritance of wealth there may be a danger of boredom or of anxiety to be original, and that may lead to a distaste for fine drawing, delicate pattern, and ‘pretty’ colours, or else to mere manipulation and over-elaboration of old material, clever and heartless.
But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the wilfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not in making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium.
The coarsening of our culture and the rise of a culture of death in the modern world can be directly related to the loss of an objective standard of beauty. And that, no doubt, is the necessary corollary of a society-level descent from theism to materialism. Where there is no recognition of a transcendent God, what argument can be made for any objective standard for beauty?
It behooves Christians who are artists to strive for excellence and beauty in their art form, precisely because God is beautiful and the universe He created is marked with the twin signatures of beauty and excellence. It is important for the church to live by a theology of beauty, not simply to pursue the modern values of pragmatism and efficiency.
Who is teaching a theology of beauty? Where is the consideration of beauty in the structures we build and the adornment of those structures? Do we encourage one another to bring beauty into our homes, our offices, our factories and other places we inhabit?
Consider some real steps in your own life to build beauty in the world around you:
- Take a moment to watch Florczak’s short video.
- Ask yourself, How have I bought into the notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder?
- Identify some deed that you will do in the next week—something you have never done before—to bring beauty into your world.
– Darrow Miller