In Which “Beauty” Is Meaningless

Using the term “beautiful” to signify that which is artistically or aesthetically pleasing/skillful/Good robs the term of all meaning if we also simultaneously attempt to reject the absolutizing of Greek philosophical ideals or the trite prettiness of kitsch.
For some reason we conservative Christians insist on using a term which, if we are to avoid these ditches, must be qualified extensively with each use because we reject every common or historical use. Using “beauty” as a meta-term is fundamentally inaccurate and causes nothing but confusion and missapprehension at best.
At worst, we follow the term into the assumptions of one of the previous historical uses, (usually some Christian syncretist bastardization of the ancient Greek philosophy).

To put it another way: Using “beauty” as a standard for art creates a number of problems in praxis, usually stemming from one of the following forms of confusion:

– If we use “beauty” in an historically, lexically legitimate manner, we end up with a myopic and unsatisfying, if not downright dishonest, art; for ultimately we are (as often as not) calling evil good and good evil (Not all “good” things are “beautiful”, nor all “beautiful” things “good”).

– If we recognize these flaws in the traditional use of the term, yet insist on using the term anyway, we are forced to qualify the word to the point of uselessness. For instance, “beautiful” can not really include, as one of its aspects, “ugly”. However, a well-crafted allusive object can (and usually does) include both.

Ironically, the conservative insistence on the use of “Beauty” as a standard for artistic and aesthetic judgments perpetuates our inability to come up with any sort of useful response to the current “whatever is right in my own eyes” artistic climate. That’s because, in many ways, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. And that is only a problem if Beauty has become an idol.


5 comments on “In Which “Beauty” Is Meaningless

  1. Is God beautiful? Is He absolutely beautiful? If so, then the limits of our understanding of beauty, and our inability to define it, are a manifestation of our lack of knowledge of Him and love for Him and submission to Him. I say let’s keep the word and qualify our powers of comprehension and description rather than either qualifying the word or discarding it in favor of something else.

    Alas, that’s about the extent of my philosophy of aesthetics — a thing is beautiful (and true and good) to the extent that it reflects the nature, words and work of the Triune God — so that’s about as far as I can go in this discussion.

  2. Valerie,

    I’m putting together a more detailed response, but for the moment, a couple of quick things for you:

    1. What do you do if the answers to your first two questions are “not really” and “no” (respectively)?

    2. I don’t want to chuck the word all together, but rather use it for its intended purpose and not give it the Procrustean treatment to fit our syncretist philosophies. “Beautiful” is a descriptor, not an ideal for which to strive.

    also in this line:

    Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

  3. “Beautiful” can not really include, as one of its aspects, “ugly”. However, a well-crafted allusive object can (and usually does) include both.

    I agree that it isn’t terribly helpful to start with abstract adjectives, and from them learn about concrete reality. And I likewise agree that we shouldn’t talk of the abstract as seperate from the concrete. That said, it seems ugly is part of beautiful. In art, it’s Kincade that doesn’t have any ugly in his painting, and that’s why his drawings are ugly. Andrea del Sarto (as portrayed by Browning) is not the perfect painter. In music it is the dissonant chord that keeps the work beautiful. Without tension, music is just noise. So it seems that whatever beauty is–whatever it is that we see in something we call beautiful–really does have ugly as an integral component.

    This I think has profound theological consequences. We want to say that God is beautiful–not as if there is an abstract standard we want to apply to Him, but in the same sort of way we would say “The Art of the Fugue is beautiful.” But that means that even in God there is disonance, or ugly–we daren’t make Him out to be a Kincade painting! And so the Cross–the supreme pain and (in a sense ugliness)–is not something foreign to God, but acurately reflects an intimate part of His nature.

    Just a thought


  4. abra says:

    I think I agree with Matt.

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