Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?

T. David Gordon’s article in the recent edition of The Artistic Theologian raises the important issue of whether beauty has any objective basis. Yet my assertion that it is an important issue already assumes the conclusion! To believe beauty to be important assumes and objective basis for beauty in the first place.

And this is exactly what Gordon argues, namely, that beauty is rooted in the very nature of God himself.

Gordon suggests that western civilization has moved from a Realist philosophy to Nominalist, and that this has affected our philosophy of aesthetics. Realists believe that absolute reality exists, and we simple perceive and interpret that reality. Nominalism, other the other hand, denies absolute reality, and instead believes that the world had no inherent meaning.

Thus, the prevailing Nominalist philosophy leads to the natural conclusion that ideas such as beauty are merely in the perception of the observer rather in the qualities of the thing observed.

Gordon argues against this philosophy by insisting that since Christians believe in God as the Creator and absolute standard of all things, Christianity is inherently Realist, and he specifically applies this assertion to an understanding of beauty. Rather than finding beauty in the eye of the beholder, Gordon suggests that ascriptions of beauty should be found in what God calls beautiful. He asserts,

For aesthetic theory, then, the specifically Christian Theistic branch of Realism will suggest that, if God actually created the universe with the intent to make it beautiful, then it is our duty to recognize that it is beautiful; we can no more call the beautiful “ugly” or “inconsequential” than we can call the darkness “light.” So the question to raise of Holy Scripture is whether the Creator invested his created order with the property that we call the “beautiful” or the “sublime” (or other synonyms). Beauty, for such Theistic Realism, is not “in the eye of the beholder”; it is in the eye of the Maker, and it is in the mind of the Maker and on the lips of the Maker before it is in his eye or ours.

He then looks to Genesis 1 and 2 as prime examples of God as Artist, and finds principles therein to support a Realist philosophy of aesthetics. He concludes,

If Romans 12:1-2 calls us to resist conformity to “this age,” then Christian Realists will need to resist our age’s aesthetic relativism, the Nominalist notion that “beauty” is merely something humans impose on created reality. Our Christian transformation, in part, requires us to confirm what God affirms about his created order, including his statement that the creation around us is objectively both “pleasant to the sight and good for food.” Indeed, a Christian perspective obligates us to treat with equal seriousness the efforts of scientists to comprehend and harness the functional elements of creation and the efforts of artists, critics, and aesthetic theorists to develop the ability to create, discover, and understand the beauty that the created order so generously models and provides.

You can read the whole article here.

Scott Aniol is an Instructor of Worship at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter.

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