Fellowship of Catholic Scholars
Is “Beauty” an objective reality or only in the eye of the beholder?
The nature of “Beauty” is a question that has challenged thinkers from antiquity onward right up to our own times. But, before trying to present the problems and, hopefully, some answers to the question of beauty, or aesthetics, I should like to start of with, “What is art?”
The word art, it must be remembered, comes from the Latin ars, akin to the Greek techne, which, for the ancients, referred to certain skills. Thus we speak of the art of writing, the art of medicine, the art of building, the art of painting, or the art of flower arrangement, and so on. The object of these “arts” was to make or do things as they ought to be done, recta ratio factibilium.
The “Fine arts,” as more clearly seen in other languages, – Beaux arts, Bellas artes, Schöne kunst – deal with the production of beautiful objects, or the appreciation thereof.
To understand our traditional conception of beauty, we have to go back to the Ancient Greeks, who were the first to speculate on the subject from a rational perspective. For Plato, Beauty was the splendor of Truth, or as he posits in the Symposium, Beauty is akin to the Good – all three being transcendental attributes of the divine essence. These attributes exist absolutely as “archetypes” and all physical manifestations of beauty merely imitate the one divine beauty. Human art, pictures, sculptures etc. are, therefore, “imitations of imitations” and are on the third or lowest level. The true artist, however, through divine “inspiration” – Thea mania- , makes present the effusions of pure beauty or “divine goodness” and is, according to Plato, on much the same level as the philosopher involved with “divine truth.” Platonic, and Neo–platonic philosophy have had a tremendous influence on Western art, especially in the Renaissance, when the pursuit of evermore rarified experiences of beauty were seen as a means of approaching God; hence the epithets for such geniuses as; the “divine” Raphael, the “divine Michelangelo, the “divine” Leonardo. Platonic and Neo-platonic theories of beauty abounded well into the 19th and early 20th century and are, in some circles, currently in vogue again.
For Aristotle, beauty exists in the here and now and points to the elements of symmetry, harmony, and definiteness in a given work or composition. In a true work of art it is not possible either to take away or to add anything, implying that excess and defect destroy the goodness of any work of art. This may be called the “realist” view of beauty as opposed to the Platonic “idealist” view. This “realist” view is based on the discovery – not invention - by the Greeks, of the underlying geometry and mathematics of the Cosmos. The “Golden Section” –TB:AT :: AT:AB – a ratio found in natural phenomena such as the growth of sea shells became the norm for Greek Architects and remained the norm in Western architecture up to the first half of the 20th century. In Music, Pythagoras identified the resonance of the strings of instruments in “octaves” and the harmonic fractions that they contained and brought about a rational method of tuning, according to the length of strings, that pleases the human ear. The Greek Kithara, a fifteen stringed instrument, was thus tuned according to the theories of Pythagoras to produce different “modes” to augment the aesthetic and emotional range of music beyond the dithyrambic [— ⌣ ⌣ —] - Bacchic meter. (Music, according to Plato, began with the rites of Bacchus and the lewd songs and dances performed in his praise) The Pythagorean classification of harmonious sounds held sway in the West up to the mid to late16th century when it was modified – not replaced- by the tempered scale. The Greek scale also passed on into Arabic music via the 10th century Muslim philosopher Al Farabi and his followers who broke the octave into 24 notes of equal temperament but 7of these notes to be chosen for a given scale. It would appear that the 7 tone scale, with but slight variations as in the Chinese pentatonic scale which leaves out the 3rd and 7th notes, is near universal to the folk music of all peoples.
For the “realist” philosopher, beauty exists in nature or, the created order. For the believer, as man is created in “the image and likeness of God,” he derives pleasure from the infinitely complex but ordered work of the Creator and turns to Him in praise. As for the non believer, he simply delights in participating via the senses in contemplation of the existing cosmic design of which he forms a part
St. Thomas Aquinas, indebted to
Plato and Aristotle, placed beauty in both the supernatural and natural orders.
Accordingly, Aquinas acknowledges that “God is beautiful in himself…and the
source of all beauty” [commentary on the Divine
Names], but also lists the attributes of beauty to be found in
nature. These are; proportion, clarity, and integrity. Proportion,
or the harmony of the parts to the whole and to each other is, based the
mathematical and geometric relationships discovered by the Ancient Greeks; clarity refers to the intelligible
quality of design, as well as the luminosity of coloration. The concept of Integrity follows the Aristotelian
proposition that nothing can be added to or taken away from a perfect work of
St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas’ contemporary, in order to bridge the Platonic ‘ideal” and Aristotelian “real” referred to this autonomous natural beauty as the vestigia or “imprint” of the divine on the created order which brings about delight and praise. For a modern day realist philosopher, the late Joseph Pieper, “Beauty is the glow of the true and the good that shines forth from every ordered state of being.” [The Four Cardinal Virtues]
The modern subjectivisation of art can, I believe, be traced back to René Descartes who in his 1641 Discourse on Method, uttered his famous “je pense donc je sui.” - I think therefore I am - thereby moving the concept of truth from observed reality to the mind of the individual thinker. Although Descartes was not interested in aesthetics, a corollary to “truth being in the mind of the thinker, would be, “beauty is in the mind (eye) of the beholder.”
Immanuel Kant, following Descartes estrangement from reality, actually proposed this subjective approach to beauty in his Critique of Judgment, in that the aesthetic experience is purely subjective and takes place within the mind. The feelings of pleasure derived from the aesthetic experience do not derive from the object observed but from one’s own refinement of individual taste in order to achieve an experience of the sublime. “If a man does not find a work of art beautiful, a hundred voices praising it will not force his innermost agreement.”
G.W.F. Hegel, writing his Aesthetics in the early 19th century, located the beautiful in the realm of “art” excluding it from nature entirely, and submits it to a historical process, which is also a process of gradual dematerialization and subjectification. For Hegel, external nature is inanimate and inert. Art for its part is “born of the spirit and born again.” For him, art, is higher than nature for it represents the manifestation of “Geist” – spirit – in a self-splitting, self-readjusting, and self-reunifying progression toward the “Absolute.” Man, the artist, creates by this process ever new “epiphanies of beauty.” Beauty, then for Hegel is neither an eternal given nor present in nature, it is the procession of the spirit through time as made manifest by individual men of genius in every age.1. For Hegel, the artist, not the priest, is the pontifex between the natural and evolving supernatural order, hence the importance of aesthetics in the Hegelian system.
The influence of Hegel on modern thought in general and art theory in particular can not be over stated. * This school of thought is not only the underlying philosophy of modern abstract movements in art, but, has produced the cult of creativity, spontaneity, innovation, and originality as the criteria for judging what is, or what is not “art.”
But, who are these artists, and who is now to say, what is art and what is beauty? It would appear that the artists with the most “Chutzpah” take the lead and a self promoting and inbred establishment of experts, academics, museum directors, and gallery owners, has arisen to point out and promote the chosen ones within, of course, the guidelines of the on-going dialectic. By the end of the 19th century artists no longer looked to nature for inspiration, but into a spiritual order beyond nature – a new form of mysticism tied to the evolving spirit. 2.
It started in Europe with such
‘Theosophical abstractionists’ as Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian as ‘thesis’
while the fragmentation of nature by the “Cubists” Braque and Picasso, along
with the “Fauves” (wild beasts) Derain, Matisse and de Vlaminck served as
‘antitheses.’ There was the 1917 Armory Show in
Following the Second World War, such experts as Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Leo Steinberg, redefined art for the so called, “Modern Age.” Rosenberg spoke of the “purities,” “opticalities,” and “formal factors” of art” espoused by a select group of “Abstractionist” Bohemians, mainly in New York City, as ‘thesis’ while Rosenberg espoused the “action painting” of Jackson Pollock and De Kooning et al. as ‘antithesis’. Steinberg introduced “Pop Art, as a ‘synthesis’, but that never really took hold. He is best remembered for his pithy aphorisms such as, “All great art looks ugly at first.” The modernist movement “must applaud the destruction of values we still cherish,” and Modern art, “must transmit this anxiety to the spectator.” 3. As the general public was left clueless as to what was going on, a new art market emerged, manipulated by the self proclaimed “experts” that appealed to wealthy patrons wishing to cash in on this gnostic “wave of the future.” 4. Individuals and investment firms have invested billions in this highly dubious market. Paintings by Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning et al. until recently, fetched prices in the millions and tens of millions of dollars. The collapse of these investments will predictably be in an order of magnitude equal to Bear Sterns and Bernie Madoff.
At the moment – the beginning of 2009 - avant garde art, as seen in the prestigious galleries and periodicals, is polarized between “Eros’ with a proliferation of “art works” depicting joyless mechanical sex, and “Thanatos” the “culture of death” as in von Hagen’s “Body Works” featuring plasticized corpses in grotesque positions. Where will the dialectic now take us? Nobody knows because, according to the theory, anything goes, as propelled onward and upward by the march of the “Zeitgeist - Spirit.” Unfortunately, rather than onward and upward to the “Absolute,” present trends point rather towards barbarism and the demise of aesthetics and Western values on all fronts.
There is, however, a renewed interest and concern among prominent religious figures, led by H. H. Benedict XVI and even secular thinkers, regarding the relativisation of truth, beauty, and traditional morality. How this will affect the arts, remains to be seen.. 5
Professor of Fine Arts,
See: Philosophies of Art and Beauty Edited by Hofstadter and Kuhns, (Chicago: University of Chicago press, 1976) chapters one and two for an overview of the aesthetics of Plato and Aristotle.
See: Alain Besançon, The
Forbidden Image (
* Hegel’s philosophy
was not only influenced by such thinkers as Descartes, Kant, Fichte and Shelling, but by the German Romantic
milieu and Pietist circles in which he lived, and, as shown by the contents of
his library, the writings of such occult and Hermetic thinkers as Paracelsus, Agrippa Von Nettesheim Giordano
Bruno, and Jacob Böehme, as well as the Kabbalists, Oetinger and Knorr Von
Rosenroth. He also was involved, off and on, with Rosicrucianism and theosophical
Masonry. See: Glen Magee, Hegel and the
Hermetic Tradition (
1. Cal Jung, Man and his Symbols (NY: Doubleday, 1964) Part 4 by Aniele Jaffe, esp. p. 264
See also: The Spiritual in Art : Abstract Painting 1895 – 1985 (New York: Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Abbeville Press, 1985)
2. Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word (NY: Bantam, 1965) Chapters 4, 5
4. The following is a typical example of the mystifying Hegelian style of contemporary art criticism:
some limestone abstract sculptures, Burton Wasserman wrote for Art
Matters in 1996, “The limestone carvings of Bradford Graves are a
celebration of profound perplexity and mystery. They explain themselves neither
quickly nor easily. Instead, they invite
deliberately paced intellectual search and spiritual speculation…Stimulating
the exercise of imagination, the sculptures challenge to invent their own
relevant meanings… these silent pieces of chiseled rock plumb the sublime. In
their unique way they illuminate mystical depths…there is a growing coterie of
admirers able to appreciate the majesty implicit in
5. The Jan. 2009 issue of the prestigious New Criterion magazine, edited by Hilton Kramer, a former art critic for the New York Times and guru of the avant garde, is most interesting in this respect.
Addendum, May, 2010
While it would appear that this writer’s hope for an awakening and re-evaluation of the nature of art is delayed, the basic premise of the present day dialectic of Eros and Thanatos is more than confirmed by the presentations of performance “Body Art” by Marina Abramovic being exhibited at this time (May, 2010) at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art – MOMA- in New York. E.g. :
Thesis - Eros Antithesis - Thanatos
On to the next step?
(Close up display of Ms. Abramovic’s navel)
Thesis - Satanism ? Antithesis - Christianity?
Sara Small – “Tableau Vivant” – The artist as Christ (see
dark stigmata on her hands) surrounded by120 mostly naked admirers. This “Performance
art” was showcased in May of 2011 at a
Lest anyone dismiss the above as insignificant or simply silly ponder the words of the eminent French art historian René Hughyé:
"Many think of art as a mere diversion, a thing that is marginal to the real business of life, they do not see that it [visual art] looks into life’s very heart and lays bare its unconscious secrets, that it contains the most honest confessions, confessions that have within them the least element of calculation and must therefore be accounted especially sincere. The soul of – the individual- and of an age no longer wears a mask; it seeks and discloses itself with the prophetic knowledge that is to be found both with the highly sensitive and the possessed."