(The following is an edited introduction to a lecture Alastair Gordon, fine artist and founder of Morphē Arts, gave on this subject a number of years ago.)
What do we mean when we say ‘beautiful’? How have concepts of beauty changed through the years and how today do we make sense of such things in a cynical art world?
In a recent lecture for Art Monthly magazine in the UK, critic David Beattie admitted, “I don’t feel comfortable using a word like ‘beautiful’ any more to describe works of art. I don’t know if any of us can.” He refers to the difficulty in categorising such an ambiguous term as ‘beauty’. Perhaps the idea that was once categorised in the word ‘beauty’ has now been replaced in some areas of contemporary art criticism by notions of the ‘sublime’ or ‘transcendent’?
What is beauty?
Novelist Umberto Eco describes ‘beauty’ simply as an adjective: “an adjective we often employ to indicate something we like”. Perhaps for some, beauty is merely a concept – an idea or ideal that represents something we like. We could say that “beauty” is generally regarded as a good thing. To be told you are “beautiful” is a good compliment. We generally like to surround ourselves with beautiful things at home such as beautiful art, food and clothes. It is generally considered a good thing to go to see beautiful things in a gallery or at a concert.
Back at Art School my peers and I were encouraged to dismiss the classical Greek notion of beauty as a system for formal aesthetics. It was considered too dogmatic – a limit to creative freedom. Even today the argument continues in UK art schools towards the value in teaching formal aesthetics and ancient systems for symmetry and proportion that underpinned the compositional framework of countless generations of artists who have gone before us.
One classical Greek word for beauty was horaios which means “hour” or “of the hour”. This was the idea that something beautiful was something of the time or contemporary. A bowl of ripe fruit, for example, was horaios because it was ripe for time. In the same context an older woman dressed up as a younger woman, however, was not beautiful. She was not “of her hour”. Perhaps more contemporary notions of ‘beauty’ hold more in common with this idea in later classical Greek culture than its earlier formal system of geometry and proportion?
In the eye of the beholder?
We often hear this phrase which suggests beauty is subject to personal tastes and preferences. What you think is beautiful might not be the same as what I think is beautiful. Discerning beauty is dependant on a series of variables such as our cultural background, upbringing, gender and nationality.
Beauty is certainly subject to preferences and tastes but can we also say there is something about beauty that is universal? Most cultures seem to have an understanding of the concept of “beauty” even if we don’t agree on what “beautiful” actually is. Most of us would agree that there is much beauty in the created world. We might agree that a sunset is beautiful or a cluster of freshly picked flowers.
Beauty in the Bible
In the Bible we read how God is deeply concerned with the aesthetic dimension of his creation. In Genesis 2:9 we read how God has made the trees to be “pleasing to the sight” as well as “good for food”. The symmetry of the creation story itself demonstrates the concern of our creative God for formal order, structure, rhythm and harmony within the Creation.
We see this echoed in God’s design for the tabernacle and Solomon’s temple, in the poetry of the Psalms, the lyricality of the gospel accounts and apocalyptic imagery of John’s Revelation to name just a few examples. Yet in God’s word the notion of beauty is also often twinned with the demonstration of God’s Redemption. As the prophet, Isaiah writes, “How beautiful on the mountain are the feet of those who bring good news.” Did Isaiah have a foot fetish? Was there something particularly attractive about the prophets’ feet? I doubt it. The beauty of the evangelists’ feet is the beauty of the message they carry: The ‘good news’ that Jesus Christ is Lord Over All creation and Saviour. There is a beauty in the message of redemption we can bring as artists to a broken world but there may also be a beauty in the manner by which we demonstrate the new creation in our art.
At the miracle at Cana, Jesus turned the water into wine but it wasn’t any old drop of cheap Cabernet Sauvignon. This example of Jesus’ new creation was the finest wine the guests had ever tasted. The beauty of God’s creation wasn’t just manifest at the Creation Story but also in the actions and miracles of Christ. The redemption of Christ is a beautiful act.
How then do we make art that demonstrates the beauty of Christ’s new creation? How do we paint, sing, write, sculpt, film, dance the beauty of Christ? How do we affirm and challenge contemporary notions of beauty and critique them in light of our biblical knowledge and the vast legacy of artists who have wrestled with this question and gone before us?