Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

Author Brett Kunkle Published on 09/19/2016

As an apologist, I never envisioned sharing the stage with rappers, hip hop artists, and spoken word poets. But that’s what happened last month at the Canvas Conference in Portland, Oregon. A collaboration between Humble Beast Records and Western Seminary, the conference brought together thinkers and creatives, theologians and artists, in order to work out a theology of art and creativity. Creative expression was interspersed throughout the teaching sessions, as artists performed songs and poetry, and each night of the conference culminated with a multi-artist concert. It was unlike any speaking event I’ve been a part of.

But can apologetics really bring anything helpful to a conference on art and creativity? As I prepped my talks, I was reminded that apologetics actually offers the foundation for art and, in particular, carefully deals with one concept that underwrites the entire artistic enterprise intellectually: objective truth.

Certainly you’ve heard the cultural mantra “Beauty is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.” It seems to entail the view that art is a realm of mere subjectivism, where a painting, song, or film is merely beautiful because an individual thinks it so. This is the dominant view of Americans. But as I told the Canvas Conference audience, this statement actually confuses the issue. Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? The answer is yes...and no. Yes, the experience of beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Our ability to perceive beauty does involve subjective elements. It is conditioned by our own views and personal tastes. And that explains why we can actually develop tastes for not only beautiful works of art, but also for ugliness.

However, beauty itself is not subjective. The colors, tones, and hues of a magnificent sunset are real properties, independent of what you or I think. Have you ever been struck by a magnificent snow-capped mountain? Has a cascading waterfall ever taken your breath away? Such spontaneous expressions of wonder and admiration bear witness to the objective beauty we behold. These things are not beautiful because I, as a subject, declare them to be. The object—the sunset, the mountain, the waterfall—is beautiful in and of itself. Thus, we mustn’t confuse the perceiving subject with the perceived object.* (*I’m grateful to one of my philosophy instructors, Dr. David Horner, for shaping my views on beauty.)

Indeed, if beauty itself is merely subjective, then ultimately there is no difference between the works of Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Picasso, or Monet and an artist who smears feces on a canvas. If beauty is subjective, then Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is no different from Rebecca Black’s song “Friday” (if you’re not familiar with this reference, look it up on YouTube). In the end, there are no objective distinctions to be made. There are no masters or masterpieces.

If there is objective beauty, a significant question follows: Where does it come from? How is beauty grounded? It’s grounded in an objectively beautiful God. Just like God’s rational nature grounds rational truth and His moral nature grounds moral truth, God’s aesthetic nature is the grounding of aesthetic truth. Objective beauty finds its basis in the nature of the Supremely Beautiful Person. The psalmist affirms this: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in His temple” (Psalm 27:4).

In this way, beauty becomes an apologetic for God. It’s a powerful argument for His existence. Beauty points beyond the physical material world. It points beyond the musical instruments, beyond the paint, the brush, and the canvas, and beyond the camera and screen. Beauty points beyond the physical cosmos to the Creator of the cosmos. Beauty points beyond our art to the Divine Artist. Objective beauty reveals the objective source of beauty, God Himself.

I closed my talk with an exhortation to those artists in attendance: The body of Christ needs you to get good at your craft. Work hard to become better painters, musicians, and filmmakers. When you create objectively beautiful art, it exemplifies God’s nature and declares His glory. Thus Christians, connected to the source of all beauty, should produce the best art in the world. I want our culture to move from “That was done by a Christian?!” to “That was done by a Christian.” If the body of Christ can harness not just its thinkers but also its artists, we will have another powerful evidence for the truth of Christianity.