July 19, 2018


Beauty and Modern Art: As modern art has drifted away from traditional Beauty, it has also abandoned Truth and Goodness, rejecting God, religion, and nature in one fell swoop (Sarah Kaderbek, 7/17/18, Imaginative Conservative)

St. Thomas Aquinas defines Beauty as possessing three characteristics: wholeness, proportion, and radiance, and this definition captures a certain type of beauty succinctly.[1] On its most objective, physical level, Beauty relies on these three characteristics. It is not hard to accept that a fresh rose is more Beautiful than a blighted one; it simply is.

However, simple Beauty does not encompass the totality of Beauty. The healthy, lush green tree is Beautiful, but there is also a certain Beauty in a twisted, gnarled trunk. There is something more about it, not just its physical appearance, which appeals to us and is Beautiful though its physicality lacks simple Beauty.

A similar phenomenon is often seen in humanity. There are some people who simply are more Beautiful; their physical forms possess wholeness, proportion, and radiance to a higher degree than others. However, to reduce the Beauty of humanity to this almost purely physical sense of the word is to ignore that oftentimes, the most Beautiful people are not the most whole, proportioned, and radiant. All of us have met someone who, while not physically Beautiful in this simple sense, is breathtakingly Beautiful, and this fact cannot be reduced to a subjective opinion. There is something Beautiful about these people, just as there is something Beautiful in the withered tree, in the crumbling wall, in suffering and pain.

Harder to define (as the term suggests) is complex Beauty. While simple Beauty resides in the physical form of the thing itself and appeals to our intellect and heart, complex Beauty resides in the intellect and appeals to the senses. This is where the line between objective Beauty and subjective opinion often begins to blur, since it is extremely hard to give any concrete reason for the Beauty of these things beyond "I feel that it is Beautiful."

However, I believe that complex Beauty is Beautiful because it is True or Good. This troika of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness is often talked about in conservative, creative, and artistic circles... and for good reason. The transcendentals (Beauty, Truth, and Goodness) succinctly capture the desires of the human heart, and these values are the mirrors by which we see the light of the God reflected in this world. The transcendentals, however, cannot merely be taken individually; they interact on a fundamental level. There is Goodness in Truth and Truth in Goodness, etc. Thus, complex Beauty can be said to exist in the True and/or Good.

Applying this definition to the above examples, the withered tree and the crumbling wall are Beautiful because they point to the Truth and Goodness of suffering which is in itself Beautiful because of the Truth and Goodness of suffering's redemptive quality, etc. A person can be objectively, simply Beautiful in a physical sense, but he can also be objectively, complexly Beautiful, when the Truth about who they are and the Goodness of their soul radiate from their body, when the soul is manifest in the form of the body. Thus, when we discuss art, we must take into account these two "types" of Beauty.

In regard to the subject of the work of art, simple and complex Beauty apply as described above.

However, they also come into play regarding the style of the work. Man acts as a sub-creator when making art, and he therefore naturally seeks to capture Beauty in imitation of the style of the true Creator. Thus, simple Beauty exists in the style of a work when it clearly reflects nature. God, Beauty Himself, reflects His Own Beauty in Creation; therefore, man reflects Beauty most clearly and simply when he mirrors nature in his art.

Thus, any stylistic decision which purposely deviates from nature must do so for the sake of more effectively communicating Truth and Goodness (complex Beauty) in order to retain Beauty itself. There must be a correspondingly high communication of complex Beauty to make up for the loss of simple Beauty. For example, Byzantine iconography does not seek to mirror nature but to convey theological Truths through its stylistic deviations; it remains Beautiful in a way that is often hard to express.

Posted by at July 19, 2018 5:33 PM