What’s beauty got to do with it?

Okay, lame title, I know.  Please keep reading.

But the question remains the same: what does beauty have to do with it, with life? What does beauty have to do with art?  We throw these words around, with hardly any meaning attached to the words at all, and then there are others, like Dostoevsky, who say things like “Beauty will save the world.”

If there is anything so clear, look at any artist’s life, while he may refute objectivity, the objective reality of beauty that he aims for is an ever present guide and light to him as an artist.  We’ve become so muffled in our age.  Our society

 waters things down, it makes murky the clear, it closes out the truth, and it puts up with the ugly.  After some point in art history which I am only vaguely familiar with (the Impressionist and Cubist movements, I believe, which unfortunately-if I’m not mistaken-is too close to Romanticism for it’s own good), it became permissible, and indeed tolerant, to accept all pieces of work as art, regardless of their quality.  To dismiss one thing as fine art and another as rubbish became an impossible judgment for the art critic (or viewer), who is just not able to understand the artist’s expressions.

Let me be clear: the point of art, its proper end, is beauty.  So, let us begin.  What is beauty?  The stark, and precise, definition of Thomas Aquinas is as follows: beauty is “that which pleases when seen.”  While this definition may not seem very enlightening, take a deeper think: Thomas Aquinas places beauty in the realm of man’s capacity of knowing–it relates to man’s cognitive capacity.   Not to man’s emotions or feelings, though it is still true that beauty strikes man to the core, often in a way that encompasses the emotions.  Beauty manifests itself to man’s physical sight, but surpasses the external senses because it also appeals to the mind.  The mind finds delight in the beautiful because the physical manifestation of the beautiful is also proportionate to the mind’s eye.

Beauty is a good in and of itself–it exists outside of individual men.  Beauty is transcendent, and for this reason, there are “manifestations of beauty” (known as artwork) that transcend times and people and become “classics.”

Because beauty relates to man’s capacity of knowing (the intellect), art, in a very broad sense, can be considered the ‘right reason about works to be made’–thus works of art, from whichever medium of art, must be proportionate to the mind’s eye as well as pleasing to the external senses.  The logical outcome of these definitions is that art and beauty are securely attached to both truth and meaning.  In fact, followed properly, the end of art (beauty) and the dedication to the perfection of art leads to acknowledging objective truth and meaning.

When an artist creates some work of art it is always a result of some experience with an objective reality–with beauty in some form–and it is this that the artist aspires to in his very act of creating/making.  Art is not simply an expression of one’s self.  The origin of artwork is beauty and beauty is the proper end to which it is directed.   Through the artist’s manifestation of beauty his audience is able to see a different aspect of reality, thus deepening his knowledge and understanding of life itself.  The artist’s work remains thoroughly particular to that artist while portraying and drawing men (and himself) into an objective reality where beauty is found.

John Paul II writes that “In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty.”  Art cannot be separated from meaning because it is through meaning (which is grounded in reality and truth) that other men are able to receive and enjoy art.

Just like other faculties of the mind, our sense for beauty and art can be sharpened or dulled.  In an age where any line drawn is framed and museum-ed, and anything passes for music, and anything passes for sculpture, and for writing, and for painting;  it is no wonder why it is not a struggle to see beauty.


Tell me what that picture on the right means.  You can’t.  But tell me how often you have seen something like this passing for art, and the answer is you can.  Whenever meaning is removed from artwork, in any of its vast and various forms, the viewer is one step removed from objective reality and his senses are subject to dull-ation (I only make up really good words).  The point of art is not solely the expression of the artist’s feelings or emotions.  The point of art is the expression of objective meaning and reality, truth, through the artist’s own, unique, and subjective, experience.

The “rules” of art and the “rules” of the world (meaning objective reality) are not meant to be a hindrance to the artist, rather, in the words of Jacques Maritain: ” With the habit or virtue of art exalting his spirit from within, the artist is a master of making use of the rules to serve his ends…Properly speaking, he possesses and is not possessed by them: he is not held by them, it is he who holds, through them, matter and reality.”  This, my friends, is a much more impressive feat, then to cast all rules aside in the name of ‘originality’ and ‘creativity’.  What bastardizations of such good words.

Etienne Gilson, another cool guy, has written that “Man performs different kinds of acts: he is, he knows, he does, and he makes.”  The way he separates man’s acts is perfect for understanding how the artist is to live.  Art is not an extension of the artist himself–art is the result of a particular man’s actions.  Art is made by a man for it’s own sake–to exist on its own, as a manifestation of beauty that has touched the artist.  A man, when he takes up art or he is an artist, remains in his core a man.   As an artist, he must answer for his art.  As a man, he must answer for himself.

The realm of art provides a unique space for communication between the secular artist and the Christian artist insofar as their dedication to the perfection of their works is built towards objective truth and meaning.  In this way we can understand a bit more of what Dostoevsky means when he says that “Beauty will save the world.”

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One thought on “What’s beauty got to do with it?

  1. Pingback: More on Art and Life « theliteraryproject

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