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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…

“Guernica,” by Pablo Picasso (1937)

To engage in dialogue about beauty and art is to navigate a tricky mire. Regardless of the exact point of contention, there are always major pitfalls and fallouts threatening fruitful discussion, and the topic must be handled with the utmost care.

To begin any such dialogue, the first question that must be addressed is whether Beauty is objective or subjective. Indeed, the concept of objective Beauty is rejected by a society that proudly declares that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” until your eye does not behold the beauty of its modern artistic darlings. Because of its controversial nature, the objectivity of Beauty is often debated, but unfortunately, the discussion most frequently ends there, and another prevalent error is overlooked. After establishing the objectivity of Beauty, we must then seek to determine what actually is Beautiful. If we do not define what makes something objectively Beautiful, the assumption becomes that objective Beauty coincides perfectly with one’s own opinions; rather than establishing that Beauty is not dependent on subjective preferences, Beauty comes to rest on one’s “objective” opinions. Yet it is vital to admit that just because something is Beautiful does not mean it must be universally liked and just because one likes something does not make it Beautiful.

Thus, we must define what Beauty actually is. 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.

Turning then to modern art… is it Beautiful?

First, it is utterly impossible to make a broad judgment that encompasses every specific work; thus, I discuss modern art with the understanding that there are many exceptions to the general rules described. That being said, I believe that most modern art is ugly. The stylistic “avant-garde” deviations of the modern artistic movement go against the qualities described above and have become, at best, stylistically childish and, at worst, grotesque.

Thus, modern art must be complexly Beautiful if it is Beautiful at all. However, as art has drifted away from traditional Beauty, it has also abandoned Truth and Goodness, rejecting God, religion, and nature in one fell swoop.

To take a concrete example, these concepts can be applied to Pablo Picasso’s famous painting, Guernica. On the level of simple Beauty, his subject matter is fundamentally repulsive: Suffering is, in itself, ugly. Picasso also rejects the natural, simply Beautiful style especially in regard to his human figures, who are purposely stylized, contorted, and repulsive.

If Beauty is to be found in the painting, it must be complex. Indeed, Picasso’s style seems to be intentionally ugly, and in this way, he does effectively communicate the Truth of the ugliness and horror of suffering and ingeniously draws out the disturbing evil that exists in the infliction of suffering upon others. However, he lacks the Truth of the Goodness to be found in suffering; there is no deeper meaning suggested in the pain of the figures; Picasso does not point to the redemptive quality of suffering nor does he communicate the dignity of humanity even in the midst of suffering. Rather, the humans are reduced to bestial horror and pain, showing no more dignity than the mad horse in the center of the work. Above the scene hangs a light bulb, and while the argument can be made that it represents the Light in the midst of the Darkness, the man-made light source could also exist only to accentuate and reveal the suffering further.

Thus, there simply is not enough Truth or Goodness to justify the ugliness of subject and style.

While Guernica has some value in that it does effectively communicate the ugliness and horror of suffering and does convey a deep emotional impact upon the viewer, this half-Truth does not justify its simple ugliness nor its utter lack of the deeper Truth of suffering. There are many Beautiful works of art that communicate the same horror without the despair, which is in itself false and evil.

Modern art as a general whole often falls prey to this error and many others. While there are true artists creating truly Beautiful art, the modern and post-modern artistic cultures, museums, and curators have opted in favor of the “daring” or “unique” over the Beautiful, and in this vacuum created by art without Beauty, anything goes. Without the guiding light of Beauty, an artistic culture now exists in which the very meaning of the word “art” has been stripped, where anything and everything is art if one merely says it is. We are left with works that no longer present solutions to humanity’s deep questions nor even depict the search for such Truth or Goodness, but instead offer confusion, meaninglessness, and emptiness.[2]

Thus, we must actively seek to revitalize this same culture, to apply standards of true Beauty to each and every work of art, and by doing so, to find and support those modern artists who embrace them and who will retake the world of the visual arts for the glory of God through Beauty.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Notes:

[1] Summa Theologica, by St. Thomas Aquinas, (see I.39.8 “I answer that…”).

[2] See Marc Chagall’s I and the Village (1911), Mark Rothko’s Green and Maroon (1953), and Gabriel Orozco’s Empty Shoe Box (1993).

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3 replies to this post
  1. It is worth noting that Guernica was depicting a form of barbarism that has become commonplace to us. The bombing of civilians, while it predates Guernica, was first brought to the public mindset by the bombing. It would prove a gruesome foretaste of the slaughter inflicted upon civilians in the next decade, and so to us seems only one of countless tragedies. Because we are so far removed from the events, we look at painting Guernica and see the tragedy of the bombing and the suffering of the victims. We do not experience shock, which the ugliness is meant to convey, because we find the bombing tragic but no longer shocking.

  2. When Gestapo officers barged into Picasso’s studio in occupied Paris, they saw the Guernica and asked the painter, “Did you do this.” “No,” Picasso replied, “you did this.”

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