by James S. Spiegel-
A popular slogan in our culture is that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”1 This sentiment reflects a familiar perspective on art and beauty today. According to this view, an artwork (such as a song or a painting) or a part of nature (such as a flower, a sunset, or a human face) is not beautiful in itself but is only subjectively pleasing. Aesthetic judgments (like “this song is lovely” or “that painting is ugly”) do not state facts about the world but merely reflect an observer’s response to some aspect of the world. This view is known as aesthetic subjectivism.
It is important to note that aesthetic subjectivism parallels a similar view in ethics known as moral subjectivism, which says that right and wrong are merely matters of individual preference. Both forms of subjectivism see value judgments, whether regarding goodness or beauty, as relative to the individual. Together these value relativisms rose to prominence in the 20th century, reflecting a general skepticism in Western civilization towards the objectivity of values.
In recent decades Christian apologists have labored to defend moral objectivism, citing overwhelming reasons for believing that there are moral absolutes and that ethical relativism (whether individual or cultural) is untenable.2 But are there aesthetic absolutes? Do we have good reasons to believe that beauty is not merely “in the eye of the beholder”? And if beauty is objective, then what are the standards for making aesthetic judgments? In what follows, I will answer each of these questions. First, I will show that aesthetic relativism is untenable for many of the same reasons that ethical relativism is. Secondly, I will identify several criteria for distinguishing good art from bad art and for distinguishing good artists from bad artists.
The Truth of Aesthetic Objectivism
The claim that judgments of beauty are relative to an individual or culture has a generous ring about it, but the absurdity of this view becomes apparent upon close inspection. First, consider the implications of aesthetic subjectivism when it comes to comparing works of art. In my office I have a finger-painting made by my four-year-old son, Bailey. It is basically a scramble of pastels on black construction paper. Now, we might ask, how does it compare, in terms of aesthetic quality, to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa? Is one of these works superior (i.e. more objectively beautiful) to the other? Not according to aesthetic subjectivism. Remember, on this view no work of art can be objectively superior to another, because the subjectivist maintains that beauty is entirely relative to an individual’s preference. So if I happen to prefer Bailey’s finger-painting to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, then the former is superior to the latter for me. You might consider the latter more beautiful, in which case the Mona Lisa is more beautiful to you. Objectively speaking, neither is aesthetically superior to the other. All responses to works of art are merely subjective.
But such a view of things clearly contradicts common sense. Obviously the Mona Lisa is superior to Bailey’s finger painting, regardless of how fond I might be of my son’s artistic efforts. But the only way this judgment can be justified is if beauty is an objective matter, not merely in the eye of the beholder. Only an objectivist view can account for the common sense distinction we ordinarily make between personal tastes and real excellence in works of art. So if we are to maintain (as we should) that the Mona Lisa is better than my son’s finger painting, we must admit that aesthetic qualities (whether good or bad) are public facts about the world, not merely private preferences.
Also, if aesthetic subjectivism is true, then we cannot account for the universal, time-tested appreciation of many works of art. All educated people will agree, as they have for centuries, that Milton’s Paradise Lost is a great poem, that Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is an excellent piece of music, and that Michelangelo’s David is a superb sculpture. How do we explain such continuing consensus of opinion among intelligent connoisseurs of art, except by acknowledging that the tremendous aesthetic qualities of these works are public facts? If aesthetic subjectivism is true, then the convergence of opinion by hosts of art critics is mere coincidence. They all just happen to have similarly positive responses to these artworks. But, of course, this is absurd. So aesthetic objectivism must be true.
Furthermore, consider the fact that we often debate the quality of artworks and we sometimes change our opinions about whether a film, book, or song is good or not. We might find ourselves defending the merit of a novel we have read or saying something like “I was wrong about that movie. I think it is good after all.” These are everyday occurrences in discussions of art, and they confirm the basic intuition that aesthetic judgments are objective, whether correct or incorrect. Aesthetic qualities must be public facts and not simply subjective responses. Otherwise, we could not meaningfully argue about them or improve our views on works of art. To debate an issue is to try to convince someone of the truth of a view. And to admit one was wrong in a judgment about an artwork is to acknowledge that aesthetic truth is independent of one’s preferences. Only aesthetic objectivism can make sense of these things.
Finally, that aesthetic qualities are public facts is also confirmed by our shared use of aesthetic concepts and terms such as “beautiful,” “sublime,” “gaudy,” “refined,” “delicate,” “elegant,” “dramatic,” and “powerful.” We would have no shared idea of what these terms mean if they were merely subjective and not based in anything public and objective. Our shared understanding of the meanings of such aesthetic terms shows that they are grounded in something beyond subjective responses. Beauty and related aesthetic attributes, therefore, are not merely in the eye of the beholder. They are objectively real facts about the world.3
Objective Standards for Good Art
If aesthetic subjectivism is so problematic, then why does it remain so popular? I believe there are two primary reasons for this. One has to do with the fact that there are conflicting aesthetic judgments among people, and the other reason is the widespread assumption that there are no standards for good art. But as for the first point, the fact that people’s aesthetic judgments sometimes conflict does not imply there is no objective aesthetic truth anymore than disagreement about the age of the universe or the morality of abortion implies that there is no truth about those matters. We all recognize that the earth is some age and that abortion is either right or wrong, even though different parties dispute these things. A plurality of views on an issue does not imply that truth in that context is entirely relative. Similarly, people may dispute the aesthetic quality of a Monet painting or a Spielberg film, but it does not follow that there is no objective truth to be found there. Sometimes it is just hard to find the truth.
But here some object that in science and ethics we have shared criteria for assessing truth claims, while this is not so in aesthetics. Objective truth and knowledge presuppose objective standards, and there are no such standards for aesthetic judgments. But is this so? This brings us to the main point of this discussion. On the contrary, there are numerous objective guidelines that are, and should be, used to evaluate works of art.
Some aesthetic standards are genre specific, that is, they pertain to particular rules within a major art form. Most significantly, there are guidelines for proper technique in each art form that one must master in order to become proficient in that kind of artistry.
These techniques, in turn, define the standards for excellence in that genre. For example, to be a good potter, one must learn how to drive and regulate the speed of the pottery wheel, how to maintain optimum clay moisture, and how to use dexterity to finesse the clay in various ways. To be a good photographer, one must learn how to frame a subject, how to achieve ideal lighting, and how to determine appropriate shutter speeds for various contexts. And to be a good poet, one must know how to exploit rules of syntax, how to create rhythm and images with words, and how to work with simile, metaphor, hyperbole, and paradox to achieve different effects. So it goes for every art genre. One must master basic rules of proper technique if one is to achieve artistic excellence.
There are also standards that are non-genre-specific. These are general principles of beauty that we can apply across the spectrum of genres, to art forms as diverse as painting, music, and theater. These include such features as complexity, unity, intensity, originality, and expressiveness.4 But each of these attributes must be balanced against the others. A painting or song that is complex without being unified by some image or central theme is likely to be confused or overly busy. On the other hand, a lack of variety of shades, colors, textures, and images will tend to make a painting bland, just as a lack of melodic or rhythmic variety will make a song boring. And a work that is both unified and complex may be nonetheless fatally bland if it is not sufficiently intense or lively.
All excellent artworks are original in some way as well. They provide new and interesting ways of viewing, feeling, or thinking about something. Or they recombine familiar elements in creative and compelling ways. But in its originality a good work of art does not totally break from standard forms, otherwise the audience will have no reference points for meaningfully experiencing it and will be disoriented as a result. Excellent artworks establish familiar con tact points for the audience and use these to lead them into new and unfamiliar territory, whether regarding subject matter, emotions, or truth claims. This explains why art is inherently risky. To be aesthetically excellent, an art object must explore new terrain, but to do this effectively the artist faces the hazard of going too far in one direction or another, such as by frightening, irritating, or offending the audience in some way.
Also, great works of art tend to be powerfully expressive. They transmit ideas and emotions in significant and lasting ways. Every art form is, in an essential respect, a mode of communication, a means by which personal connections are established or deepened. These connections may pertain to everything from specific feelings to whole worldviews. This explains the significant social and moral impact—for better or worse—that great artworks have. Consider the impact of two films in these respects. In the late 1960’s the film Easy Rider portrayed the hippie generation’s rambling “free love” hedonism and their frustrating conflict with “establishment” authorities. The film drew from and extended the social sensibilities of that subculture and, consequently, deepened its impact on American culture for many years following. A little over a decade later, Chariots of Fire helped millions of viewers better understand the anguish of maintaining one’s moral-spiritual integrity when faith commitment is challenged by social pressure and even one’s own desires for success. This film inspired many to take divine authority and personal faith more seriously. While antithetical in their ultimate messages as well as their long-term moral and social impact, Easy Rider and Chariots of Fire are quite similar in so far as they creatively portray conflict with authority and compellingly depict human anguish in the midst of that struggle.
So great works of art tend to be complex, unified, intense, original, and expressive. But on top of this, as aesthetician Richard Eldridge observes, there is an appropriate “fit” between form and content in great works of art.5 That is, there must be a proper match between the formal features of a work, such as its style, mood, or manner, and its subjects and themes. A good example of such appropriate fit is the Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby,” which draws terse portraits of lost and lonely individuals, including the eponymous Rigby who “lives in a dream . . . wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door” and one Father Mackenzie “writing a sermon that no one will hear . . . darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there.” The song concludes with the death of the former and the latter “wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave,” followed by the song’s mournful refrain: “Ah, look at all the lonely people.”6 Matched to these lyrics is an exquisite string-quartet score in a minor key. The vocal and string melodies themselves seem to weep and the whole arrangement echoes the theme of loneliness. Here we have an appropriate fit of form to content, a crucial feature of any excellent art work.
Objective Standards for Good Artistry
In addition to standards for art works, there are standards that apply to artists themselves as they do their aesthetic work. Such traits might be called “aesthetic virtues,” as they are marks of excellence, enabling an artist to fulfill his or her creative function in a particular domain. Most such qualities are simple applications of standard moral virtues applied in the aesthetic realm. For example, diligence is a vital characteristic of any artist, just as it is in any human relationship or meaningful practice. But work in the arts is especially challenging, because tangible rewards for aesthetic excellence do not come as readily as they do for other more “practical” tasks that occupy us. Often, perhaps typically, great artists must sacrifice a great deal even to finish a project, much less do it well.
Artists must also display veracity in their work. They must be aesthetically sincere in their personal expressions and truthful in presenting their beliefs about the world. Art is an emotionally rich mode of expression. Some aestheticians, in fact, have claimed that expression of feelings is the primary purpose of art.7 In order to artistically express a feeling, of course, one must have actually experienced it. This is why young writers are often advised to “write what you know best.” Doing so maximizes one’s ability to tap and express real emotions rather than to be a sham. A poet or painter cannot express feelings she has never had, and audiences are always quick to spot a lack of authenticity.
Of course, it is not enough just to be personally authentic in one’s artwork. Aesthetic veracity in the fullest sense implies telling the truth in one’s art, both in terms of reporting how one sees or understands the world and in terms of matching that interpretation to the way things really are. Excellent artists are excellent perceivers. They have an eye for truths about God, the world, and human nature that most people lack, and they possess a special ability to communicate these insights through their art. In poetry and prose, such truthfulness is what distinguishes the truly great writers from merely great stylists. Whether it is Wordsworth lamenting “the world is too much with us”8 or Camus warning that “there can be no peace without hope,”9 the great writer unveils for us something about how things really are.
An artist should also exhibit boldness or what might be called aesthetic courage. This is a willingness to take risks, to explore new ground or to challenge conventional ways of thinking about a subject. At the same time, an artist must exhibit discretion, resisting the temptation to sensationalize or go too far in challenging accepted practices and points of
view. Clear moral boundaries must be respected in all art forms. Art, like all human projects, is an inherently moral activity. No artist can escape this fact, however much he or she might claim otherwise. And every art object has moral implications, however neutral it might appear to be. It was for this reason that Tolstoy claimed that a major function of art is to reinforce the prevailing moral and religious perceptions of a society.10
This is just a sampling of the virtues that characterize good artistry.11 Many others, such as humility, generosity, compassion, and wit, could be discussed in this context. It is not just art objects that are objectively good, bad, or mediocre. Artists themselves may be so described from an objective aesthetic standpoint. Now it is important to note that the Christian brings a unique perspective to the whole issue of standards in aesthetic assessment. I have intentionally avoided discussing norms of aesthetic judgment in exclusively Christian terms. But I have only refrained from doing so to demonstrate that aesthetic objectivism is reasonable in the most general sense. That is, one need not be a Christian to embrace this perspective on aesthetic values. Christian apologists often first show that there are absolute moral values and on this basis make a reasonable case for the existence of God to account for them. Similarly, one may argue for absolute aesthetic values (as I have done here) and then proceed to argue for theism on this basis. Indeed, Christian thinkers, from Augustine to contemporary times have sometimes reasoned this way. But such aesthetic theistic proofs are much less common than their moral counterparts. This is something that hopefully will change in time, but the success of such a project will depend on whether we can first successfully dispel aesthetic relativism and the myth that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” AJ
James S. Spiegel (Ph.D., Michigan State) is Professor of Philosophy at Taylor University, Upland, Indiana. He is author of the book Hypocrisy: Moral Fraud and Other Vices (Baker, 1999).
1 This phrase originated with Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, in her 1878 novel Molly Brown (New York: A. L. Burt, n.d.). The idea behind it predates this statement by many centuries, however. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare wrote “Beauty is bought by judgment of the eye” (Act II, Scene I). And David Hume asserted “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them” (from “Of the Standard of Taste” in Essays, Moral, Political and Literary, Eugene F. Miller, ed. [Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1985], 230).
2 See Peter Kreeft, A Refutation of Relativism (San Francisico: Ignatius Press, 1999) and Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998).
3 For an excellent recent defense of aesthetic objectivism, including an elaboration on some of the arguments that I employ here, see Eddy M. Zemach, Real Beauty (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 1997).
4 For an excellent discussion of aesthetic standards from a Christian perspective, see Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 156-174. See also Leland Ryken, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1989) and Frank Burch Brown, Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life (Oxford: Oxford Press, 2000).
5 Richard Eldridge, “Form and Content: An Aesthetic Theory of Art,” The British Journal of Aesthetics, 25:4 (1985), 303-316. Eldridge, in fact, believes this quality is definitive of art. He says, “the aesthetic quality possession of which is necessary and sufficient for a thing’s being art is the satisfying appropriateness to one another of a thing’s form and content” (p. 308).
6 The Beatles, Revolver, Capital Records, 1966.
7 Two classic versions of the “expressivist” view of art are to be found in Robin G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958) and Benedetto Croce, Aesthetics as Science of Expression and General Linguistic, Douglas Ainslie, trans., 2nd ed. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Co., 1922).
8 William Wordsworth, “The World is Too Much With Us,” The Complete Poetical Works of William Wordsworth (London: Macmillan and Co., 1926).
9 Albert Camus, The Plague, Stuart Gilbert, trans. (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 271.
10 Tolstoy declares that “if a religious perception exists among us, then our art should be appraised on the basis of that religious perception.” He adds that “art transmitting feelings flowing from the religious perception of our time should be chosen from all the indifferent art, should be acknowledged, highly esteemed, and encouraged, while art running counter to that perception should be condemned and despised, and all the remaining indifferent art should neither be distinguished nor encouraged (What is Art?, Almyer Maude, trans. [Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1960], 145).
11 For a further discussion of this topic in the context of Christian worship, see my “Aesthetics and Worship,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 2:4 (Winter, 1998), 40-56.