The traditional assumption is that when we apprehend beauty in the world around us we are discerning a property that belongs to the objects regarded. Consistent with this we call beauty an objective quality. This is to distinguish it from the subject – the person who views the object and makes a judgement on its beauty.
The strongest argument in favor of this assertion, I would say, is that when the assumption of the objectivity of beauty was broadly accepted, the culture that emerged from that society was more beautiful that it is today. Each of you ask yourself, which art, architecture or music is the most beautiful? Most people pick something from the past when people believed this. Similarly, I might as which part of Oxford do the 10 million visitors visit each year? Or which part of Florence do the similar number of tourists go to look at? Is the part of town with the old buildings with designed rooted in the assumption of objective beauty and incorporating traditional harmony and proportion, or the new buildings built sine WW2 by architects who abandoned the old priniples. It is the former, I would say. If you do not agree with me on this, and you are entitled to your opinion, then you are very unlikely to accept the rest of my argument.
To categorize beauty as an objective quality is not to say that everyone makes the same judgements. Clearly there is a subjective element too because we see differences in opinion from person to person on what is beautiful.
When there is a difference of opinion, one might ask, how do we know who is right? What standard is there to help us make such a judgement?
This is not an easy question to answer. In another context, if we were considering the morality of someone’s action for example, we might look to the Magisterium or to scripture directly for an authoritative judgement. Murder is wrong because scripture tells us so!
However, there are no equivalent ‘Ten Commandments of beauty’ that God has revealed to us. As a consequence it is usually fruitless to attempt to make rational arguments that something is more beautiful than another, or that my judgment is more accurate than yours, because there is no accepted visible standard that we can use to back up such a claim.
What about those criteria already mentioned – integrity, clarity and due proportion – some might ask? Can’t I apply these criteria to get a definitive answer?
These can help to a degree, but the difficulty here is that we still have to make a personal judgment on the degree of integrity, clarity and due proportion that the object possesses, and so are effectively left with the same difficulty, except multiplied by three!
The capacity of unaided human reason to judge beauty is so variable that we cannot be sure of the validity of any single judgment.
All is not lost, however, just because it is difficult to be sure that any single human judgement is good, it doesn’t mean that we have no measure at all. We know that human nature is drawn to beauty just as it is drawn to the common good, and so we can look at the broad pattern of likes and dislikes of most people over time in a society to consider what is beautiful. We might term this the ‘common taste’ and it is analogous to concepts such as common sense, common law and the highest of these, the common good.
This ‘common taste’ or, put another way, the common sense of what is beautiful, is that standard that emerges over time and in consideration of most people in a society. Another word for this common taste over generations is tradition. As an aspect of the culture, the artistic traditions of a society can vary from society to society even while retaining universal principles. So, for example, within the iconographic tradition of sacred art, each national church will tend to develop it’s own style so that, for example, Greek icons are distinct from Russian icons which are in turn distinct from English Romanesque icons.
The best way to decide if a piece of art is beautiful, therefore, is to ask what tradition tells us about it. If something has been considered beautiful by many people for a long period of time then there is a greater chance that it is beautiful than for those objects which only a few people appreciate for a short period of time. Tradition is not an infallible guide, but, I suggest, more reliable than a panel of elite intellectuals in a university art department!
In consulting tradition, we consider the society for whom a beautiful object was intended. So we would say that the cosmos was made for all men to behold and so if we want to consider whether or not the cosmos is objectively beautiful we ask ourselves if generally, men have thought that it was.
Similarly, when we look at sacred art, the best guide to the goodness of the style is consideration of the impact that it has on the worshipers in the churches for whom it was intended. Does it on the whole draw people to God as hoped? The pool of people to draw on in this latter category is much smaller than ‘all men’ and so the reliability of the judgment of the effect will be less certain, but nevertheless it is still the best that we have.
Popular culture vs tradition
This appeal to general opinion is likely to disturb some readers who, sensing that popular art and culture is low-brow and superficial, worry that it is an overreliance on democracy and popularity. However, if we give at least as much weight to the past as to the present we have a chance, at least, of overcoming the vagaries of fashion. Much of what is popular today will not even be known by the next generation. Some popular items will remain known and appreciated in subsequent generations, however, and it is these are more likely to be truly beautiful. Chesterton called this approach of considering both past and present opinion, the ‘democracy of the dead’. The more we look at the art that transcends its own time and has been considered beautiful by many people in the society for whom it was intended then the greater chance we have of being able to choose the best.
I would argue that we should be so respectful of tradition that in judging the best art we should adopt a general principle referred to by Benedict XVI as a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’. By this principle the default position is always with tradition. We assume that tradition has the best answer, the best content, the best style unless we have compelling evidence that it is not. If current needs are identical to those of the past, we conform to tradition. Where needs are different, it must respond in accordance with the needs of the community (not to the mere whim of the artist). This principle was articulated in a different way by Pius XII in the encyclical Mediator dei when he said the following:
What we have said about music, applies to the other fine arts, especially to architecture, sculpture and painting. Recent works of art which lend themselves to the materials of modern composition, should not be universally despised and rejected through prejudice. Modern art should be given free scope in the due and reverent service of the church and the sacred rites, provided that they preserve a correct balance between styles tending neither to extreme realism nor to excessive “symbolism,” and that the needs of the Christian community are taken into consideration rather than the particular taste or talent of the individual artist. (Mediator dei, 195)
These principles guide our judgment. There is room for much variation, and individual expression and taste even while remaining in conformity to the principles that Pius articulates. This is true of all artistic traditions. They conform to principles which can be applied differently according to different needs. This is different from having unbending rules that cannot be adapted to different situations. Indeed it is the mark of a living tradition that it can always adapt to contemporary needs without contravening the principles that define it. It is clear that Pius XII understands this.