Plato, one of the main philosophical influences on Catholic theology, believed in the existence of what are called the “transcendentals.” In Plato’s philosophical system, the transcendentals are “properties co-extensive with being”: abstract concepts around which existence and the material world are, in some sense, oriented. Other ancient philosophers believed in transcendentals as well, and medieval theologian refined them into a sort of triumvirate of goodness, truth, and beauty. Catholic doctrine holds that these correspond to the ultimate desires and goals of the human person, and that they are attributes of God.
Goodness and truth are relatively easy to define, at least for someone who is a believing Catholic (or, for that matter, a believing member of any other religion that makes absolute claims). They correspond to that dynamic duo: faith and morals. Faith tells us what is true, and morals tell us what is good. While many people believe that morals are subjective and some people believe this about truth as well, the idea that they are not—that they are objective and absolute—is one that most of us are familiar with at least conceptually. It’s an idea that is fundamental to orthodox theology: concepts are true or false whether we believe in them or not, and actions are moral or immoral whether we like that fact or not.
Given this emphasis on objectivity, beauty sits a little oddly among the transcendentals. Beauty, the platitude goes, is in the eye of the beholder, and it is certainly true that two or more people might have wildly divergent tastes in art or even in natural settings. One response to this might be that some people simply have better tastes than others. In effect this is taking the idea that it’s better for one’s favorite movie to be Casablanca than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, applying that idea much more broadly, and lending it philosophical and religious significance. However, this response is itself questionable, especially since there’s no revealed standard to go by; there’s no private or public revelation telling us conclusively that Palestrina’s music is “better” than Vanilla Ice’s, even though it’s obvious to most people that it is.
As with much else, I think that there is a “middle” position on this subject that might be more availing than either a completely objective or a completely subjective view of beauty. While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, there are some things that most people agree are beautiful and other things that most people agree are not. I have numerous art books, both fine arts ones called things like The Great Masters and applied arts ones called things like Kimono: A Pictorial Story of the Kimono. Paging through these, one sees a series of principles that suggest perhaps there’s a natural human appreciation for things like proportion, symmetry, careful and considered workmanship, and some combinations of colors rather than others. Conversely, very few people like to look at, for instance, Brutalist architecture (although I hold that even that can be redeemed somewhat if it’s juxtaposed with more traditional styles in a balanced enough way). If there’s a natural human appreciation for these things, perhaps there’s a divine appreciation as well. After all, we do see these principles in the natural world, such as in the precise proportions of the sunflower or the tawny camouflage of the Bengal tiger.
Figure: Tiger in a Tropical Storm by Henri Rousseau
I don’t mean to make this into too much of a “natural law” argument. While there are general patterns in what sorts of shapes, colors, and styles people tend to find appealing, to insist that there is a single objectively correct taste in art is totalizing and arguably even prejudiced. It is the province of people who dismiss out of hand any architectural style that is not Gothic, any musical style that is not Baroque—or, in circles on the opposite end of the spectrum, any art or music or cinema from before 1990! It can be said that beauty has an overall “structure,” but this structure is not a “style.” If aesthetic taste is to mean anything at all, if it is to say anything about someone’s personality or values or beliefs, there must be a subjective element to it. Toulouse-Lautrec does not appeal to the same sorts of people as Waterhouse; Mahler does not appeal to the same sorts of people as Ravel. How uninteresting this world would be if they did!
For Catholics and even for religious people as a whole, the relationship between general principles and subjective taste in art has implications for liturgy and ritual practices. A Tibetan or Shingon Buddhist might meditate on mandalas that have to be designed and executed in a particular way. A Muslim or Jewish place of worship might eschew representational art due to religious prohibitions that end up influencing, perforce, artistic preferences. We Catholics incorporate music and often also visual art into our liturgies, both the Mass and other observances. Especially over the past sixty or seventy years, a great deal of ink has been spilled in Catholic circles regarding the right way to communicate religious truths artistically. Most Catholics who follow Church affairs know a good deal about the subcultural and even political implications of the artistic tastes of other Catholics. Indeed, most of us have very strong tastes and preferences and opinions ourselves. Regardless of what our own tastes are, Catholics generally seem to understand the importance of art and aesthetics in communicating our beliefs about ourselves and the world.
Perhaps a healthy appreciation for beauty requires an appreciation for other people’s appreciation of beauty. By this I don’t mean that everybody has to affirm or validate everyone else’s tastes; if I discover that someone close to me likes an aesthetic style that I think is terrible (like late-period Hemingway, for example), I’m going to argue with them about it. What I mean is that perhaps the form that the transcendental of beauty takes in human affairs is our capacity to appreciate and create beautiful things, just as much as beautiful things themselves. The Catholic Church has that capacity in spades; sometimes I think it’s one of the few positive qualities that hasn’t diminished in our collective moral reserves over the centuries. That the collective Catholic consciousness still treasures beauty—even if we can’t always agree on what is beautiful— should be a cause for celebration rather than for art-criticism-as-culture-war infighting.
Featured mage: Bart Hanlon, Sculpture in Paul VI Hall, via Flickr. License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.