beauty eye of beholder

This is the fifth installment in the “Whatever” series on a biblical view of the arts, drawn from Philippians 4:8. If you missed the last four articles, you can read them here: Whatever is True, Whatever is HonorableWhatever is Just, and Whatever is Pure.

Whatever is Lovely

It would be easy to assume that no one needs instruction in what is lovely. Many consider this to be a matter of personal taste without any need for study, discipline, or assistance. This perspective is, however, not biblical. While no particular human aesthetic can claim to have a corner on loveliness, Paul would not have included this phrase in Philippians if loveliness were entirely arbitrary. If anything could be lovely depending only on your taste, what would be the point of directing people to lovely things? We already like what we think is lovely—no instruction or commandment required.

As soon as anyone tries to define the characteristics of loveliness, the relativist refrain of “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!” inevitably rears its clichéd head. Because God does not give us a list of Thou Shalt Nots concerning aesthetic forms, any conviction concerning loveliness is vulnerable to the charge of subjectivity: “Well, that’s just your opinion.”

If anything could be lovely depending only on your taste, what would be the point of directing people to lovely things?

While we must remember that what pleases us must not be in contradiction to the express commands and teachings of the Bible, the Greek word here (προσφιλής prosphiles) denotes something agreeable or pleasing, which would indicate that there is a certain level of subjectivity concerning aesthetics that God allows and even encourages. Here we detect another effect of the pretended objectivity of our culture. Because no “objective” standard of beauty appears to be possible, this must mean that all standards for beauty are invalid. Such thinking misses the point of art entirely. Art should edify its particular audience.

God has indicated as much in the simple fact that the music that accompanied the Psalms has not been passed down to us in the inerrant record. The content of the Psalms has not changed, but their application has. The fitting music that edified the Middle Eastern hearers a few thousand years ago probably wouldn’t do much to enhance the truths of the Psalms in our particular cultural and historical context.

Local Loveliness

This means that the standard for art’s effectiveness must be local, since no centralized or objective standard could possibly fill all the particular needs of every person in every audience. Art pursues immanent knowledge, and it is governed by the “need of the moment” for a specified audience.

For the commissioner, this idea has profound significance. Are we supporting local aesthetics and local artists, or do we pump millions of dollars into nationally centralized mega-distributors of generalized pabulum? No artist, no matter how talented, can make art that specifically speaks to each member of his national audience. Most popular artists strip their art of all defining, localizing characteristics—speaking in abstractions and generalizations to accommodate as many potential audience members as possible. This trend has devastated the arts.

The Hebrew word for medium (אוֹב ob) means “empty wine skin.” This rich figure of speech indicated that the medium or spiritist emptied himself of particularity so that he could be filled with any passing spirit. Centralized art pursues the same goal in its attempt to be nationally marketable. Each piece of art is an empty wine skin, an amorphous container ready-made to receive the specific experiences of whatever spirit (in this case, whatever consumer) might happen to pass by. No wonder our entertainment industry calls itself “the media.” The marketization of art has promoted the transformation from local to centralized aesthetics because a larger audience results in more money with less risk and fewer expenditures. Remember, the market judges art by profit to the producer, not profitability to the receiver.

The medium or spiritist emptied himself of particularity so that he could be filled with any passing spirit. Centralized art pursues the same goal in its attempt to be nationally marketable. . . . No wonder our entertainment industry calls itself “the media.”

As with “big government,” the solution to “big art” is downsizing and localization. In order to effectively generate the little truths of everyday, immanent life, our art must be free from the constraints of unilateral, top-down rubrics for national marketability. In fact, until our culture reforms its tastes through the renewal of its mind in Christ, most good art will be absolutely unmarketable. Consider all of the art in the Bible. Prophetic poetry possessed no popular appeal; the audience actually martyred the prophets (Luke 11:47–51)—not exactly a standing ovation. Does this mean that the prophets should have abandoned their artistic ministry—that they should have gotten “real” jobs?

We must remember that one’s culture dictates his tastes and expectations to a great extent. We have all been trained to have short attention spans, shallow interpretive skills, and immature approaches to resolution. We must not allow ourselves to grow complacent concerning the things that are agreeable or lovely to us. We must always be striving to stretch our tastes toward maturity. Our perspectives on loveliness must be local—bound by our specific context and time for the purpose of edification. We must learn to support the local artists that God has put in our midst, and to listen to them as experts in their field—called by God and equipped by Him for that calling.