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St. Austin Review

September/October, 2006

Perfect eyesight does not guarantee artistic appreciation. An eagle sees better than we do; a dog's ear registers many sounds that escape us. Yet, neither the one nor the other is capable of being moved by beauty. Man alone, among all the creatures known to us in experience—because he is person endowed with intelligence, free will, and the capacity to love—can perceive beauty, be affected by it, and respond to it. God is Beauty itself: He does not need to get acquainted with beauty as Angels and men do. Angels, being pure spirits, do not need sense knowledge to get acquainted with certain types of beauty; they do not need the "crutches" of eyes and ears through which visible and audible beauty is revealed to us. If one’s eyesight or hearing is impaired, the beauty accessible through them (even though it does not come from them) will not be perceived.


One classical argument brought up against the objectivity of beauty is that artistically sensitive persons can have such diverse views on what beauty is, and on the value of individual works of art.


My aim is to show that this can be partly explained by a simple fact: some person's have a wrong approach to beauty, and call objects beautiful which—for non-aesthetic reasons—move them. Beauty when perceived moves us. But there are objects that move us for reasons totally foreign to art and are easily confused with aesthetic experiences. "Beauty touches us; this object touches me; hence it must be beautiful." This need not be true. We shall briefly examine some of the cases in which being affected by an object does not justify our calling it beautiful. There are many such examples.


It is worth noting that the two great channels through which earthly beauty is given to us are the eyes and ears. These two senses differ sharply from the other three for the plain reason that the information they give us is not linked to an experienced sensation.


I do not "feel" the rays of light which penetrate into my eyes; I do not feel the decibels which affect my eardrum—except when these are so strong that they actually hurt these organs. In such cases we do not perceive beauty, but experience pain. Smelling, feeling, and tasting give us localized sensations. We feel through our nose and bring it close to the perfumed object for a more complete enjoyment. If, on the contrary, the smell is obnoxious, we remove it from us as far as we can. Rightly, seeing and hearing can be called "doors" to spiritual experiences in which the senses are crucial for their perceptions, but whose message transcends the material universe, and opens vistas to a purely spiritual world. Plato calls our eyes "the windows of the soul."


Just as a mind can be exposed to a truth and fail to perceive its validity, it is possible to see a beautiful object and not perceive its beauty. There are cases in which "people have eyes and do not see; ears and do not hear" as it is written in the Psalm. Regrettable as it is, and without any fault of their own, some people are totally insensitive to beauty—not because their eyesight or their hearing is impaired, but because they have not received the spiritual organ that perceives the beautiful. A person who is morally blind is usually guilty or partly guilty for this blindness. A person who does not perceive that Beethoven is a musical genius can be saintly. We shall be judged according to our religious and moral standards; not according to our artistic taste. This, however, does not entitle us to draw the conclusion that beauty is not called upon to play a noble role in our spiritual and religious life. Plato intimates this fact when he writes in Phaedrus: "At the sight of beauty, wings grow on the human soul." This is also powerfully expressed by John Henry Cardinal Newman in his Oxford Sermons.


Prejudices can prevent us from perceiving a truth; they can also bar our aesthetic perception. A puritanical background can blind a person to the beauty of the human body. Puritanism is the enemy of beauty, and so is mediocrity. Ernest Hello writes that what characterizes the mediocre man is his hatred of beauty. Being neither "hot nor cold", they feel challenged by its lovableness and resent the "call" to be moved by its noble message.


Much as our mind usually needs some sort of purification in order to see what is there to be seen, so our artistic sensitivity is usually in need of a similar purification. We must eliminate the obstacles preventing us from perceiving beauty, from being fecundated by its spiritual message. For beauty comes from God and is meant to bring us closer to Him who is the source of beauty.


One possible trap into which many of us are likely to fall is "habit". Although it plays a legitimate role in human life, it can easily have a blinding effect on man's religious, intellectual, artistic, and human life. Someone who from his youth has been exposed to cheap artistic objects, and possibly been told that they are beautiful, is likely to accept this evaluation, and never ever raise the question: Are they truly beautiful? A modern child finds itself at a serious disadvantage because today it is practically impossible to find toys that are made with taste and culture. I recall that when I was a child there was a toy shop in Brussels that had enchanting dolls, castles, animals, creches: they were truly little masterpieces. Today, those of us who want to give a toy to a child will seek in vain for an object that will meet the objective of exposing a small creature to the message of beauty. The colors are loud and cheap; the shapes are often monstrous. Sesame Street—which enjoys a spectacular success—is a case in point.


How right Plato was when, in his Republic, he stressed the importance of exposing a small child to beauty. It gives him a standard which will lead him—later in life— to reject instinctively whatever is ugly, coarse, or vulgar.


But someone who is "used" to ugliness and has been entertained by tasteless television shows will protest vigorously when such memories are aesthetically condemned. For him, they are associated with fun, entertainment, and excitement. Habit has a blinding effect on our minds and our intellectual and artistic judgments. This is a truth that can be confirmed by those who are veterans in the classroom. When a professor dares defend a truth that his students have never heard of — for example, the objectivity of truth—their response is likely to be: "I never heard that before. Ergo, it cannot be true.""No one ever told me that this is morally evil; hence it must be morally acceptable.""No one has ever condemned this music as being ugly. How dare you criticize it? I like it. I am entitled to my own judgment."


The easy and "democratic" answer is to say that it is "up to the individual, and that he is free to choose what is most acceptable to his taste. Just as we should be given freedom to choose the religion that "suits our likes and dislikes," we are entitled to claim that "this is beautiful for men? "It is my taste; who is to tell me what I should like?"


It should be remarked in passing that the word "taste" (like many words in the human vocabulary) is ambiguous once it refers to something purely and legitimately subjective: "this room is too warm" or "this soup is too salty". Another individual exposed to the same experiences could find the room cold or the soup not salty enough.  Our judgment depends upon the subjective conditions of our body. There is, for taste, no objective standard that has universal validity.


But taste can also refer to a proper appreciation of culture, refinement, or artistic sensitivity. That some houses are exquisitely decorated and that others — while full of luxury — are tasteless, is something that cannot be denied. Dietrich von Hildebrand has shown in his work Aesthetics that this has little to do with money. A Franciscan monastery can be exquisitely tasteful; a Hilton—while rich in comfort—can be deprived of authentic culture.


Habit inevitably creates a certain bond between a person and an object—a certain "familiarity,, which is easily confused with an aesthetic experience. The truth of the matter is that the question "is it beautiful" or "is it true" or "is it morally good" has never been raised. Many are those who prefer not to raise the question for the plain reason that the answer might carry consequences which they do not want to face. Not only are men more or less afraid of the truth, as Kierkegaard remarked, but moreover the thing we dread is to be challenged to change or to acknowledge that we are mistaken.


Habit—so chastised by Kierkegaard who writes that "a hundred cannons should be fired every day to remind us of the threat of habit" (Christian Discourses)—is not only dangerous because it can make us endorse things which are ugly or wrong, but also because it can also blunt our appreciation of great and noble things because—being used to them, we tend to take them for granted. The greatest of these dangers is in our religious life: how many of us will recall with deep emotion the day of our first communion? After a while, we may approach this holiest of all sacraments without "fear and trembling." How dangerous is habit in marriage. The overwhelming gift given to the spouses in the marital embrace can easily become a matter of routine—the punishment being bluntness and taking it for granted. The same applies to an aesthetic experience. I recall saying to a Florentine how much I envied him to be living in a city which is radiantly beautiful. He answered, to my grief, "I am so used to it that I no longer appreciate it." How tragic and what a danger in our earthly life! In eternity, things will be eternally new because we shall be freed from the chains of habit. We shall never tire of singing God's glory and adoring His ineffable beauty and goodness.


Closely related to the phenomenon of "habit," which blunts artistic perception, is the feeling of "homeless" (familiarity). I know persons who, having been blessed by a trip to Italy so rich in artistic and natural beauty, go back "home"—a place which cannot lay claim to any great beauty—and nevertheless experience a pleasant, positive feeling which they can easily confuse with an artistic response. They feel psychologically "comfortable". In such people there is a feeling of "shelteredness." There is a poem of Joachim de Belay that I memorized as a child which precisely refers to this interesting phenomenon. After having visited Rome, he goes back home to Anjou, and sings of its humble poetry which he clearly enjoys more than the proud beauty of this spiritual capital of the world. Habit and a feeling of "homeliness" seem similar, but the difference is that "habit'' is always spiritually numbing, whereas homliness is legitimate—provided, however, that one does not confuse it with beauty.


Another factor which deserves to be mentioned is the temperamental disposition of the individual: some people are by nature "conservative"; anything new is unwelcome and disturbing to them; they instinctively reject "change", ''innovations", "novelty". Others love change: they find that the well known is boring, and welcome whatever is fashionable, new, creative. What is modern is welcome. Whatever is "old" is associated with ''washed up," decrepit, or old-fashioned. ln fact, the artistically sensitive person does not allow his judgment to be affected by his temperament: the question is not "old" or "new", but beautiful or ugly. To reject novelty just because it is new is just as insane as to reject the past because it is past. This is why the alternative "conservative or progressive" is so misleading. The wise man and the one whose soul is attuned to beauty will never base his judgment on "when" a work is created, but whether the artist has succeeded in creating a work which is not time bound or the product of fashion, but has a universality which is timeless. A French writer has expressed this by writing: "Homer is always young; yesterday's newspaper is already stale."


This thought has been powerfully expressed by Dietrich von Hildebrand in The Trojan Horse in the City of God. He shows convincingly that two contemporary artists—and therefore exposed to the same spiritual climate—can be at antipodes artistically speaking. On the other hand, artists living in different periods can be very spiritually close to others living long before their time (e.g., Phidias and Michelangelo). Similarly a beautiful Gothic church can be germane to a Baroque masterpiece and artistically far removed from a Gothic building which has the Gothic shape and has lost the Gothic soul. Style is not a key to beauty; the whole question is "how is it conceived and realized."


It is, however, true that some periods in human history—probably because they were grounded in a spirit of reverence as mentioned by Plato in his Laws—have produced an awesome wealth of masterpieces. Athens in the fifth century B.C. is a case in point; Italy, from the Quattrocento onward, can lay claim to a similar artistic glory. Unlike technology, art is not always progressing. It has moments of greatness, followed by artistic decadence. This is probably due to the quality of the spiritual soil of an epoch; a world like ours characterized by relativism, subjectivism, materialism, pragmatism, and dominated by technology is certainly not favorable to great artistic creations, even though there is always the possibility that some genius—refusing to be the slave of the Zeitgeist (which I believe Chesterton or Mauriac characterizes as the worse type of slavery)—courageously swims against the tide. Such men will get no recognition in their lifetime, but will probably be discovered and honored by history.


The legitimate and important role of knowledge in artistic appreciation should also be mentioned. Just as one cannot love if one is not acquainted with the lovable object or person (St. Augustine wrote: quantum notiores, tantum cariores; ‘the better we know it, the more we love it'), so we cannot appreciate beauty unless we are acquainted with it. It is not likely that a late quartet of Beethoven can be done justice to by just listening to it once. A waltz of Strauss — because of its lightness and "brillo," its rhythm and cadence, will probably enthuse many people hearing it for the first time. Obviously, it does not possess the same degree of artistic depth and beauty as Beethoven’s late quartets, but Strauss is easy to access and does not require the same "depth" and artistic maturity.


An artistic object must be given a chance to reveal its beauty, and this often calls for time. On the other hand, knowledge of an object can also trick us into confusing the satisfaction all of us experience when we are acquainted with an object with an artistic appreciation of the same object. When we put on the radio and hear a piece of music that we know well the first reaction is "pleasure", "I know this." The Merry Widow is a piece which is so often played chat most of us know it. This "I know it" is a pleasant experience, but does not give us any idea whether it is truly beautiful or not. A music which is neither truly great nor sublime can nevertheless give us a pleasant sensation (easily confused with beauty) because we are acquainted with it.


Another typical misjudgement can be triggered by association—which, according to David Hume, explains why we attribute a causal link between two things which succeed each other in time. Association, which Dietrich von Hildebrand places at the very bottom of the epistemological hierarchy, is a subjective link between two objects triggered by the fact that they are connected in time or in space even though they have nothing to do with one another. A New York subway—the peak of prose—can be associated with the overwhelming joy once experienced upon meeting a beloved person on the platform of this kingdom stripped of all poetry. We all know that horribly sentimental music can bring back to our minds a beautiful experience such as a declaration of love. The artistically sensitive person will never call an artistic piece of trash beautiful because it is associated with a moving experience, but will nevertheless experience pleasure upon hearing it because it will bring back to our mind one of great experiences of human life. Innumerable examples could be brought up that illustrate this fact. The difference between the artistically talented person is that he will clearly distinguish between the subjective pleasure that an association can bring and its artistic quality. The artistically insensitive person is likely to attribute artistic qualities to any object which gives him pleasure—failing to distinguish between artistic joy and subjective satisfaction. I recall that a lady I knew could not stand to hear the Fifth of Beethoven because its first movement was constantly played in World War II to symbolize victory in a conflict which had cost the death of her son in Anzio. It was no judgment upon this artistic masterpiece, but understandably was associated for her with a deep sorrow. Had she said "Beethoven's Fifth is ugly" she would have uttered a deplorable artistic judgment. She said, "I cannot hear it because it reminds me of the death of my beloved son," which was a legitimate judgment.


Another artistic trap into which many of us fall is to judge a work of art according to the reputation of the artist. More than once I have noticed, in a museum, people looking first at the name of a painter or sculptor before making up their minds whether they call it beautiful or not. No doubt, it is reasonable to give credit to an artist of great reputation. The great geniuses have been vindicated by history even though some of them have received little recognition in their lifetime. Names such as Homer, Phidias, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven—chosen at random—have been artistically knighted by history. They belong to the world, that is, to all of us. Nonetheless, not all works of a great artist have the same artistic merit. The very early Mozart symphonies are not on the level of his sublime, mature works. He who is truly artistically sensitive and loves beauty because it deserves to be loved will necessarily be freed from praising a work exclusively because of the fame of the artist. He will learn to distinguish between "masterpieces", good works, and weaker works. The genius of Beethoven is not expressed in a work such as Jesus in Gethsemane.


Another danger is nationalism; to praise a work because it was created by a compatriot. The artistically sensitive person should be totally indifferent to the nationality of the artist. To place Shakespeare's works very high on the artistic scale because one is British is to misunderstand his genius. Obviously a full appreciation of Shakespeare presupposes an excellent command of the English language, but once this condition is fulfilled, there is no reason whatever for a German not to place him higher than Goethe, while fully acknowledging the latter's poetic talent. That Homer is Greek; Virgil, Latin; Dante, Italian; Cervantes, Spanish; Shakespeare, English; should play no role in our artistic appreciation. These geniuses are closely allied to one another because all of them have been capable of transmitting a message of beauty which totally transcends nationality. They belong to the world and transcend nationalism. The artistically sensitive person will love the great ones mentioned above as much as a Greek can love Homer, or an Englishman Shakespeare. To love an artist because he happens to be conational is a very subjective attitude. To claim (as Paul Claudel does) that Racine is superior to Shakespeare smells of nationalism. To praise Bach because he is German is offensive to Bach: he was indeed German and incarnated the best of his nation, but he also transcended his nation because authentic greatness has no nationality. That certain types of popular music which express a particular culture are likely to be more easily appreciated by people of that culture (for example, Mexican songs) is legitimate. Because of their background they have a ready access to certain artistic expressions which other persons will find more difficult to appreciate.


One great source of artistic confusion is "piety". The label "religious art" is very misleading. It can mean representations of religious scenes or person's, and it can also mean art inspired by religious topics. Those of us who have traveled much and been the guests of people who are deeply committed to their faith all know that—not rarely—their houses are decorated by innumerable "pious" objects—paintings or statues—which remind them of their faith, and which are oftentimes horribly unartistic, sentimental, maudlin. Yet, there is no doubt that these good, pious people appreciate them deeply, pray in front of them, look at them with tenderness and devotion. There are convents plastered by objects of very doubtful artistic quality. At times, when visiting such places one wishes to be terribly near-sighted so as not to be exposed to their artistic cheapness. The same is true of religious "songs"—which can be terribly sentimental (My Jesus, good night), but are sung by people who are sincerely pious, and are deeply moved by associating these human—too human—creations with their deep faith.


Chronolatry in art also betrays both a lack of artistic sensitivity and a deplorable subjectivism. Persons who praise a work because it was created in the period in which they live, tacitly assume that it must be great because the period in which they live is superior to the rest of history. There are very subtle ways of glorifying oneself under the veil of modesty. To assume that a contemporary artist or a contemporary thinker must a priori be the greatest is not only stupid, but undermines any authentic artistic approach. Nationalism is always a subtle form of self-glorification—as opposed to patriotism which is a duty of gratitude.


Finally we must briefly mention artistic nepotism—also a form of subjectivism—that is a praising of a work of art because it was created by someone related to "me". It is legitimate to approach a work of art made by someone that I know and love with a particularly benevolent attitude, but this should not blind one to the objective value or disvalue of the work. We should always be on the lookout for the poison of subjectivism—particularly in our society which is infected by it—when passing judgment upon intellectual and artistic work. On the other hand, not to praise someone who fully deserves commendation because he happens to be a relative is as unobjective as to appoint someone who is clearly unqualified because he happens to be one's son. St. Augustine does not hesitate to write in his Confessions that "he was awed" by the intelligence of his son, Adeodatus, because this unusual commendation was dictated not by the fact that the boy (a teenager) was his child, but because God had given him intellectual gifts that were truly awesome—as proven by his contributions to Augustine's book De Magistro (Confessions, Book IX). We may conclude these modest remarks by highlighting the religious importance of beauty for man's spiritual development. This is admirably expressed in Franciscan philosophy, whose main speaker. St. Bonaventure, tells us that creation is a book speaking of God’s greatness and glory. The lesson we shall learn is that Heaven and earth are filled by His Glory. Indeed, Plato was right: "At the sight of beauty, wings grow on the human soul."

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