Beauty is Truth and Truth Beauty

Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? The Jesus on the Beach picture prompted a lot of discussion, and I was surprised how many of my readers liked it. Those who did, expressed admiration for the sentiments expressed in the picture, and were clearly inspired by the famous ‘footprints in the sand’ poem.

However, a good number of readers didn’t like the picture. They commented on the clumsy composition, the poor standard of painting, the garish colors, the sentimentality and gauche sexuality of the picture. They also commented on the theological error (Jesus is a ghostly, gnostic figure)

So, is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Is everything a matter of taste? If it works for you is it good art?  No. The problem in the arts as in morality is that our taste has been totally relativized. We’ve been told by the tolerance thugs that everyone’s taste is sacred and we dare not make any judgement on any work of art lest we make a judgement on the person who painted the picture and anyone who happens to like it.

The relativization of art began with the impressionistic movement–in which art moved away from direct representation of reality to being instead an expression of the impression reality made on the artist himself. Modern art moved quickly towards the total expressionism of the individual artist–the sole criterion of greatness being ‘originality’. At the same time popular appreciation for art moved in the opposite direction–towards hyper realism combined with hyper sentimentality. Thus the popularity of Norman  Rockwell and the epitome of realistic sentimentality– the work of Thomas Kincade.

Art is all over the place and nobody seems to have any idea what is ‘good’ art or ‘bad’ art–and just about anything can be produced and sold and someone will buy it and the only value art has is the price tag a gallery owner slaps on the painting. Why is it that everything from a pile of dog turd to a new copies of classical artworks are being produced and sold as ‘art’. Why is it that nobody seems to be able to pronounce on any form of art authoritatively?

Chesterton said “Every argument is a theological argument” and the reason art is relativized is that it Western art has been cut loose from it’s Christian foundation. Read more.

  • Rick DeLano

    “Sine scientia, ars nihil est”——-carved upon the harpsichord given too Wolfgang Mozart by his Father Leopold.
    Excellent article.

  • Lazarus

    Okay, this is a great post. The tradition of art in the Church was one of the initial reasons for me converting to the faith in college a few years ago. I’m an artist and was appalled at my ‘education’ and what’s happened in the last century, especially, to art. So here’s some of my thoughts as an aspiring catholic artist.

    What eventually ends up on the canvas or has been made in the stone – as with Michelangelo or Bernini – I think is similar to the experience as an apparition for the viewer, for the artist has had to prowl into the greatest depths of creativity, the reality of religion, and the exercise of virtue through technique in order to communicate a religious experience for us. A lot is focused on the genius of the renaissance masters but for the most part they were deeply committed catholics concerned with excellence and virtue, personally and in their art. Even the exception of irascible Caravaggio made a painting of himself beheaded (as St. John the Baptist) to repent for his sins. There’s more than trite minimalistic shark boxes and urinal stalls here, there’s man’s experience of God, his struggle for that, and we are drawn to experience more fully the reality of such, which the artist, in humility we pray, brings to us like a mystical vision from heaven.

  • Scotty Ellis

    I think a little iconoclasm every once in a while can be a good thing, even for all the muck it brings up. Modernity – and, more clearly, post-modernity – has seen its share of artistic iconoclasm. I’ve done oil painting myself, and having been trained in the classical style of perspective and realism I can tell you that the occasional outburst of “pure,” self-absorbed, meaningless art is good – a bit like a good sneeze after your nose has itched. My problem isn’t that there have been movements and artists interested in the deconstruction of traditional art as such, because a lot of good can come out of that kind of movement. My problem is that now the iconoclasm has become an end in itself; instead of being a life-affirming critical act that shatters the tyranny of the past in order to return to it afresh and build the tradition anew, it has become one long drawn out festival in minimization and self-irony. It’s also a bit like throwing up: you need to do it once in a while, and I think it can be good. Someone like Picasso or Dali was like that: a person whose work was a kind of vomiting up the past. But then, artists thought that everyone needed to throw up to become great, so now we have a world of increasingly pathetic Picasso-knockoffs, when what really needed to follow up Picasso was someone who could bring the artistic tradition back in a fresh, invigorated way.

    I think a return to the notion of the connection of truth and beauty would be an excellent way to revive and invigorate art and make the iconoclasm something that can be looked back on with appreciation rather than something that we must endure for – seemingly – an eternity.

  • Matt

    Clearly, the natural law was at play in ancient Greece, for Aristotle clearly recognized most of what you posted, Father. I just read Aristotle’s Poetics this past year in theory of knowledge class, and I could relate all of it to a Christian i.e. sacramental view (to borrow a phrase from Flannery O’Connor).

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I didn’t claim to be original…:-)

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  • Paul Rodden

    I agree, but can you help me, Father?

    I’m currently in a debate with some Protestants on ‘agreement’, and authority being merely a collection of like minds (‘art’ being what you make of it, in this instance).
    Because they have no notion of Tradition, they see the Catholic position simply as a form of hegemony. They argue they have the free-play of honest scholarship and one just follows the school which one believes has the best interpretation of the Scriptural ‘facts’ (after praying about it), ‘and may the best one win’, rather than ‘enforcement by powerful old men in the Vatican’. They see our dissenters as ‘proving’ Catholicism ‘is just the same as Protestantism’, except ‘the Vatican’ wants to control us, whilst Protestants are free.

    Of course, this makes truth merely a function of human reason, by and large. They argue that God gave us an intellect to work these things out. So, one minute it’s ‘faith alone’, the next ‘reason’ is simply what validates that, so they don’t seem to be able to hold the two together in the context of revelation.

    So they’d say I’d just bought into the hegemony – on what art IS – that’s why I see art through the same lens as you (like some of them would, say, be devotees of Tom Wright or john Piper) so there was no truth in it, just power, or ‘agreement’. In other words, rather than seeing the importance of docility, they caricature Catholicism as ‘Motttramism’ – as Mark Shea puts it – a sort of ‘stick-my-head-in-the-oven’ religion.

    Even using examples like Exodus 32 and the Golden Calf incident – that the Israelites thought their expression of God was ‘more reasonable’ and they were in ‘agreement’ owing to their experience and best reasoning (the recurring theme from the Fall onwards), contrary to what Moses told them God is – doesn’t seem to make them pause, yet they’d hold firmly to the continuing validity of the decalogue.

    In essence, I don’t seem to be able to get any traction, despite showing them the problems of ‘Ecclesial Relativism’ and ‘Ecclesial Consumerism’, as Dr Bryan Cross over at ‘Called to Communion’ calls it.
    In a recent interview of Christian Smith by Michael Horton over at ‘The White Horse Inn’*, even Horton, despite seeing all these problems, and is a critic himself of current Evangelicalism, seems to be in denial or something, when it comes to docility to a Church teaching authoritatively or a Magisterium, yet would probably sing, ‘…Trust and obey/for there’s no other way…’ on a Sunday.

    That is, they tell me the Catholic Church is ‘only a human institution’ and therefore has no authority, so Magisterium = power. Yet their ecclesiology teaches, or they certainly act as if, Churches are only human institutions, with no supernatural essence, but ‘true truth’ will somehow float to the top eventually!

    So, in a sense, what’s their problem? They seem to want their cake and eat it, and deny to the Catholic Church the fulfillment of what they’re still awaiting, as if the ‘true truth’ hasn’t already floated to the top in Christ and the Church he founded ‘at the fullness of time’.

    Have you any tips or suggestions of how to address this sort of thing, please, as it seems to go round and around, and I can’t get any leverage – or are they just being deliberately obtuse?

    I realise you’re busy, but any suggestions would be greatly received, if you have time.

    * See Audio at

  • Fr. Daniel Trout

    Thank you, Fr. Dwight for highlighting this crisis during our time when it seems that aesthetic relativism plagues even the Church in her external forms, not just Western art in general. I’ve always felt that for the last 2000 years Christians have largely agreed with Plato that “beauty is the splendor of truth,” thus recognizing their interdependent relationship. And, from Byzantine through Baroque, I feel we can discern how these Christian artists communicated God’s revelation in a manner that was objectively pleasing precisely because their work reflected the glory witnessed in His attributes and works disclosed to us. Have you ever read von Balthasar on this matter? I think he’s right when he suggests that Jesus as the “Christ-form” is the eternal standard of Truth/Beauty and therefore sacred art must image the Son as He images His Father. Art must be not reduced to ephemeral appetites or even just properties of harmony/proportion but remain grounded in the Divine revealed. Art demonstrates that we have received this True and Beautiful Christ in faith, and thus our art is how faith responds in praise by being truly beautiful and beautifully true. One can easily recognize why for so long the Church, as Christ’s Body, endeavored to be the measure of this philosophy in her fine and liturgical arts. A little renewal of this, anyone?
    One point of minor disagreement though: I think that art was going in a relativistic direction before the Impressionists. From my studies in seminary I felt that it was the aesthetics of Immanuel Kant that really began to remove objectivity from art. Kant proposes in The Critique of Judgment that the “universality” of art’s beauty is merely a feature of the human mind, not an objective property of the thing. Thus, a painting, a sculpture, or a musical composition is not beautiful in itself, but is so because of our assessment. Obviously, as you rightly note, Kant’s theory influenced the Impressionists who sought to express merely the impression of reality in their art. But even before that, however, the Romanticists also echoed Kant by steering art away from reality to the artist’s emotional experience of it, which was then reproduced to elicit an emotional response from the viewer. Is it any surprise that art nowadays is so enigmatic that not just its form and intention is deliberately perplexing but our response is equally confused and contradictory?
    Anyway, just my humble perspective. I really believe that it’s up to the Church to let art once again accomplish what God intends for it: elevate (not deconstruct!) the natural because of the God who has united Himself to His creation through the Incarnation. Art should be beautiful because it “redeems” in the Truth, not because it conveys subjective human perception.

    • Paul Rodden

      Thank you for such an insightful reflection, Fr Trout.

  • tz

    In the section on the 8th commandment, it says we must put the best possible construction, and specifically avoid trying with great effort to find error or sin or evil in another’s words. Is it unreasonable to extend this to expression beyond words?

    Those of his own age who were not only not looking for the Christ, but sure no Nazarean could possibly be him, missed Jesus.

    If the carried was a morbidly obese hag, you would complain she is too ugly. Instead you complain she is too beautiful. If our Lord was solid, you would pick out errors in the image, but because it is ghostly, you complain about that. You complain that it is on a beach. Where else is sand? A construction site? A litter box? Somewhere in a lifeless wasteland or woth occasional agave or cactus? You would find fault in all that.

    Great art is a mirror to our souls. Those looking into any image with love, purity, and mercy see only beauty deriving from the spirit within. Those who condemn, judge, see occasions of sin, condemnation, calumny and the rest show more about their own souls than the artifact. You see what you want to see, good or evil, but you really see yourself.

  • Dylan

    Hey Father,
    There are some, how do I put it, “overly devotional” illustrations literally depicting Jesus with whole chunks of flesh missing, down to the bone. These works don’t inspire my mind to see God’s love more than they elicit a gross reaction from my stomach. I don’t know if it’s even physiologically possible… Anyway, I just thought I’d bring up the darker side of that sentimentality you’ve talked about— pain. It made for bad art to me!

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  • Ann Stuckey

    I’ve been in that position where Christ was carrying me, there was times I passed out alone the way, I thought I was going to loose my mind, so many things went through my head, but I later learned that I was being carried by a Higher Power, first thing I did, think I was not worthy and so many things would try and hold me back from my blessings, but they would show up anyway because of that muster seed faith, I did not have money so I had to have faith, I had tried everything else and it did not work at all! The Holy Spirit would show up when ever I went into my heart and just believe unconditionally , I was never perfit but always blessed. Love and Peace to all