The Eye of the Beholder

“He has made everything beautiful in its time.”

- Ecclesiastes 3:11a

If there is anything we learn from observing the culture around us, it is that subjectivity is king. Every day, people deny the existence of universal, objective truth, preferring instead to affirm that “what is true for me may not be true for you, and what is true for you may not be true for me.” This is particularly clear when ethics are under consideration. The only absolute truth that most people in our society will affirm is that there is no such thing as absolute truth.

We see the embrace of subjectivism quite clearly in the realm of aesthetics as well. This is true even in the church. Christians who would otherwise affirm the existence of absolute truth seem just as likely as their non-Christian neighbors to believe that beauty is solely in the eye of the beholder. Few would affirm that there is any objective way to define one work of art as more beautiful than another.

Without a doubt, there is a highly subjective response to beauty that differs from person to person. Musical preferences and artistic appreciation, for example, vary widely. We must recognize that the subject is deeply involved in any response to music, painting, sculpture, or any other work of art. To recognize the role of the subject, however, is not to embrace aesthetic subjectivism. Even those who profess relativism vociferously live according to certain objective standards. No one who wants to live, for example, disregards the universal truth of gravity when standing near the edge of a cliff. Yet although objective standards are harder for people to recognize in the realm of aesthetics, people still have some kind of standard in mind when they evaluate the arts. Otherwise, they might pay as much for a chimpanzee’s fingerpainting as they would for a portrait by Da Vinci.

Of course, God is the ultimate standard of beauty, just as He is the ultimate standard of truth. Works of art that somehow reflect His nature are more beautiful than works that do not. He makes all things beautiful in their time (Eccl. 3:11a).

Historically, Christian thinkers have evaluated art according to four criteria: proportion, harmony, simplicity, and complexity. Such criteria reflect the criteria of God and the world as He originally made it, a complex creation reflecting proportion and harmony.

Coram Deo

Although the subject is always deeply involved in any encounter with the arts, we must recognize that there is one ultimate standard of beauty—the Lord Himself. Scripture often speaks of the “beauty of the Lord” (Ps. 27:4), and we dare not forget that the most beautiful works of art are but pale reflections of the loveliness of God. In eternity to come, we will have our desire for beauty fully satisfied as we gaze on our beautiful Creator (1 Cor. 13:12; 1 John 3:1–3).

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 96
Isaiah 60
1 Thessalonians 5:21
2 Timothy 3:16–17

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.