The Post-Modern War on Beauty
David W. Hegg
I am always fascinated by those for whom all reality can be reduced to physical parts and processes. For them, the data of hard science form the only building blocks of reality. In their view, if it can't be proven scientifically, you can't really believe it.
Of course, as a believer in God, I take these assertions seriously since they declare my worldview to be misguided at best, and absurdly foolish at worst. But, as we all know, even the most materialistic scientist understands there are things in life that cannot be forced into nice, neat scientific categories. Included in this category are things like consciousness, intentionality, love, joy, and beauty. While never material in nature, these all turn out to be essential to life and especially, to our enjoyment of it.
In the academic study of Philosophy there are several divisions, including the study of Aesthetics. The purpose of this area is to understand the concept of beauty, as well as its nature, use, and benefit. The great fascination of aesthetics is that it’s subjects cannot be reduced to data, but still emerge as massive realities. For example, beauty has been a powerful influence down through human history, creating around it a certain ethic that obligates those claiming to understand it, to do so properly.
Most of us seldom consider there is a proper way to approach and use beauty. Simply stated, beauty is to be analyzed, admired, and appreciated, in its several forms. As you read this, think of something you consider beautiful. It might be a painting, a musical piece, a sunset, or even the flight of a well-struck golf ball as it glides smoothly to the green. It could be a baby, or even a nicely crafted set of words that roll off the tongue and fall on the ear with grace and power. Beauty comes in myriad forms, and settles over the heart in such a way that the soul breathes easier, and the load of life is lightened, if only momentarily.
But, as essential and wonderful as beauty is to our wellbeing, the human story seems to indicate we are the great enemies of beauty. Whenever beauty is recognized, it quickly becomes the target of those who would copy it for the masses, cheapening its essence along the way. As a result, true beauty often gets lost in the sea of clones.
Take music, or film, or literature, or any of the art forms. We stand at a time in modern history when the post-modern ethic of leveling threatens to make all things ordinary. Culture is collapsing on itself even as we are being told the purveyors of beauty today are outstanding. We are watching passively as beauty is being re-defined in terms of sales and profitability.
This redefinition makes Miley Cyrus a great singer, Oprah Winfrey a great philosopher, Joel Osteen a great preacher, and Pirates of the Caribbean a great film. Really? Numbers and notoriety now define beauty, and we are all the worse for it.
But the good news is babies are still being born, red tail hawks still glide on the wind, the salty smell of the ocean waves still lightens the heart, and away from the crowd of popularity, real beauty is still being produced by many both in the arts and everyday life. Through them all, the original Author of beauty is still sending out reminders to his creation that all beauty ultimately is a reflection of his majesty.
As Augustine said of God, "you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you." I suggest this holds true for beauty as well. Our hearts yearn for beauty, whether we know it or not. And our need is so great we are often compelled to try and meet it with culture's counterfeits. And while these may satisfy for the moment, our hearts and minds were crafted from the beginning to be satisfied only with that beauty that reflects the God who has formed them.
Beauty is as essential to our souls as food is to our bodies. And just as drive-thru junk food is bloating our bodies, so also counterfeit beauty is rotting our souls. It is certainly time we start swimming upstream against the tide of popular culture, demanding once again that beauty be exquisite and noble in its expression, and not merely marketable or fashionable to the masses.