The Reality of Beauty

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

I recently ran a twitter poll asking whether good photography or good painting is better able to portray reality. I received 101 votes, with 55% choosing photography and 45% choosing painting. As you can likely tell from my title, I am on team painting, but I must say that I was pleasantly surprised that the votes were this close.

Disclaimer: I have much appreciation for good photography, so none of this is intended to be an insult toward skilled photographers. I am not a photographer or a painter, so I am in no position to be throwing punches.

At first, it seems somewhat strange to suggest that painting might be better equipped to portray reality than a photograph, as a photograph is believed to capture its frame as it is. Although the good photographer certainly exercises skilled, nuanced perspective to frame the shot in just the right manner, the shot is objectively and unquestionably what it is. The artist, on the other hand, can approach the same subject from so many subjective, interpretive angles. Naturally, this will lead many of us to assume that the artist is at least one step removed from the world as it is, but you know what they say about those who assume.


What is reality?

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made of the things that have been made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." - John 1:1-5

According to Biblical teaching, God the Father created through the Word (Logos), which is Christ. Through the Word, the dark, chaotic cosmos was enlightened and brought into order. Furthermore, we are told that the Spirit, who is the bond of love that proceeds from the Father and the Son, was hovering over the depths, vivifying the ordered cosmos to move in harmony with the Word. The result of this Trinitarian work was Good, as it reflected God's own harmony. The result of this work was True, as it was ordered by the true Word. The result of this work was Beautiful, as it was directed unto Truth and Goodness by the Spirit of Life.

Remove Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and you have a formless void. You have an abyss. You have nothing.

Reality is not primarily made of matter and energy. Primarily, reality is made of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, all of which find their origin and goal in the personal harmony of Father, Spirit, & Son. Reality is divinely personal. Reality is divinely interpretive. We approximate reality in as much as we interpret the world in harmony with the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. A good photographer can certainly accomplish much in the pursuit of reality, but a camera, i.e. the photography-machine, is only able to scratch the surface compared to the artistic genius, who is able to transcend the purely physical and communicate something of the metaphysical, personal reality of Beauty itself. Furthermore, a photograph is a singular (often staged) fragment of time, whereas art has more of a timeless transcendence connected to the Ideal. For my philosopher friends, this is nominalism vs. realism.

Good photography can enliven my heart, but good art enlivens my soul.


Isn't "good art" entirely subjective?

Through genetics, experience, the touch of the divine, and whatever else is involved in shaping us, we are each uniquely composed, so we will each be more naturally moved by particular artistic styles and forms. However, despite what I was taught in my undergraduate philosophy of art class, this does not mean that all art is equally valid.

Good art demonstrates something of the artist's genuine grasp of Beauty. This does not mean that the artist has to share my theology of Beauty, but only that the artist understands that Beauty is a real force in this world that calls to the human soul. Most of us are numb to Beauty most of the time, but the artistic genius is alive to its power. Perhaps the artist is unable or unwilling to follow Beauty all the way to its source, but, nonetheless, the power is experienced.

Good art raises the mind to Truth, Goodness, and Life. Consider the Greek muses and sirens. The muses were the daughters of Zeus who would inspire Truth, Goodness, & Beauty in the musicians, poets, artists, craftsman, etc. For this reason, they represent true Beauty; hence, when we muse on a topic, we are thinking upon it in relation to Truth & Goodness. The sirens, however, were monstrous creatures that would cast their charming songs across the seas to capture sailors with their false beauty. The sailors would follow the songs until they crashed their ships on the shore and were consumed. The sirens represent seduction, the false beauty that promises Truth & Goodness, but in reality beckons toward death & deceit.

The Siren Claims Her Victim

Polymnia, muse of sacred hymn and mimic art

Good art can take many forms, but what makes it good is its power to awaken the spirit to Beauty, which beckons unto Truth & Goodness, i.e., unto reality.


A few of my favorites

Although I have a strong interest in aesthetics, I make no claim to posses great knowledge of artistic study, and I am most certainly no artist myself. However, I find that I am particularly moved by the great impressionist painters. In particular, I greatly appreciate Monet and Sisley, probably in that order. If you're on twitter, I'd encourage you to go to my profile and subscribe to my "art" list if you'd like to have regular access to some truly beautiful (mostly) impressionist pieces. I'll include some of my favorite impressionist art here, but first I actually want to start with a German Romantic piece that I have particularly identified with for some time.

Caspar David Friederich, "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog," 1818

As the wanderer looks out from the cliff, he is only able to see a few other jutting cliffs as most of the landscape is covered in fog. From a distance, he is unable too see the ground before him. If he wants to know what lies below, he must continue wandering. The future is a mystery. Reality itself is a mystery. This is a call to embrace life for the humble adventure that it is.

I won't describe the rest, but here a few pieces by Monet and Sisley that I appreciate:

Claude Monet, "Impression, Sunrise," 1872

Claude Monet, "Woman Sitting under the Willows," 1880

Claude Monet, "Tow Path at Lavacourt," 1878

Alfred Sisley, "Apple Trees in Bloom," 1880

Alfred Sisley, "Rider at the Edge of the Forest," 1875

Alfred Sisley, "Banks of the Seine at Port Marly," 1875

What are some of your favorite artists or pieces of art? I'd love to hear from you!


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