Beauty they say, Is in the eye of the beholder, Something only skin deep. But why do those who lack it, Hold their eyes and weep?
Sympathy passes on, into the life of the pained, Lifting its head from the few who pass, Without knowing gain, But why do those who get it, Wish to the skies for more? Life is filled with everything, And everything is beautiful, Life is dealt without sympathy, And sympathy is alone, Wondering, Through black streets, And dark roads, Lying in lonely disarray, While beauty is admired.
Is “beauty in the eye of the beholder” as the common phrase says? Or is beauty objective and determined by fixed rules?
When I hear someone say there are objective standards for beauty I often get the impression that what they really mean is “everyone should agree with my subjective opinion about what is beautiful.” When pressed about these objective standards, most people who claim an objectivity about beauty will point to some cultural standard or some past expression of beauty that they personally find timeless and standard. These are obviously just subjective opinions held by the majority, not a truly objective set of standards.
Is there an objective standard of beauty? Sure: God Himself.
God is the only objective measure of all things. Since nothing is beautiful compared to the perfect God, it can be argued that nothing is truly beautiful. If this is true it can be argued that mankind is incapable of producing anything objectively beautiful. We merely produce ugly things and insist that they be called beautiful.
That view is too pessimistic in my opinion.
God gave mankind a cognizance of beauty, therefore we can find beauty in nature. We know there is beauty because we know that a beautiful God created the universe and imparted beauty to it. Not only can we recognize beauty, we are part of that beauty, because we are made in His image.
If God made all things, does this make all things beautiful? In a sense everything God has made is beautiful. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” There isn’t anything ugly which God has made. So where does ugliness come from?
The simple answer is this: sin.
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” – Isaiah 52:7
Good news is beautiful, the Gospel is beautiful, and news of happiness is beautiful. In a sense beauty is truth: that which corresponds to reality.
Sin both corrupts the beauty of God’s creation and distorts our ability to see it correctly. Sin distorts our mind’s interpretation of reality and therefore our ability to comprehend beauty is corrupt as well. The corruption of our souls often leads us to miss true beauty. Often we instead perceive true ugliness (sin) as beauty.
Does sin destroy our ability to see beauty at all? Some might say that we cannot truly see beauty because of our sin. I think we are capable of seeing beauty, but our minds corrupt and darken the beauty we see (see Romans 1).
So what is the objective standard, if any, for beauty? I can only define beauty by what it is not. Anything which violates the Holy will of the Holy God is NOT beauty. Sin is not beautiful. Violence, lying, theft, illicit sex, idolatry, covetousness, and blasphemy are not beauty. Anything which is untrue is not beauty.
Objectively speaking then, anything which is not sinful can be considered beautiful.
But what about subjectivity? Is beauty inherent in things or is it “in the eye of the beholder?”
To those with natural senses there are at least two things that I would say are universally considered beautiful: sunrises and stars. No one looks at either and says “that’s ugly!” Other natural wonders could be added to this list, but every other one I can think of may be tainted by cultural perspectives, i.e. the ocean may be beautiful to islanders, but to inland folk it could be considered mysterious and terrifying. Perhaps even these cultural perspectives are tainted by sin (fear).
The common thread through all of these beautiful things, whether they be natural things or Gospel things, is that they all point us to God. So if I was to answer the question “What is the objective standard for beauty?” I would say “That which is truth and that which points to God.”
And to me, that can take many forms.