I don't know much about art, but I know what I like!
Few have lived their lives without hearing that statement, and many have uttered it, at least in their own thoughts, but what can it actually mean? What is it about the art we like which attracts us, and perhaps even more mysteriously, why, unless taught otherwise, do the vast majority of us agree on much of the art we like?
The visual arts, such as drawing, painting and sculpture, are by far the most likely examples to come to mind when the subject of art is raised, and unlike writing or music the visual arts are almost entirely dependent on the representation of physical phenomena. A painting of a beautiful sunset will engender similar responses in almost everyone who sees it, as will a drawing of an idyllic forest, an Ansel Adams photograph of a mountain peak, or a fine marble carving of horse or human. Yet the beauty of such artwork is not in slavish accuracy, but in the ideals it emphasizes. Mona Lisa is untouched by the wrinkles and skin blemishes common to most of us; paintings of pastoral Alpen scenes excise the annoying insects likely to be found in the original; and even the photography of Adams is typically drained of the color which might otherwise reveal unhealthy foliage.
Nor can we say that the art we enjoy in common appeals simply to natural – that is, selfish – desire. A painting of a storm-tossed ship on the Azer Sea should invoke thoughts of terror, not beauty, if the viewer thought to enter the scene. A wild mountain range or a steep cliff is a literal impediment to man, not at all inviting. Even the brilliant rainbow is associated from the first with danger. What is it that attracts us to art which shows us what we cannot have and might not want?
Philosophy, literally "love of wisdom," is the formal study of thoughts and ideas. Traditionally any valid philosophy must address five major areas, one of which is aesthetics or the concept of beauty and art. In the West, philosophy usually begins with Plato, and it is in his Republic that we find his answer to the question of our perception of perfection. In the "Allegory of the Cave," Plato describes a scene in which prisoners are restrained in such a way that they are unable to see the brightly-lit reality behind them but only the shadows of that reality as they are cast on the wall in front of them. Mistaking the shadows for reality, the prisoners speak confidently of those shadows as though they were themselves real and substantial.
Yet in his weak, pagan understanding Plato himself presents a shadow, an echo, of something we know is true. In the eighth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, we are told of,
priests who offer the gifts according to the law; who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.Hebrews 8:4b-5
Augustine, whose ideas were acknowledged as foundational by the Reformers, restates Plato's concept of "forms," or underlying reality, in his work The City of God, where he states that,
Beauty ... can be appreciated only by the mind. This would be impossible, if this 'idea' of beauty were not found in the mind in a more perfect form... going on to argue that "there must be some being in which the original form resides, unchangeable, and therefore incomparable.
From Augustine's arguments we can derive, in short, that while the painting we see is clearly only a copy of the earthly scene it represents, even that scene is only a copy, a shadow, of its perfect form in Heaven. And here, finally, we find an answer to our question of where the perception of beauty must ultimately lie.
Before sin faded and stained it, God pronounced His creation "very good," and while the effects of the Fall continue to distort it we can see and judge beauty and art only in part, only as embers of that which once existed here and flickering shadows of the perfection which can be found only in Heaven. There is only one true measure of beauty, of art, and of good; not how closely those things approach our desires, but how closely those desires approach God's will.
What do we do that is good? Only that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God's law, and is done for His glory; and not that which is based on what we think is right or on established human tradition.Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 91