Beauty and Difficulty

One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.  – Psalm 27:4

I once overheard an artist who, while looking at a detailed and realistic painting done by someone else, remarked that it “was probably very easy to make”. The context of the comment implied that things were more beautiful – or more artistic – if they are harder to make.

There does not seem to be a real causal relationship between difficulty and beauty, though. In fact, the inverse seems to be true. This isn’t limited to art and beauty either.

As an experienced software developer, it is easy for me to write software that works, is easy to understand, and is easy to maintain. It’s objectively better software in every important way to something written by someone who is just entering the field. That makes sense; I should be getting better at what I’m doing over time, making it easier to do.

If this is the case, then the fact it is easy for me to create is not a comment about how good the product is, but how much skill and experience I have. The same seems to be true of any job you can think of. A skilled architect will have an easier time designing a house than someone who has never designed anything.

At the same time, just because the creation of a piece of art was difficult, time-consuming, or tedious, there’s no reason to think the art is beautiful. It takes a long time to write your name 500,000 times; much longer than writing it once. Is doing one rather than the other really more beautiful? It’s certainly more difficult, but I think this is an obvious example where a thing being difficult doesn’t cause it to become beautiful.

Aristotle’s description of ethics is along the same lines. He argued when you want to find a good person, you don’t look for someone who struggles to do good things and, by his will, overcomes the struggle in the end. This effort is admirable, but a good person will not struggle to do good things and avoid evil things. It will seem effortless for him. In neither case is the definition of goodness related to how easy it is for a person to do good things. In the same way, beauty is not related to how much people struggle with it.

We also don’t know how difficult it was to make a piece of art unless we know more details than the art itself gives us. If we are experienced in the technique used, we might know how hard it is to learn the technique and how much effort was applied in using the technique. But we can’t know how hard it was for the person who created the art. That would require us asking them. But it seems we can figure out whether a piece of art is beautiful even if we don’t know the artist or can’t ask him how hard it was to make. Again, beauty doesn’t seem related to how much people struggle with making beautiful art.

So what does make something beautiful?

In looking up the verse I intended to put at the beginning of the article, I found this quote on the generally good Bible Study Tools website when searching on the topic of beauty:

The saying “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” goes to say that defining beauty can be tough. However, God’s words can lead us to discover what our individual meaning of beauty truly is and should be; that is deter from looking at physical appearance for God looks at the heart in all people and things. Use these Bible verses to find the real beauty in yourself, others, and what surrounds us.

I think this is incorrect for several reasons, and interestingly, not Biblical given the verses that follow.

The expression “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is less than 200 years old. If beauty is difficult to define (specifically: define), and I agree that it is difficult to do so, it seems strange it would take thousands and thousands of years of human experience to arrive to this insight. In reality, the quote came at a time when beauty had been relativized, in part thanks to the same leveling forces that eventually relativized truth and goodness, too. The quote is intended to make beauty subjective. “In the eye of the beholder” means “according to the subject”. This in contrast to the object.

Biblically, God is beautiful. He is the source of beauty. This means that beauty can’t possibly be subjective – even though our experience of it necessarily is, like all experiences. The quotation from Bible Study Tools is correct in saying that our definition ought to conform to Scripture, and that we can be wrong about what beauty is (this affirms the objective nature of it). However, it is misleading to say that beauty at the physical level is superficial because God searches our hearts. He might search our hearts and know us more deeply than we know ourselves, but He also created our physical bodies and the physical world we live in and all the beauty we can see and hear. This physical world won’t last forever, but it isn’t superficial. It’s particularly misleading when people aren’t concerned with creating beautiful art or with looking as best they can. I don’t think a person can be fully trusted with getting at the inner beauty of things if they don’t even have the right idea or skill at getting to physical beauty.

If you aren’t a Christian, it is still strange to try and say that beauty is subjective. We have art schools training artists all around the world. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then are these schools just teaching popular techniques? What are the techniques for? Why does anyone need technique? As popular as postmodernism and relativism is at art schools, I think the administrators know better than to push this to it’s reasonable conclusion. If they did, the students might realize their time would be better spent not spending tens of thousands of dollars improving their technique at creating things that are totally subjective.

Similarly, it’s strange that we have art museums and art galleries if art is subjective. Why is some art worthy of hanging on the wall in an art museum? Given some of the horrible, insulting pieces I’ve seen (solid-color canvases with a single bar of another color shoddily painted on top), it doesn’t seem much thought goes into determining what should hang on an art museum wall and what should be thrown in the trash. But what really qualifies some pieces and not others? Is it a democratic process? Who says? And where do I get to vote?

As I said earlier, beauty is difficult to define. But it isn’t difficult or impossible to describe. Beautiful things have a symmetry to them. This doesn’t need to mean things are identical when split in half; it is more in terms of weight (e.g. a house could have wide room on one side and a tall room on the other). Beautiful things have emphasis on the important elements, with other elements receding into the background while they complement the foreground. Beautiful things are true; they don’t mislead or glorify evil.

With the issue of difficulty addressed, I’d like to address the issue of ugliness in modern art sometime in the future. I think modern art, in general, is intentionally ugly and insulting. It would be good to talk about it in detail, but it deserves its own post.

Consent is Weak

How do you tell if an act is moral? If you ask a typical college student or any of their professors, they’ll have the answer for you right away: If everyone involved in the act consents, it is moral. If anyone does not consent, it is immoral. We’ll call people like this Consent Theorists. It sounds more elaborate than it really deserves.

Consent is a pretty basic concept. As part of one’s moral framework, it has a number of uses, from dealing with contracts and promises to preventing people from forcing people to do things against their will or conscience. However, as basis for moral acts – as it is often presented in the academic and pop culture worlds – it is a miserable failure.

Consent Theory breaks down immediately when you consider criminal law. Criminals don’t consent to being imprisoned or fined for their actions. A Consent Theorist may squirm enough to find a crack and suggest that by committing a crime, a person forfeits their right to demand for consent. This isn’t so much an escape from the problem as an admission that things are even weaker than we thought. Now, consent must obey a higher law. It fails outright at being the basis for morality.

There are other problems with consent as a basis for one’s ethical views. Consent is easily manipulated. You can get someone to consent to anything with the right threats or lies. A Consent Theorist may suggest that such things are wrong; that consent proper requires that someone makes it free of threats and with all of the relevant facts presented to them. This, like criminal law, leads to the problem of a higher law being in place. If consent determines whether acts are moral or immoral, what standard do we have to determine whether one form of consent is better than another?

Aside from these and many other cases where consent quickly gets superseded by some higher moral imperative, it turns out that even if we ignored all of them, consent can only address questions of whether we can do something morally. It fails utterly at compelling us to do things we ought to do. If you see someone drowning, should you throw them a life preserver? Consent says nothing. Sure, both you and the drowning victim could consent to the arrangement, but if you don’t consent yourself, the guy in the water is out of luck. Now, we’re left with the fact that consent is too weak to deal with the real world and too amoral to deal with acts we know are morally required of us in the same axiomatic sense that we know the real world exists.

Why should we even obey the rule of consent in the first place, though? Consent Theory has nothing to say about this. If we ought to seek consent before an act is made moral, why? A Consent Theorist could say that if we consent to Consent Theory, we are compelled to follow it, but this does nothing to those who refuse to do so. It’s a moral outlook that can’t compel anyone to follow it in the first place.

Moral duties and values, however, are strong enough to ground a moral framework, and the fact that Consent Theory must appeal to them proves they precede it. We are compelled to act morally and to abstain from acting immorally. Consent is merely a part of this process; when we engage in acts with others which are morally neutral on their face, consent makes sure we don’t force people to do things they don’t want to do. On the other hand, consent doesn’t make immoral acts moral; it can say nothing of whether engaging in same-sex relations, engaging in pre-marital sexual relations, or assisted suicide are moral or immoral. If those acts are immoral, consent can’t justify them.

Consent isn’t in the business of making immoral acts into moral acts. In its rightful place, it is a servant of moral values and duties. When university professors and media personalities skip over moral values and duties – and their origin – and focus instead of consent, all they do is hide the really interesting and important things. I suppose you’d want to do this if you had a sense what you were doing was wrong. Best not to shine a light on darkness if you love the dark.