“God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Genesis 1:31
Humans have an innate desire for self-preservation: food, clothing, shelter. Yet, as imago Dei, we need and value more: truth, love, beauty. Cave dwellers scribbled images across their walls and Michelangelo sketched frescoes on the Sistine ceiling. A child pens her name on construction paper with the same passion as Jane Austen penning insights into the constructs of society.
But what is “good art”?
Let’s start by establishing key terms of philosophy:
Ethics: The study of what good is and how it influences life.
Aesthetics: The study of what beauty is and how it influences life.
Axiology: Greek axios, “worthy”; logos, “science”: the study of “goodness,” or value, and how societies formulate values. Axiology links ethics and aesthetics.
For centuries societies defined ethical “good” based on one of two starting points: the head or the heart. With idealism, Plato promoted the head, asserting that good existed in an immaterial, absolute Being and the intellectual pursuit of Him. In contrast, Epicurus advocated hedonism, using the starting point of the heart and asserting pleasure as the greatest good.
Societies used the same starting points to define aesthetic “good.” People like Pythagoras required reason, right angles, and rationality in art, while their opponents focused on pleasure and sensuality. The gulf between head and heart seemed impassable. It still does.
In 1485, theologian Thomas Aquinas introduced a robust theology filled with biblical insights into ethics, aesthetics, and axiology. He asserted that Scripture did not allow for an either-or division; it was a foundational component to the structure and substance of truth itself. Rather than relegating beauty to the head or the heart, Aquinas allowed it to engulf knowledge and mystery, reason andimagination. Rather than attempting to define beauty, Aquinas listed its component parts: wholeness, harmony, and pleasure.
Wholeness refers to the unity achieved by ordering elements in a consistent, stable manner. Think of the precision of God forming earth and creating things “according to [their] kind” (Genesis 1:11–12). Harmony denotes the arranging of individual parts in one accord. Think of music chords. Each note maintains its distinct identity while joining with the others to create richer, fuller sounds. By adhering to guidelines of music theory, the head component, notes, can be manipulated to stimulate various emotional responses—the heart component, what we will call pleasure. Think of the goose bumps you get at the symphony and the amusement of your child’s recital as all the tutus fluttered in unison.
Notice Aquinas refrained from prescribing a formula for classifying beauty. He neither alleged that allthe criteria must be present for an object to be considered beautiful, nor assumed that the presence of one criterion guaranteed that the object was beautiful. A toddler bangs on the piano, striking notes in an inconsistent manner. His work lacks wholeness and harmony, and yet we can experience pleasurein his work.
All of humanity, as imago Dei, are artists, and all art has the potential to guide others toward beauty. Christians differ in that we have values and truths that enable us to express and comment on both the fallenness and redeemableness of creation. As we explore the mystery of beauty, we empower others to do the same, using both head and heart.