When it comes to perception, we start with the senses. We are a visual culture, and in casual usage, the word “beauty” is most often associated with what we see. Beauty that strikes us visually usually involves a pleasing or satisfying “form,” some relationship between various aesthetic properties that we often perceive in an instant. Those sensual properties might involve color, light, texture, line, shape–any number of aesthetic elements, none of which alone (except in a very particular context) would strike us as beautiful in the same manner as the object (a beautiful painting, building, woman, or mountain) holding all these elements in relationship.
God’s initial move in creation, bringing order from chaos, is foundational to a Christian understanding of beauty, art, and creativity. It is a relational move, realigning various physical elements so that new relationships are “formed.” This word in Hebrew is yatsar, the word that describes God “forming” human beings, and the potter “forming” the clay. In all creation, there is something akin to chaos–a level of disorder that calls the creator toward it. Then comes an intention that begins shifting the elements within that chaos toward new relationships that will result in a new order, one we call both “good” and “beautiful.” Finally, the new relationships are complete, presenting themselves to our awareness in a flash of experience that causes us to utter the word…”beautiful.”
If a relationship is foundational to beauty, it calls into question the polarities of objectivity vs. subjectivity. (Does an object have beauty if there is no one to perceive it?) My answer to this is a firm yes, because God is always there to perceive it. Somehow, this relationship of elements we label beauty finds its beginnings, in very concept, in the mind of God. Yet if there is no God, then I would have to say no, that objects (or any other reality we might label beautiful) have no objective beauty, because until there is a subjective mind that can perceive the pleasing arrangement, the arrangement would be irrelevant, except that there is a function the arrangement facilitates. (Beauty’s relationship to function…another topic.)
So…relationship. Beauty is a dynamic twinning of relationships–the first being a pleasing and satisfying arrangement of physical, sensual properties (in visual, aesthetic beauty, at least), the second the relationship of the perceiver and that being perceived. The latter relationship suggests what one reader suggested in the comments from yesterday, that beauty is a result of waking up, being aware, and realigning our relationship with what’s always right in front of us. “Vividry” of awareness, he said.
Visual beauty, music, restored relationship, acts of kindness, moments that align themselves in our consciousness in ways that suggest that for a heartbeat all is right with the world, the cleansing of the soul in various religious contexts, the ending of wars–all these might bring “beauty” to mind. What they share is a realignment of relationship that suddenly explodes in our perception, a flash of a moment that inevitably pulls at us, inching us toward the good, the true, and the beautiful.