TRUTH AND BEAUTY (Part I)
A very wise friend, Ken Collins, has written a brilliant exposition of the relationship between truth and beauty in art, architecture and engineering. In a far more articulate manner than I could aspire to, he points out that beauty is not merely “in the eye of the beholder”; it exists absolutely. In other words, beauty, in the ultimate sense, is not subjective. True beauty is objectively so, because it conforms to the exquisite mathematics of symmetry, perspective, balance and form found in the natural world. Plato, Aristotle and the ancient Greeks noted the exquisite mathematical proportions that exist within nature – proportions which are pleasing to the eye and which define beauty. Leonardo Da Vinci, in the 15th century, was fascinated by these naturally occurring mathematical ratios. He studied them minutely in order to incorporate them into his beautiful works of art.
The rejection of these precise mathematical relationships results in art and architecture that is dissonant, jarring, discomforting and (dare I say it?) downright ugly. In the art world, modernism, post-modernism, impressionism and abstract art forms are confronting and disquieting because of their rejection of these mathematical relationships. They may be an attempt to express strong emotions, particularly negative or confronting ones, but one could not describe them as exquisitely beautiful. The whole point of those art forms is the rejection of beauty, symmetry, perspective and balance in order to jar the senses. By rejecting these conventions they are, inevitably, ugly.
The two paintings featured above were both painted by Pablo Picasso; the one on the left, at the beginning of his career, the one on the right towards the end of his career. What happened to him? Did he lose the ability to paint as he aged? No. His later work reflects his acceptance of the “modern” movement, involving the rejection of the conventions of balance, perspective, proportion, form and symmetry. The loss of beauty in rejecting these conventions could not be more evident!
The rejection of objective truth also renders these art works largely incomprehensible. We have to take Picasso’s word for it that “Lady in a Hat” is, indeed, a lady. In fact, without the helpful title, I would have guessed that it was a man, due to what appears to be a beard and moustache! Clear communication can only take place when it is based upon universally understood language or conventions. When these are rejected, gibberish results. Abstract artists often can’t even tell you what their art means; if you were to ask them for its meaning, they would reply, “You interpret it for yourself”. The absence of truth inevitably leads to the loss of meaningful communication.
Abstract or modern art also requires considerably less skill. It is much easier to draw something that is asymmetrical, unbalanced, disproportionate and out of perspective than it is to draw something that is true to life. If I attempted to paint your portrait, my lack of skill would result in a painting that would fit comfortably within the category of abstract art! To paint you accurately, would require far more skill than I will ever have. On a recent visit to the National Art Gallery Of Victoria, I overheard a lady say to her friend, while looking at an abstract painting, “My six year old son could do better than that!” I silently agreed. In fact, her response is a common one. Such responses are an expression of moral outrage at the injustice of calling such things “art”, and incredulity that they should be displayed alongside works of unquestionable beauty by past masters, after having paid paying good taxpayers money for them!
Modernism in architecture has followed a similar pattern to art, in rejecting the basic rules of proportion, balance and symmetry that have defined beauty for centuries. Ugliness is, once again the inevitable result.
Why is this discussion of the relationship between truth and beauty so important? Because what has happened in art and architecture, is indicative of the profound philosophical change that has taken place within the whole of society. Post-modernism is now the predominant ideology in western society, influencing every aspect of life. At the same time that art and architecture was rejecting the classical ratios of form and symmetry found universally within the natural world, society also began discarding the concept of universal absolutes in regard to beliefs and morality. Relativism now reigns supreme; there is no absolute truth, no absolute morality any longer. Truth and morality are yours to define for yourself, and no one has the right to contradict you, because contradiction would imply the existence of an absolute set of standards. The descent into the murky depths of relativism and pluralism has been meteoric. A mere 50 years is all it took for the belief in absolute truth, a belief that had been universally upheld by every culture and society for thousands of years, to be swept aside.
In Part II of “Truth And Beauty” I will examine the relationship between truth and beauty in music, and highlight some further disturbing aspects of post-modernism.
 Ken’s remarkable PowerPoint presentation, “Truth and beauty in Art and Architecture”, is available for viewing on my website, SmartFaith.net on the Ethics page.