The rise and fall of beauty in Western culture

June 23, 2021

The rise and fall of beauty in Western culture

Ben Quash

Beauty’s fate is my concern in this all too hasty survey of hundreds of years of history. It is an almost irresponsible undertaking, to tell the story of one idea across such a span of time. This is all the more true when that idea is one both as complex and important as the idea of beauty has proven to be for our forebears.

However, it would be equally irresponsible of us, I think, if we avoided trying to understand its past significance and influence on our culture. Indeed, it is only by trying to understand what beauty has meant that we have any hope of getting to grips with why the language of beauty seems not to matter all that much to us now—except, perhaps, in rather superficial usages like the comments made in the visitors’ books of heritage sites, or as we look at displays of commercial objects in shop windows.

Moreover, the things people have found and called beautiful are too extraordinarily diverse for us to feel we quite know where its secret lies. It seems to us now to be a very relative thing. This may be one of the reasons why we are nervous of the language of beauty, and wary about using it too decisively.

A few years ago, I made a programme for BBC Radio 3 about the idea of beauty—it was called Tracing Beauty[1]—and in the course of a range of interviews with figures as diverse and interesting as Sir Roy Strong, the former Director of the V&A, and Alexandra Shulman, the then editor of British Vogue, I was struck by how deep the consensus was that there is no objective standard of beauty: it changes constantly, they argued.

And Shulman further identified the dilemma we modern Westerners face: when discussing the contemporary fashion industry, she said that it’s about people wanting to look lovely, and it’s also about the statements that designers want to make, but she was altogether wary of talking of either of those things in terms of beauty. Beauty as a serious concept, she said, distances people. It seems remote. People are attracted to things they can relate to. The word might be used of a handbag or a pair of shoes (and Sir Roy said likewise that the word can be used of ‘something we get out of a pot’ and put on our faces), but these are not uses we should take too seriously.

These are prime examples of the way that beauty-language has gone into exile for us, except as a glib throwaway word. One of the great dilemmas of the modern period is our loss of faith in the relationship between the good, the true, and the beautiful. Our ancestors in pre-modern times—by which I mean pre-16th century times—simply assumed a connection between them. It was something they would have taken for granted, without feeling the need to justify or prove it. But we have since begun to doubt that there is a necessary connection, and we cannot imagine anything that would prove such a connection. There are many reasons for this onset of doubt, but a significant one is the increased tendency of us ‘moderns’ to locate concepts like beauty in the eye of the beholder—in our own minds—rather than ‘out there’, as it were, in an objective order of things. Something is ‘beautiful for us’ rather than ‘beautiful in itself’. Moreover, on this account, there cannot be any intrinsic link between the beautiful and the good or the true—only the arbitrary associations I choose to make between things I like and things I value, without any appeal to their existence independently of me.

As a consequence, we feel estranged from beauty, finding ourselves a long way downstream from a time when beauty was inseparable from her ancient sisters goodness and truth. Eighteenth and 19th century philosophers like Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant[2] started to distance them, and the Aesthetic Movement, with celebrated figures like Oscar Wilde in its vanguard, tried to cut beauty free altogether. With their ‘art for art’s sake’ motto, these advocates of a life lived for beauty (a beauty that was its own end) believed that beauty could not flourish if it was made into an instrument of moral improvement. Beauty was its own justification. In this sense, they argued, all art must be ‘immoral’, or at the very least amoral. This attitude has had such pervasive and widespread effects that it is very hard to get out from under it.

But that is to jump ahead in our story. Let’s begin with the most formative Christian sources of pre-modern Western ideas of beauty.

The medieval era

Christianity has always been tempted by Plato, but can’t escape the incarnation. It argues that you need both light and form. Form is the communicability of the divine beauty.

A consideration of the physical universe can help us here. When it has nothing to strike or to shine through, light is invisible to us. Light needs form. Yet, conversely, form only becomes alive and perceivable with the help of light; without light, form is invisible to us as well.

Extending this beyond the physical realm to the metaphysical, we may trace a similar reciprocity. The particularity of each created thing (its boundaried and unique identity) is only disclosed for what it most truly is (that is, a creature of God) when the light of God illuminates it and transmits it to the beholder. The source from which all creaturely forms take their origin communicates itself in those forms, and the forms become knowable only insofar as they are animated by God’s all-creative power. The combination of form and light (identity and intelligibility) is intrinsically and of necessity a beautiful combination; beauty inheres in the coming together of both, and the confluence causes us pleasure.

What makes us and our dilemmas so very different from those of the medieval period is that medieval people—including the most brilliant intellectuals of those centuries— thought that beauty and goodness (like truth, and like being itself which was the reality in which all the others were grounded) were transcendental realities. That is to say, they were intrinsic and necessary aspects of each existent thing insofar as that thing participated in the being and purpose which God gave it. A true thing was a true thing, a good thing a good thing, and a beautiful thing a beautiful thing, regardless of whether a human being was there to look at it, experience it, or form an opinion about it. The true, the good and the beautiful were properties of being—transcendental properties of being.

Such being is not something we make or guarantee. Being is made by and guaranteed from somewhere else—by Another. And if that creative, guaranteeing Other is a good God, then whatever is is also good, true and desirable (which is to say, attractive, or beautiful), by virtue of its existing at all. It all comes from the same place (and that place is other than the inside of our heads). For anything to be is for it to be from the self-communicating goodness of God. Being and goodness are thus inseparable, mutually ‘convertible’, and are grounded together with the true and the beautiful in God, who is ultimate reality.

This is the sort of idea that we find emerging in the work of the mystical writer Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (writing in about 500, probably in Syria), and after him, in a more codified way, St Bonaventure (c. 1217‑74), who speaks as follows:

Beauty … is the great creating cause which bestirs the world and holds all things in existence … [It] is … the Cause toward which all things move, since it is the longing for beauty which brings them into existence. … The Beautiful is … the same as the Good, for everything looks to the Beautiful and the Good as the cause of being, and there is nothing in the world without a share of the beautiful and the good … This—the One, the Good, the Beautiful—is in its uniqueness the cause of the multitudes of the good and the beautiful.[3]

The medieval Christian Church was governed by this belief. The thinkers of the Middle Ages— influenced by Augustine’s treatise on music (De Musica, which in being about music is also about mathematics, and in being about both of these is also about divine providence), as well as by the writings of Boethius—were consistent advocates of the idea of cosmic proportion and pattern. The 12th century theologians of the school of Chartres saw in the cosmos an extraordinary, complex, and miraculous consensus among things; a mutual coherence and reciprocity that sustained their overall union. The cosmos—like the human being, to which it was often compared—had a single soul, and a single destiny. Meanwhile, a single divine love held it in being and guided it in the right ways. God’s good order is the opponent of, and bulwark against, primordial chaos.

Even ugly things could be part of this harmony of the world. Umberto Eco points this out, seeing a good example of the sort of argument in the 9th-century thinker John Scotus Eriugena, who says that even contrast can be incorporated into a larger proportioned scheme, and can help to serve a more extended sense of beauty:

Beauty … also springs from the contrast of opposites, and thus even monsters have a reason and a dignity in the concept of Creation … alongside [evil], good shines out all the better.[4]

The greatest of all medieval theologians, Thomas Aquinas, gives the idea of proportion especial importance and influence in his thought. We see this in his love of the word conveniens, which we can best translate as ‘aptness’. The idea of aptness permits an application of the idea of beautiful pattern as much to an ethical context as to an aesthetic one. Both artistic productions and holy actions are ways of mirroring and joining in with the patterns, the relations between things, that are God’s intention for his creation. ‘[V]irtuous actions’, writes Eco, describing Aquinas’s views, ‘bring about correctly proportioned words and deeds in accordance with a rational law, and so we must also talk of moral beauty…’:

Beauty is the mutual collaboration between things, and so we can define as ‘beautiful’ the reciprocal action of stones that, by supporting one another and thrusting against one another, provide a building with a solid base. It is the correct relationship between the intelligence and the object that the intelligence comprehends. In other words proportion becomes a metaphysical principle that explains the unity of the cosmos.[5]

‘That which pleases when seen’ is also a key Thomist definition of beauty. But here, too, beauty emerges as an aspect of the doctrine of providence. Pleasure—or delight—is part of what God seeks to provide for us. God wills our happiness. And part of what makes us happy— if our desires are directed aright—is the world being what it should be: pointing praisingly to the God who made it; rejoicing before God’s face.

A place like Kilpeck Church in rural Herefordshire (to take just one example) shows this dazzlingly. A small early-Norman church built of red sandstone, its designs are astonishing in their sophistication. A great, carved ‘tree of life’ spreads acanthus leaves and bunches of grapes over the main entrance to the church, its branches extending towards a vibrantly interspersed plethora of abstract shapes and figurative scenes: music making and love-making; flora and fauna; both angelic and monstrous forms of life; and faces everywhere—inside the building but even more so on the exterior where you are looked down upon from a series of 85 corbels (sculpted stones which punctuate the meeting point of church walls and church roof). You meet the eyes of humans and animals and human-animal hybrids and mythical creatures. They are part of a crazy cosmic communion displayed in this decorated architecture.

Kilpeck Church shows a mysterious sharing and bonding between all created things. This is participatory beauty—the beauty of things connected, relating, displaying their ‘at-homeness’ with each other, all sharing in a hymn of praise in which there is both light and shadow; abstraction and figuration; depth and surface. The amazing forms woven into the structure of the little house of worship are all fully themselves—wonderfully individuated— but also fully related to each other. And they are fully individual-and-related in this way by an act of aesthetic unification which refers them all to God, their deep source (invisible in itself; known only through its effects). The ‘deep’ here seems to announce itself through all these forms a good ‘deep’; a trustworthy ‘deep’, and a ‘deep’ that loves the individual forms whose being it supports, and that wants to preserve such forms in all their diversity.

The modern crisis—if we accept that it is a crisis—is therefore the result of the loss of a certain kind of faith in the actual coherence and benevolence of the world, and in the possibility that we might be capable of experiencing it in a way that is genuinely shared by others—that their good might also be my good; and that what I desire might actually be compatible with what they desire, without competition or violence. As is often said, following Max Weber, ours is a disenchanted world. It is no longer the world in which Dante wrote his Divine Comedy, which is the story of a great ascent into divine reality, where there is a perfect congruence between the most perfect Good and the most perfect Beauty—where the most pure is also the most passionately desirable. Our passions are disenchanted passions—usually directed at things that seem idiosyncratic and perhaps a little bit grubby. And we don’t dare talk much about the transcendentals any more.

Phillip Blond has written well on this, and it is with his help that I want to turn more specifically at this point to a consideration of art (rather than more general considerations of beauty). Blond applies a contrast between the modern situation and that of the medieval world to help trace a change in the way we think about art too.

In pre-modern Christian times, he argues:

art was seen as extolling, and to some extent extending, the relationship that God had to nature and man. Art mediated and further crafted [our] receptions … of God’s universal order of creation. The medieval notion of art was anything but autonomous. The beautiful was the incarnated form present—however incipiently—in all creation. The beautiful therefore had its place in the world as part of the order and character of all creatures. Beauty was objective in that it was imprinted in the form of the created world … For the medieval world, human aesthetic achievement was only possible insofar as it mirrored divine beauty.[6]

It is the idea of art’s autonomy that most distinguishes the modern view from the medieval, as outlined by Blond. This can be seen in the independence accorded to art in liberal secular culture. Many assume modern art must be automatically granted a self-governing sphere in order that it can function free of external restraints. Yet this poses several problems. To argue that modern aesthetics presupposes the fundamental autonomy of art, is to argue for art’s separation not only from God but also from any external source of value or governance. Blond writes:

Contemporary theory sees no relationship between art and morality or truth, let alone God. Art is not good or true or even beautiful. It is just art. Aesthetic practice provides its own grounds and requires no other apology. Self-proclaimed ‘important’ movements in the visual arts actually account for their worth via an insistent refusal of public standards of form and beauty. Instead the modern painter prefers to think of herself as radical, shocking and, most importantly of all, innovative … In short, criteria for judging the aesthetic value of modern art are thought to be personal, subjective and somehow invented along with the work of art itself. Critics may argue that these invented rules exist parasitically on the public frameworks they refuse. Yet this riposte also fails to dislodge the autonomy of modern art, as all public works now appear to be as relative, and as unjustifiable, as the private values they initially hoped to mitigate.

How did we get here from there?

The modern era

In this section we turn much more definitely to the modern period, asking what has been the fate of pattern in the work of modern artists who are more often than not unpersuaded by religious beliefs about the good order and benevolence of the world.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that the purpose of art is ‘to make nature thought, and thought nature’.[7] This Romantic view (in Coleridge’s case, retaining a capacious place for Christian ideas) still holds to a belief in a providential arrangement of things: the ‘Logos’ at work in all creation, undergirding the mutual affinities between mind and matter. Human beings can and do accommodate themselves to their natural surroundings; there can be a sort of collaboration between human and non-human nature to which the activity of making art is essential. Its results are an encounter with beauty which is neither wholly in the objects, nor wholly in the subject, but somewhere in the relations between them.

We may see this receptivity and reciprocity in a garden, which is (I would argue) a form of art. The fact that human ideas help to order the non-human nature in a garden does not do violence to the nature (except, perhaps, if it is the sort of garden dominated only by regimented borders and relentlessly geometrical clipped shrubs); on the contrary there is a sense that nature in its interactions with the human loves that are at work in a garden is being enabled in some special way. This is perhaps what Coleridge meant when he said that art is beautiful when it ‘makes the external internal, the internal external’;[8] when we find what we have discovered inside us actually outside us too. The respectful affinity between different living things displays the ‘at-homeness’ that I think the language of beauty has sometimes sought to name and express, and that works of art have often sought to celebrate.

Even as Coleridge was writing, though, other philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer were sowing more pessimistic seeds, helping to persuade us that a sense of affinity like that is something beyond the grasp of our modern sensibilities—beyond plausibility, even. Schopenhauer—and Friedrich Nietzsche after him—embody a new attitude which leaves us a great deal more alienated from the world of which we are part than our forebears—a long way from any immanent idea of ‘home’, let alone of an ultimate paradise. The veil of appearances, incorporating all the individual forms that delight and divert us, is just that: a veil. Schopenhauer borrowed the word maya from Eastern religious philosophy to characterize this veil.[9] The reality behind it, he argued, is the realm of a pure Will which has no care for the individual and its loves. Nietzsche’s analogy for this is the fierce, turbulent and destructive realm of the ‘Dionysian’ which lurks behind the efforts of our human artistry to make an ordered and pleasant ‘Appollonian’ realm of experience. The Apollonian instinct is a sort of containment strategy, but it represents a ‘dream’ rather than reality, and the Dionysian will repeatedly break out and overwhelm it.[10]

There were other developments afoot as the 19th century drew to a close which further advanced art’s move away from its medieval heritage. John Ruskin may have wanted to assert that nature’s patterns sing the praises of God, and even show us aspects of God’s own nature,[11] but others—like Oscar Wilde— disagreed energetically. We surely hear a bit of Wilde himself in one of his characters when he exclaims:

Nature is so uncomfortable … so indifferent, so unappreciative. Whenever I am walking in the park, I always feel that I am no more to her than the cattle that browse on the slope, or the burdock that blooms in the ditch.[12]

Though humorous, this sentiment captures a profound modern doubt, and consequent unease, about whether we are either significant or safe in a world so apparently capable of arbitrary cruelty or disorder. This arbitrariness and disorder is discernible in the nature within us as well as the nature around us. Relish of beauty seems like escapism into an artifice; a comfort zone for the mind and the senses.

The work of many contemporary artists shows the continuing effects of these important philosophical and cultural shifts, which so much modern experience seems to have consolidated by its world wars, its cruel totalitarianisms, its rapacious commerce, and its colonial and racial injustices. We may take as an illustration the Indian-born, London-based artist Raqib Shaw. He is a good example of the widespread refusal of modern and contemporary artists to offer consolation to their audiences. Good art must be honest, and to be honest it must lift the veil on the stark brutality of life and hold it before our eyes.

Shaw makes works that are vivid, immense, and full of intensity. Their visual forms are at first sight a dance of connectedness, which has an undeniable beauty that attracts and delights the eye. For a moment we may take ourselves to be in a paradisal space, or at least a garden of earthly delights (a Coleridgean ‘pleasuredome’, perhaps). But on closer examination it becomes apparent that a lot of the connectedness—the way his forms participate in one another—has the form of mutual consumption or sexual predation. We are brought up short, with the question: are these the deepest forms of participation there are?

Nietzsche’s claim (touched on earlier) that the Greeks did not only give us an Appollonian kind of beauty which depends on pattern, proportion, and regular form but also a different and intoxicating kind of beauty which we find in flux, song, and wild dance (the kind of beauty he calls ‘Dionysian’) helps us to understand what Raqib Shaw is doing. He is working within that Dionysian tradition—like a good many modern and contemporary artists (think Jackson Pollock).

At least as disturbing as the intensive connections played out on the surface of these canvasses is the way they seemed to float upon an infinite deep—like a sky or an ocean. The one connection that isn’t made is the connection between surface and depth, between beautiful form and sublime hinterland, between creation and creation’s source. This, more than anything, is the factor that shows what a different perspective on beauty the modern period has adopted from that of its pre-modern ancestors; what a different world we are in from that inhabited by the creators of Kilpeck Church. If the surface patterns mean nothing, their formal beauty merely taunts or tortures us. It may be the only kind of beauty we feel we can honestly ‘own’ in our uncertain day, but it is a painful beauty. Shaw is aware of this pain. His explorations of beauty express a longing for home but seem to deny that ‘at-homeness’ will ever actually be attainable.

Concluding remarks

The idea of beauty has played a leading role in the history of Western thought, but (as we have seen) this has involved a sort of demotion, from its status as a divine attribute and a transcendental property of being to something nearer to a pleasure-principle: something that tickles, massages, or delights the senses.

This leaves us in a bind, for we are perhaps still haunted by the memory of the higher claims we once made for beauty (and perhaps would like to make again, in service of some aesthetic sense of transcendence, or sensory spirituality). We may find ourselves rejecting the idea that beauty names a standard of perfection (whether formal or moral), because we feel our ideas about what is important can only be provisional in a fragmented and relativistic world. But we may also find ourselves rejecting beauty as a name for the things that merely gratify our senses because such things don’t seem worthy of the title ‘beautiful’—they’re not profound enough; they’re too ephemeral.

If so, the language of beauty is in a no-win situation. We reject it if it seems to say too little and we reject it if it seems to say too much.

Perhaps we need to be both less ambitious and less modest about what we hope for from beauty. Might an affirmation of beauty be part of a complex, tentative, perhaps provisional way of responding to the world, of the sort we can see in the delicate lines and tracery of an artist like David Jones’s (1895–1974) pencil and watercolour drawings? Non-human nature is still something to which we can be accommodated, and in which we can find deep pleasure, but there is no sense in these paintings that we are being presented with a map of cosmic order. There is, in his 1948 work Vexilla Regis, for example (at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge), a sense that the world and its history has some sort of watermark (the three crosses of Golgotha, rendered as trees), but this world is also littered with rubble and ragged, particular, unique loose ends. Particulars, not patterns, are the artist’s principal concern. Yet—even so—he suggests that in these particulars a sort of sacramental sense of the divine giver and sustainer of the messy, violent and enchanting world can communicate itself.

To pick up the ideas of the theologian Daniel W. Hardy (1930–2007), the world as we know it is a form of reality which is, so to speak, spread out or distributed. It is not everything and all at once, but various and time-laden, in which things are different and differently phased in time. We should expect that the God who operates in such a world would do so in a distributed, time-laden way, through the shaping of this distributed reality and through the phasing of its time.

In this distributed, time-laden world of ours, nature ‘clumps’ itself in certain ways, as things of different kinds which are related to each other in complex ways and through events which follow complex dynamic patterns we call ‘history’. These ‘clumps’ and ‘movements’ are what we are, and are surrounded by. Beauty can be traced in them, for they are marks of the world’s intelligibility: its summons towards a fuller embodiment of its own calling, and a fuller orientation to its own destiny.

These ‘clumps’ and ‘movements’, in Hardy’s words, can be captured and portrayed by human beings; that is one of the truly unique features of human being. The world and history which we are is always being summarised or concentrated by human beings, as one finds them doing even in prehistoric cave paintings or in dance-forms or in our memories. They do so in many ways. Some are ‘flat’, on one plane. Some are multidimensional, as with sculptures. Some are ‘spatial configurations’ in which people live and move, as with buildings and cities. All of these involve movement somehow, but some are more explicitly time-laden.

It is in this vein I want to finish: with Henri Matisse’s Joy of Life (1905–6), now at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. It is a work that is enigmatic, sensual, and vivid, and it expresses the earthly pleasures of curiosity, companionship, dance, relaxation, delight in nature, music, drawing, love—all in a natural clearing which is framed by arching trees.

Matisse may be said simply to have ‘decorated’ reality here; but I think he has done more than that. He has created a concentrated space in which reality is shown to us in a heightened register, in its dynamism and potential. And he seeks to engross us in this concentrated space, overcoming our tendency to want to stand ‘outside’ the painting as mere ‘observers’.

A more intense historical sensibility than—perhaps—the pre-modern world had, and a greater discomfort with the way that beauty can be co-opted and deadened by a modern commodification of its properties, have produced in modern artists a more idiosyncratic and bespoke relationship to the very idea of beauty. There is also a needful suspicion of the way that its patterns and fictions can console, and in so doing protect us deceptively from some of the truths of our world and our own natures. But beauty persists.

Matisse has not organised this space with some rigid Apollonian template in which ratio is the only means to the manifestation of God. He has instead captured something at once Apollonian and Dionysian: the multidimensional dynamism of the world, expressed through line, colour, distortion and vibrating forms. And he experiences in this attention a lightness of spirit with which he then communicates something profound to the engrossed viewer. It is a lightness of spirit—a joy in life—which is rarely found in the narrow formalisms of modern existence and rationality. In this way the painting opens room for deep meditation on the dynamics of God in human life as a whole— for Christianly speaking, there may be no very sharp distinction between the ‘lightening of spirit’ we find here and the Holy Spirit through which the joy of life rises in the human heart.



[1]; accessed 27th April 2021.

[2] Burke tried to ground beauty in physiological responses to physical stimuli, leading to judgements of taste which he thought all reasonable men shared: an empirical approach. Kant tried to make beauty a universal standard to which all rational minds must refer when making aesthetic judgements: a transcendental approach. Both make the question of beauty a matter to do with us and our judgements, without seeing any need to refer to God.

[3] Dionysius the Areopagite, Divine Names, ch. 4, p77.

[4] Umberto Eco, On Beauty: A History of a Western Idea (MacLehose Press, 2010), p85.

[5] Ibid., p88.

[6] Phillip Blond, ‘Power in Art’. The Christian (1999).

[7] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate (eds), 2 vols (Princeton UP, 1983), p257.

[8] Ibid., p257.

[9] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation (Dover Publications, 1958).

[10] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘The Birth of Tragedy’. R. Geuss & R. Speirs (eds.), The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[11] See John Ruskin, Modern Painters Vol.2, pp76–145 and Vol 5, pp417–19, E.T. Cook and A. Wedderburn (eds), The Complete Works of John Ruskin (George Allen and Unwin, 1903–12).

[12] Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying: An Observation’. Intentions (Methuen and Co., 1913), pp2–3.

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