Another View on Viewing Art: On Robin Phillips

In my previous article, I gave a synopsis of Francis Schaeffer’s book, Art and the Bible, in which he gives some sage advice on viewing and understanding the fine arts in the perspective of a Christian Worldview.  Schaeffer not only recommend that we develop an aptitude for viewing art effectively, but believes that it can and should be done by Christians engaging in this world over which Christ is Lord.

This week, let us turn to an excellent article by Robin Phillips titled, Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder? This article was originally published in the Summer 2009 edition of “Christianity and Society.”  As you can see from the title, Phillips is approaching the idea in a different way than Schaeffer, and this can certainly help us continue our growth in viewing and assessing art.

Phillips begins the article by exploring the idea of beauty in general.  He delves into beauty as found in the Bible, and also notes that beauty is an objective quality linked to God’s character and holiness. From there he considers how we might “measure” beauty and what criteria we might use to do so.  In addition, he discusses the language of beauty and how it has been corrupted through time.  (This paragraph is very short synopsis of an excellent presentation of these matters, and I suggest a full reading of the article to glean all the insight provided.)

Based upon that foundation, Phillips guides the reader in how one might view art – or see beauty – in such a way that it opens up the individual to really see what is there.  This is something he calls “beauty-vision.”  Although there may be legitimate impediments that prevent a person from seeing beauty (blindness, for example), Phillips believes that it is important to “gaze in the right direction” in order to begin the process of seeing beauty for what it is.  Essentially, to “awaken a person’s beauty-vision” (pg. 46). Even then, there may be other reasons that we simply miss the beauty in front of us, and he suggests several things to help us overcome these difficulties.

His first level of observation is that of noticing factual things about the work of art.  This would include how various elements of a painting might interact with one another thematically.  Or, it would include information on “the background of the work, the artistic context, how the work conformed (or did not conform) to the dominant conventions of the day, the intention of the artist, and so on” (pg. 46).  This important first level of observation is one that is accessible even by those just beginning the process of looking at art and who are really trying to understand what they see.  It is from these observations of the facts about art that lead to understanding the aesthetics of art.

“After we have helped a person to understand facts about the artwork (Level 1), we can begin to show howaesthetic properties flow out of these factual observations” (pg. 46).  In this way, Phillips leads into the second level of viewing art.  He points out that one can begin to attach descriptive terminology to factual observations and move to this level of understanding.  Two of his examples are, “the lines make this paintinggraceful,” and “the color scheme is somber” (pg. 47).  It is these judgments and perceptions that are the aesthetic qualities characterized by the particular factual elements within the artwork.  The aesthetic judgments arise from the factual observations.  Thus, it is a second level of viewing art.

The next stage in this method to develop “beauty-vision” is the third level, described by Phillips as making “an overall verdict of praise or blame” (pg. 47).  For Phillips, this is where his discussion on beauty intersects with a person’s ability to see these various features of artwork and come to a conclusion on what they have observed.  “Beauty is one of many positive verdicts which arise from a work’s aesthetic features” (pg. 47).  As one is able to draw together the factual observations made of a particular piece of art, and describe that by articulating aesthetic perceptions based upon those facts, it becomes more than a personal opinion why one piece of art might be considered “beautiful,” while another draws condemnation.

Interestingly, Phillips finishes his article discussing beauty and the Biblical Worldview.  He notes that our culture’s rejection of beauty as truth can be legitimately linked to our culture’s rejection of Christian truth.  This is a viewpoint that we have considered before in the writings and thinking of Roger Scruton, who sees modern man intoxicated with ugliness and warns that the desecration of beauty is undoing culture at a foundational level.  As Christians, we must engage in the arts as part of this culture so we might bring a redemptive influence into this important aspect of modern life.

Certainly this method requires practice and refinement for any individual.  However, these three levels of factual observations which lead to the defining of aesthetic properties, and ultimately an artistic verdict, are useful and accessible.  I encourage the reader to print the full article by Robin Phillips at the link below and seek to understand the beauty of art in a more direct way – then go out and look at some art.  You’ll be glad you did!

(Original Post on August 7, 2012 at the Worldview Church:


Posted on September 16, 2013, in Arts, theology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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