What is a Beautiful Painting?

Painting a “picture” is meaningless. One paints beauty.

— David Leffel

In perhaps my favorite semester of college, I took a philosophy course on beauty.

Philosophers call the study of beauty “aesthetics” and for 2,500 years have  argued over aesthetics questions like “does a painting actually exist?” and “is beauty objective?”

Until the Enlightenment, most philosophers believed that beauty is objective. It emanates from beautiful objects. Following Plato, for example, St. Augustine asked “is an object beautiful because it delights?” or “does an object delight because it’s beautiful?” His answer was: an object delights because it’s beautiful, not because we consider it so.

With the Enlightenment, philosophers did a 180. They believed that beauty is subjective. Hume, for example, said, “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.” In short, beauty’s in the eye of the beholder.

The course I took focused not on Classical, Mediaeval or Enlightenment philosophers, but on 20th century ones, particularly phenomenologists. They argued that beauty was neither objective nor subjective, because, in our everyday “lived experience” of the world, there’s simply no gap between the knower and the known. A beautiful picture actually is a beautiful picture.

So if pictures exist, and beautiful pictures exist as well, why would an artist wish to “paint beauty,” instead of a “beautiful picture?”

I think the answer lies in the medium—and the artist’s control of it.

Using paint, solvents, brushes and knives, when the artist paints she’s pushing the medium to capture the raw experience of a moment of beauty. Equipped with her medium, she’s suspending the external world for awhile and—if her control of the medium is successful—disclosing a glimpse of the experienced world as beautiful.

Her painting—if successful—isn’t a “picture” at all, but an apparition of primordial beauty, a lens on the invisible and fragile beauty that’s always around us, but so often unavailable.

Above: God-made. Oil on canvas. 16 x 12 inches. Ships framed and ready to hang.