Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Tao of Film: Pure Cinema and The Christian Aesthetic Part 1

The concept of beauty is something that has been debated for centuries. There is actually a sub branch of the discipline of philosophy dedicated to it. There are three branches of philosophy: ontology, epistemology, and axiology. Ontology is the study of being, nature, and existence. Epistemology is the study of knowledge, belief, and intuitions. Axiology is the study of ethics, aesthetics, and value theory. Aesthetics deals with beauty. The phrase "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is commonly and rather flippantly stated whenever a discussion of beauty arrises. But what most people do not realize is that this is not just some casual cliche but is in fact an important philosophical statement. Essentially what this phrase means is that my response to beauty is more important than beauty itself. Taken completely literally this phrase means beauty does not exist outside of my mind. Beauty is a quality I give to something not something it actually possesses. So beauty is only perceived. But If beauty is only a perception then why does it matter at all? Well maybe it doesn't. Because if all we mean when we say "That waterfall is beautiful" is that "I am having beautiful feelings because of that waterfall" then all we are doing when having discussions of value is simply to express a state of affairs about ourselves. When I look at the sun setting and I feel awe because of the beauty my mind perceives from it and I express that in a poem I am expressing nothing except for my own feelings.

Is this such a bad state of affairs? Well yes and no. If it is true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder...well then its true and we should accept it. But if its true that "beauty" only exists in me then what do we say about God? When I finally "see" or experience God directly some day and I say to him "you are the most beautiful" all I have said to him is "I have never experienced such wonderful feelings." But that isn't what I mean when I speak of God's beauty. In fact that isn't what anybody means when they ascribe beauty to something. If they meant that they were having "beautiful feelings" they would probably say so. The statement "x is the most beautiful" or even simply "y is ugly" taken in its most strait-forward sense requires either assent or denial. Either the statement is true or false. It requires the same kind of commitment as a moral statement from the person who is confronted with it. It is wrong to kill innocents for fun requires either assent or denial. I don't mean by the statement "abortion, in cases where the LIFE of the mother is not in jeopardy, is always wrong" that abortions make me feel wrong. They may in fact make me feel wrong. In fact that might be my only justification for the moral claim that I have made but the claim still stands on its own. It is either true, false, or partially true (in which case further corrections will either make it completely true or completely false).

But for many in the west ethics and aesthetics have taken on this kind of reasoning. Everything is based solely on our feelings. Judgements can and should be based at least partially on feelings. But when you believe that feeling this or that is the criterion for what makes something whatever it is then you have destroyed objective value completely. The only thing that remains are feelings.

But how can beauty be simply a perception? We are drawn to beautiful things. The eye of the beholder recognizes the beauty in something. If we claim that beauty is subject to ourselves then what we are really saying is that I determine what is beautiful. And if I determine what is beautiful then you also determine what is beautiful. And when we disagree? Well we're both right because objectivity about beautiful things is impossible. I can only know that I think x is beautiful and y is ugly. And if you think y is beautiful and x ugly well, I guess it doesn't really matter.

I believe that this is false. Mainly for this reason: I know that we attribute beauty to external things. Even if beauty was in the eye of the beholder the beholder has to be beholding something. It's not as if propositions concerning beauty just spontaneously generate in our minds. They are reacting to something, they are in fact caused by something. And just because not everyone can see what you see in something does not mean that it is not there. It just maybe that something about you allows you to see the true value of whatever it is you are beholding. And vice versa, just because a thousand people believe a lie does not make it true. Consensus is not always a sure indicator of truth.

Now let us see what the Tao of film might be. If in fact objective beauty does exist let us see if we can find it in cinema.

“Films that explain nothing often make everything clear. Films that explain everything often have nothing to explain.”- Roger Ebert

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."- Philippians 4:8

These two statements are what make up the film aesthetic that I am using to evaluate films. I am calling the first statement the basic essence of Pure Cinema: that film, being a primarily visual medium, is most powerful when it focuses on visual story telling or visual communication of meaning or information to the viewer.
I am calling the second statement the Christian Aesthetic: that we should value what is truly valuable.

I do my best to evaluate films with these two theories primarily in mind. My project is to try to demonstrate how the life of the mind should effect film criticism. Most film criticism centers around personal taste and originality/creativity. And it is due to this that most people are under the impression that things like films (artistic achievements like painting, literature, etc.) are valued subjectively. This is partially a symptom of the collapse of modernity and the rise of existenialism. Both of which are things that I think have helped and hurt us at the same time, but especially in the arts and art criticism it seems to have hurt us.

I once told a friend that I thought aesthetic value was objective. She said she disagreed and could demonstrate to me how I was wrong. I said okay. She asked me who my favorite painter was. I said Georgia O'Keefe (she probably still is). Well, my friend retorted, I don't like O'Keefe! You see it's all subjective. That's literally all she said. She though that settled it and didn't want to discuss it anymore.

I realize that there may be more robust critique's of objectivist aesthetics but this is a common argument that is put forth. But just because intelligent people disagree does not prove that there is no right answer. And if we are able to formulate some sort of criterion for determining what may constitute a right or a wrong answer it will help us even more. That is why I have chosen to stipulate the above criteria. I think that we need something to help us evaluate cinema as Christian intellectuals.

Now anytime a criterion is imposed to determine what is or is not x we run into an epistemic problem. This problem is called the problem of the criterion.

This problem is most elegantly postulated by Roderick Chisholm. The problem is essentially the very foundation of epistemology. At the very bottom of all epistemic thought are two questions.

Question 1: What do we know?
Questions 2: How do we know?

It is not clear from these two questions which one should be answered first. Because if we had the answer to the first question we could almost certainly answer the second question by examining the set of things we know to come up with what they have in common: namely what makes them knowable. But if we had the answer to the second question we could figure out the answer to the first question.

But if there is something wrong with our set of answers to question 1 how could we know it? We don't have a criteria yet to exclude the good pieces of knowledge from the bad.

But how do we know our criteria is effective in determining what knowledge is? We don't have any particulars to test it agaisnt.

If we begin the epistemic project by answering question 1 first then we are particularists. If we begin by answering question 2 then we are methodists (no affiliation to the protestant denomination thankfully).

Now then what should we be? Particularists or methodists? Well this is the conundrum. And like many things in philosophy...nobody really knows for sure (except God). When it comes to epistemology I am primarily a particularist. I think that the things we know are generally speaking quite obvious, at least the most important things. But we do need a method of evaluating. In the end we have to be methodists and particularists. Which one comes first? Well probably particularism. You have to start somewhere and chances are even if you tried to be a methodist first you would be harboring particularist notions that you were trying to find justification for anyway. But it is not a question to be shrugged off. And at this point I will be functionally shrugging it off. Now how this relates to our current endeavor is that we need to be able to figure out instances of great film. How do we do this? The two questions reformulated lay before us:

Question 1: What films are great?
Question 2: How do we evaluate a great film?

The method I have suggested above is both particularist and methodist. I have stipulated two criteria, pure cinema and the Christian aesthetic. The first criteria is based upon observing many many films. I eventually came to the conclusion that what all truly great movies have in common is that they rely on the very essence of film to tell their stories: the visual. But at the same time I am a Christian. And in order for something to be valuable it has to conform to the Christian aesthetic which is summed up in Philippians 4:8. It has to be something that God deems worthwhile for me to spend my time involved with. This conclusion is based upon many other reasons, mostly that I think Christianity is the way to God, some of which are basic and reasoned for as well.

I will continue to work out the Tao of Film soon.

Further Reading:

Here is an article dealing with Chisholm's formulation of the problem of the criterion:
C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man


  1. likes and dislikes of art do not actually attribute aesthetic value to that object. it is possible for something to be utterly repulsive to an individual and yet still have a definable aesthetic value. for instance, prior to my courses in the visual arts, i hated anything resembling modern art. i thought it was pointless, even believing that it stripped art of its meaning. but now that i understand many principles that i had not know of previously, i am beginning to actually like and enjoy many works of modern art. just because my opinion change didn't mean that the aesthetic value of these art pieces changed at all.

    all along these pieces contained definable aesthetic attributes - outstanding use of color, discordant textures, and others. these attributes are observable and knowable, and it doesn't matter whether i like the art or not. they still have those attributes which can be objectively measured.

    just because i don't like people doesn't mean they can't be counted.

  2. Hey Congratulations Michael! You are the first person to make a comment on my blog! Your prize is...Congratulations! Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to some of my thoughts.

    I think your comment is certainly in line with part of my project. At the very least you grant that our perspectives do not determine value. There is something instantiated by a piece of art that makes it good or bad.

    But have you considered that some of the "modern" art you speak of does not meet the Christian Aesthetic? Much current art is driven by Nihilism (also relativism and Existentialism). That doesn't make it automatically against the Christian Aesthetic (I will deal more with how it works out in my next post). But just because something has things about it which give it physical beauty (even if they are quantifiable) does not mean its content is worthwhile. And the content, the meaning behind the beauty, is what really fleshes out what is already obviously there making something more. Satan comes as an angel of light.

    Let me ask you a question. If The Godfather was simply about glorifying gangster culture do you think it would be worthwhile. Gordon Willis' cinematography would still be just as beautiful, Brando's performance just as stunning, the content just as groundbreaking. But in the end the movie is only telling you "it's cool to be a gangster." Would that qualify it for placement on my list?

  3. I agree that a movie is not great unless it conveys a message of enduring value and that the value needs to correspond with what God, our creator, deems valuable.

  4. And my wonderful Aunt happens to be the second person to comment on my blog. And all I have to say is thank you for agreeing with me. :)

  5. I would say a big part of the problem (which is really one of the roots of existentialism and nihilism, so I'm not really saying anything you haven't said) is the underlying belief in man's personal autonomy. If we get to define our own reality, and our reality is in large part determined by our feelings, then of course our feelings will end up defining what is good/bad, beautiful/ugly.

    What's sad is that our culture has so indoctrinated us that even Christians have a hard time accepting that beauty is something objective. On the one hand, it's motivated by good Christian theology. All human beings are created in the image of God and therefore all have value. So when we say that white people are not any more objectively beautiful than hispanic people, or that skinny people are not more objectively beautiful than fat people, it's true. But we jump to the wrong conclusion and assume that therefore objective beauty must not exist at all. But it seems like all you have to do (if you're a Christian) is ask the question, "Does God think x is beautiful?" If so, how can His opinion not be objective?? (Which means, of course, that in the end beauty really IS in the eye of the beholder, in one sense!)

    Will you be addressing the difference between objective beauty and personal taste? After all, I can recognize the artistic beauty of a film without personally enjoying it, and I don't think I NEED to personally like a film in order to admit that it posesses objective beauty. So how should the two relate?

  6. Hey David,
    Thanks for taking the time to comment. And you are right about "Does God think x is beautiful?" being the ultimate objective truth and concurrently the truth of beauty in the eye of the beholder. This is a deep issue because it will actually land us in a Euthyphro dilemma which I hope to deal with eventually.

    But to answer your question concerning the relationship of taste and beauty I think that the answer is complicated. Kant actually tries to address this issue as well. Taste technically defined in Kant is something like actual Taste, i.e. food. You cannot be wrong about a statement concerning your internal state of affairs. If something tastes terrible to you then it is in fact terrible to you.

    Some people hate Calvinism Prima Facie. I once heard a friend say, after he had Calvinism explained to him for the first time, "I hope God is not like that because then God would be evil." That is in fact a philosophical objection but my friend had no background in philosophy. Calvinism rubbed him wrong. Many people have I think legitimate issues with our common soteriology but not this particular friend of mine. We pushed him on it and he had no reasons accept that it just seemed wrong to him. It did not taste good to him.

    I feel the same way about Citizen Kane. I think this film is incredibly boring. But it pioneered so many film techniques, set a high standard, etc. It is a truly great film in many many ways. But I think in the end it is too sterile. I can't give you a reason. I can only give you a feeling. And that feeling is "I don't like this movie." Citizen Kane actually comports with both the Christian and the Pure Cinema aesthetics I have laid out very well.

    Now what does move this from the area of simply my taste to a better objection is that many people (who are not film critics) feel the same way. When we have a uniformity of opinion concerning something that is not entirely an academic question (unlike Calvinism) we need to take that very seriously. When it comes to art "love" becomes another kind of aesthetic. Which movies do we love? And I think this is what pushes Citizen Kane out of my top ten. there is little love for this film outside the world of the Roger Eberts. But it doesn't push it very far out of my top ten. My second ten greatest american films will include Welles' Magnum Opus.

    So taste and objective beauty relate, humbly. We cannot always see things clearly. That was one of the reasons why I watched The Dark Knight 8 times in the theaters. I wanted to make sure I wasn't just caught up. That there were reasons, that there was depth to my opinion.

    I recently watched The Searchers again (I movie which I previously hated) and found that it is indeed a masterpiece of Western film making. I hope that helps. Any other questions you have I will do my best to answer.