Composite image, works by Cameron Smith

Introduction (This post is only the intro. To read full text, Please register for free with Cameron Smith Academy of Painting and see menu tab, Aquinas and Beauty.)

Clarity, Integrity, and Composition

St. Thomas Aquinas identified three necessary conditions for objective beauty to be present in something. These conditions are: “integritas, claritas, and consonantia.” In English they’re Integrity, Clarity, and Composition. Others have used “Harmony” and “due proportion” in translating consonantia. “Composition,” standard in fine arts, encompasses their meaning. “Good” is obviously implied by Aquinas here, but the question of good composition is practically as big as the question of beauty itself. This is where my personal story comes in and why my interest in Aquinas’ aesthetics is great. I had read about the Three Conditions once upon a time, but not finding any substantive elaboration, had honestly forgotten them. This time it was a conversation with a priest-friend that rekindled my curiosity. I had just spent four years developing, teaching, and practicing in my own painting, a method of comprehensively dissecting composition. This was following a period of 18 years of professional art practice, the last half of which were primarily focussed on composition. Taking a second look at the Three Conditions, I immediately realized that Aquinas’ “consonantia" was my “composition.” I was hooked.

Aquinas believed that beauty is both objective and subjective. Objective beauty exists outside of the mind; it has sensory perceptible form. Subjective beauty, or taste, on the other hand, is “in the eye of the beholder.” Our experience, perception, and the development of our senses are influenced by countless factors. Aquinas’ conditions, which categorize actual physical characteristics, are built into the nature of human experience in the created world. It is inconceivable for people who function in the world to completely avoid using these three conditions as criteria for judgment, unless their senses be dead. The conditions are learned subconsciously, from the moment we open our eyes… and even before. It is, however, possible for a person’s sensibilities to be dull and their taste or appreciation underdeveloped. Children often do not like certain fine foods or have an ear for classical or jazz music; yet these acquired tastes are appreciated by connoisseurs. Senses can also be more dominant in some individuals. One might have an “ear for music” or “an eye for design.” While some senses can be more naturally attuned, their full development requires specialized effort and education. But Aquinas describes another critical factor: humility. Simply, a person must be detached enough from their own agenda to be capable of appreciating the world with a sense of gratitude and wonder. Prompting contemplation, these lead to what Aquinas calls dilatatio, the dilation of the mind. It is with this opening of the mind that one can not only see, but participate in the fullness of life itself - the fullness of truth, beauty, and goodness.

This essay approaches the Three Conditions primarily from a visual arts perspective. Additional examples are included for the sake of enriching understanding and aiding extrapolation. While the Conditions can be applied in any field, it is important to maintain recognition that they are attached to physical creation. They are sensory-perceptible. A goal of this essay is to present substantive content that is immediately applicable for the artist, designer, collector, and connoisseur. It leans more to art education than philosophy.

That said, beauty is so simultaneously rich and fundamental that these concepts can, by analogy, be applied to everything; and fully understanding them requires some sense of their larger reality. Tying into the broader conversation of theology and philosophy, briefly consider the intersection where the physical, mental, and spiritual connect. Writing about beauty and the three “transcendentals”, truth, beauty, and goodness, Hans Urs von Balthasar emphasizes the importance of their distinction (The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics)(read excerpt). When we refer to the “beauty” of something intangible, the human spirit for example, we speak figuratively, often meaning one of the other transcendentals - truth or goodness. They are fundamentally linked, but it is crucial to comprehend their difference and equality. Balthasar, referring to them as “three sisters” goes so far as to warn us that the disregard of beauty will lead to the loss of all three. Together the transcendentals make up the revelation of God to man. He’s revealed to each person as truth - in the mind or intellect; as beauty - through the senses and creation; and as goodness - in the spirit and through virtue. They are ultimately united as one in the beatific vision, God Himself. To summarize this from a human perspective, all value is encompassed in and perceived as truth, beauty, or goodness. There is no other value outside of these. Value that is mentally discernible = truth, sensory perceptible = beauty, and spiritually perceivable = goodness. As humans we can only understand and experience beauty in creation, the medium in which we exist. Creation, experienced through the senses, is thus the arena for this analysis.

Comparing Aquinas’ Three Conditions alongside the three transcendentals reveals interesting correlations, and there are other "trinities" that similarly relate. While not meant to draw definitive conclusions or constrain components, these comparisons highlight rich relationships not otherwise conspicuous. They also provide an overall snapshot of the subject at hand. Here I mention two as a starting point. First, the transcendentals (truth, beauty, goodness) correspond well to the human person trinity (mind, body, spirit); for it is with the mind that we apprehend truth, the bodily senses that we perceive beauty, and the spirit that we grasp goodness. Second, the human trinity (mind, body, spirit) can be compared with the Conditions of beauty (clarity, integrity, composition) Clarity is like the “mind” of a creative work, communicating its message and idea. Integrity is the “body”, referring to physical materials and their application. And Composition is the "spirit” of the work, dealing with formal relationships, order, harmony, and balance.

Another way to grasp Aquinas’ Conditions is as three lenses for viewing all that we see. The visual world is formally composed of the Five Static Visual Factors from which everything seen derives (color, shape, size, location, edge condition).** These Five Factors are the “alphabet” which combine to make a complete image vocabulary. Context attributes meaning to this vocabulary, allowing us to understand this language of color and shape. This basically sums up our visual experience. Now, about the three “lenses” - Clarity looks at the idea and meaning of the visual stimulus (“I see a door.”) Integrity deals with the actual substance and materials which reflect light, producing the visual impression (the physical door itself - the painted, hard, thing.) Lastly, composition deals exclusively with formal vocabulary (the door is not identified as a door, but as a “colored rectangular shape," for example).

This essay assumes the purpose of art, and vocation of artists, as Pope St. John Paul II stated, to be beauty. It is not my intent to make a case for beauty. That case has already been made by great minds throughout the ages. My hope is to develop the understanding and “language” of beauty, as it is more complex and more concrete than often credited. Fine art is an ideal field in which to do this as it exists solely* and entirely for beauty’s sake. This fact allows us to classify every aspect of an artwork using the three conditions of Aquinas, which also demonstrates the comprehensiveness of his trinity. All three conditions of beauty present themselves in obvious ways as well as subtle nuances. Nuances are often registered subconsciously. Humans have an amazing capacity to catalog millions of pieces of sensory data without thinking about them. There is a great difference between one’s conscious awareness and knowledge versus what one actually takes in through senses (much more). This is precisely why, when we are confronted by objective beauty, we can be inexplicably moved, often to tears. The combined effect of realizing all Three Conditions fully expressed is powerful. It resonates with our being. For artists, creators, and makers, the Conditions are an invaluable guide to approaching your best work.

“Beauty will save the world.” -Dostoevsky

Again, it’s imperative to view objective beauty from a purely objective and concrete standpoint. Anything else is self-contradiction. Aquinas only gives three conditions. I bring no additional and, in the spirit of Aquinas and the golden mean, avoid polarized debate. The terms “tradition, classical, modern, contemporary, continuity, historical, style, period, era, genre, etc” do not apply here. They are relative, subjective, or loaded. We start fresh with Aquinas and with what we can objectively observe and experience in the world and in fine art practice. The sole agenda is beauty. It’s important to recognize that “she” is complete. There is no sensory-perceptible value outside of her. This is a comprehensive system. Whatever other terms or concepts one might associate with beauty, if objectively valid, will flow organically from Aquinas’ conditions. (Read more)

* Beauty, as the Three Conditions describes, encompasses much more than generally realized. Aquinas presents both a high bar and a vast field. All this considered, art that appears too far removed from the Three Conditions to comprehend is most likely not made for the purpose of beauty. It’s not my aim to question legitimacy, but to equip those who wish to grow in their own ability to see, judge, and appreciate objective beauty.

** The Five Factors are the starting point for my instruction on composition. As “static” factors, they do not include movement/speed/time/direction, etc.