I have students in my co-op that will be graduating this year or will not be with me next year. This has caused me to focus on a few things I really want them to think about before they leave for a university. One of those things is beauty.
We have spent quite a bit of time establishing the objectivity of truth and goodness. And if truth and goodness are not subjective at their core, beauty cannot be either. These three cardinal virtues operate together. But yet we quote the fallacy “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” regularly. What we probably mean is “There is no accounting for taste”, but that just sounds like something my hillbilly grandad used to say.
Is beauty indeed in the eye of the beholder? It cannot be, for a number of reasons, as most of my students concluded. We listened to a student play Debussy’s Claire de Lune, often voted the most beautiful piece of music written. We looked at Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and analyzed it turned into pop art, the moon replaced by the “Bat Signal”.
We analyzed what music is made of – harmonies, chords, keys – essentially mathematical structure and subject to the laws of physics, particularly acoustics. And what about jazz, with its improvisation, that seems to bend the rules? This is found to reside within a key. When we try to play completely outside of a key signature it is generally considered unpleasant, or not beautiful. One student used the example of a child banging on a piano. Not beautiful; take my word for it, I hear it every day.
The same principles hold true for art. Visual art is geometrically structured. And color is subject to the science of light. If we considered mathematics subjective there could be no engineering, no stability to an economy, and no space exploration. If science fails to be objective, where are our disease cures, our motor vehicles, or our computers? No one argues that math and science are subjective, but we do not even realize how firmly we believe that music and art are.
Perhaps the paradox lies in our definition of beauty. Andrew Kern says, “If you are going to define beauty you have to believe it exists, which means that it is not merely ‘in the eye of the beholder’.” Is what we mistake for a subjective nature of beauty is merely taste in the arts?
Socrates tell us that the goal of education is to teach students to love what is beautiful. We know that tastes can and should be trained. Otherwise music and art and even film appreciation would not exist. After years of listening to Bach and Mozart my girls have a hard time tolerating some trendy pop music, dance music, or even, (dare I say it?) some popular praise and worship music. They are not snobs, but their tastes have been trained by hearing complexity and dynamics so that simple chords and nothing but loud feels silly and boring.
We quite literally train the tastes of our toddlers to enjoy the complex taste of vegetables instead of simpler taste of sugar. In his book Beauty for Truth’s Sake, (which I highly recommend) Stratford Caldecott states that “Beauty comes from meaningful inner order.” (14) Order in music and the arts makes beauty easily recognizable. And what about seeming chaos that we find beauty in? Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock, Igor Stravinsky and Lewis Carroll come to mind. But in each instance these masters of their craft knew the structures of their art so well that they could bend and manipulate them at will to create something original or expressive.
Does it matter how we feel about something beautiful then, if beauty is so objective? What we feel does matter. In fact, one of the universalities of beauty is that it evokes emotion in us. We can tell what emotion or feeling an artist is trying to evoke within us: poetry, music, dance, paintings, or drawings – they create a feeling that crosses cultures and time. We may not like what we feel sometimes, but we feel it. It has been stirred within us.
We all felt amused by the Starry Night/Batman pop art. Our souls soared in anticipation with the treble minor chords of Clair de Lune and resolved in peace on hearing the bass. We know the difference in the sound of a wedding celebration and a funeral lament in any culture. Though the Starry Night may make some feel melancholy and others feel wonder, we are all stirred by the feeling of that night sky. The way that the painting transported us to the very evening Van Gogh wished to show us is universal. Our variance in emotions were created by how we personally feel about the darkness of a windy, yet starry night.
A simpler example may be Picasso’s 1937 mural Guernica, which he exhibited in the Spanish Pavilion at the World’s Fair. It is meant to evoke in us the outrage that the artist felt at the atrocities of war. It is gory and depressing. To see whatever we wish to see in the painting is foolishness. It sends a clear message.
Stratford Caldecott points us to world renowned architect and author Christopher Alexander who designed and executed a empirical test on beauty. “In comparing two objects chosen at random, Alexander shows how different types of questions determine the level of our response to the objects. For example: 1. Which is the more attractive of these two objects? 2. Which do you like the best? Why do you like it? 3. Which gives you the most wholesome feeling? 4. Which of them better represents your whole self? 5. If you had a choice, which would you spend eternity with? 6. Which of them would you be happier to offer to God? Questions 4, 5, and 6 evoke a deeper response, and he finds that 90% of his students end up selecting the same object when asked these questions, where they will rarely do so if asked the first three questions.” Perhaps it is the shallow questions we ask that make us think beauty is subjective.
The nature of beauty matters because the why always matters. If beauty is subjective – if anything is subjective – it can be dismissed. Universality of beauty, or anything else, binds us to the rest of humanity. Beauty is in the very nature of God and our ability to find it, treasure it, prefer it, and create it makes us human. And human is that creature that is made in God’s image. The objectivity of beauty confirms our value as humans. Beauty gives hope. Without it we despair. We search for it, idolize it, even worship it. Even the memory of it brings us joy. Beauty is a gift from a loving Creator, a gift of His own divine nature.
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its lovliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkn’d ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits.
-John Keats (from Endymion)
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