Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Objectivity of Beauty Part 8 (Postmodernism)

Postmodernity refers to a time period (roughly the mid to late 20th century to the present day), whereas Postmodernism refers to a way of thinking characteristic during that time period.

Postmodernism is an umbrella term to describe a number of different orientations, sub-movements and ways of thinking characterized by a self-conscious reaction to Modernism. It is the ripening of trends set in motion by the romantics and existentialists, particularly as regards the rejection of objective truth.

Key Points of Postmodernism
Postmodernism normally includes the following key elements:

  • an appreciation of the plasticity and constant change of reality and knowledge
  • a stress on the priority of concrete experience over fixed abstract principles
  • a recognition that reality is fluid and unfolding rather than solid
  • a belief that all knowledge is subjectively determined
  • an emphasis that all human understanding is interpretation, and no interpretation is final
  • the stressing that if objective truth were possible (which it is not) it would be undesirable, since objective structures are used as a power tool to stifle suppress other people
  • the assertion that our language does not signify or point towards external truth, because truth does not exist
  • the idea that all readings of texts are misreading because there is no external ‘correct’ way to interpret a text or an artwork. As Derrida says “there is nothing outside the text.”
  • the rejection of all organizing principles, metanarratives, worldviews, totalizing discourses or anything else which gives continuity to the manifold particulars of human experience.
Rejection of Any Organizing Principle

The last point in the above summary is probably the most important for understanding the challenge that Postmodernism presents today, as well as the differences between Postmodernism and earlier reactions to Modernism (i.e. Romanticism and Existentialism)

Both Romanticism and Existentialism gave frameworks for conceptually organizing reality. For the romantic, reality was organized around the self and one’s emotions. For the existentialist, reality was organized around existence and the meaning each of us creates for ourselves by authentic action. For Postmodernism, however, there is no organizing principle at all. There is nothing that gives meaning to reality.
Postmodernism sees experience as fundamentally random, disorganized and ambiguous, while strongly resisting all influences that might threaten to bring order, continuity and explanation to bear on the particulars of our world.

This was brought out when C. Gregg Singer attended a meeting of prominent historians at the annual convention of the American Historical Association. All the scholars were agreed that history is devoid of meaning and purpose. When Singer asked why, there was no reply.

The Rejection of Metanarratives

In 1984, Jean-François Lyotard said "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodernism as incredulity towards metanarratives…" A metanarrative is an over-arching story or thought structure which lends meaning and context to the particulars of experience, normally group experience.

According to the postmodernist, metanarratives are bad because they are thought controlling. Postmodernists argue that metanarratives force human existence into a mould which stifles freedom. Furthermore, metanarratives, like totalising philosophical and political systems, allegedly deny the naturally existing ambiguity, disorder and opaqueness of human experience.

In many nations now, we are seeing these principles reflected in a deliberate attempt to discourage any sense of national identity and culture – to suppress anything which gives continuity to the culture as a whole.
Of course, this is paradoxical when we consider just how controlling and totalising postmodernism is becoming. Indeed, postmodernism is beginning to look suspiciously like the new metanarrative in which relativism is absolute.

My Story and Your Story

The Enlightenment placed the individual at the center of reality but failed to realize the full implications of this egocentrical orientation. However Postmodernism has carried the Enlightenment’s man-centred orientation to its fullest implications. For all practical purposes, the individual plays the part of God. This being the case, the only story that is worth any of us telling is my own story. Each of us must tell our own stories, not by showing how we fit into any larger scheme, but just to tell our story and leave it at that. Universal metanarratives are thus replaced with small local or individual narratives which emphasize the multiplicity of valid theoretical standpoints. All the big stories are broken up into billions of little stories with no relation to each other. Jean-Francois Lyotard, put this well when he wrote that we have moved “from the muffled majesty of grand narratives to the splintering autonomy of micronarratives.” (The Postmodern Condition)

In past ages people tended to see their own stories in reference to the larger stories, especially whatever story their worldview told about the earth. Postmodernism orients us to only see ourselves in reference to ourselves. Whenever you try to construct a larger story you are impinging on someone else’s reality.

Our own individual stories do not even require consistency of organization. As David Wells puts it:
“It means that people have nowhere to stand cognitively in the world, no way to get their bearings, that life’s experiences fall like pieces of confetti with no relationship to each other. Life is made up of a multitude of separate experiences that are without interconnections or meaning.” (Losing Our Virtue, p. 123)
Further Information about Postmodernism

Click here to download my timeline on Postmodernism.

Click here to read my article 'Literary Criticism and Postmodernism.'

Click here to read all my posts in this series on the objectivity of beauty. 

Read my columns at the Charles Colson Center

Read my writings at Alfred the Great Society

To join my mailing list, send a blank email to robin (at sign) with “Blog Me” in the subject heading. 

Click Here to friend-request me on Facebook and get news feeds every time new articles are added to this blog. 
Click Here to follow me on Twitter.

The Objectivity of Beauty Part 11 (Beauty and the Biblical Worldview)

We saw earlier that the perception of objective beauty could be obscured by various factors and conditions. The rejection of the Biblical worldview seems to be one of those factors. Before defending this statement, it is necessary to explain what I am not saying: I am not saying that you have to be a Christian in order to appreciate beauty. Neither am I saying that being a Christian automatically enhances one’s aesthetic sensibilities. But what I do want to suggest is that there is a broad link between our culture’s rejection of the Biblical worldview and our culture’s progressive rejection of beauty.

Many of the aesthetic norms which have characterized Western society have come as a direct result of the Christian worldview being deeply saturated in the fabric of our cultural ethos. Although the doctrine of the image of God as well as the doctrine of God’s common grace mean that unbelievers are capable of producing artifacts which truly reflect Divine beauty, over long periods of time non-Christian cultures generally tend towards ugliness. They tend towards the ugliness that comes as a corollary of the relativism necessitated by the rejection of any final standard of truth.

Another reason that non-Christian cultures degenerate toward ugliness is because a world without God is an ugly and frightening place. Indeed, if there is no God, then beauty is but a transitory parenthesis in a world in which the ugliness of chance, chaos and death have the final say over all of us. Just as medieval cathedrals, with their spires pointing to the heavens, were the appropriate artistic outworking of the Trinitarian metaphysic, so nihilistic art, with its hopelessness and celebration for the ugly is a consistent outworking of a world without God.[1]

Conversely, over long periods of time Christian cultures tend to increase in beauty. That is what happened in the Christian West, which gave rise to the symphony, polyphonic harmony, perspective in painting and many other developments that have enriched our world, to say nothing of specific creative geniuses from Bach to Michelangelo, from Shakespeare to Beethoven. Some of these artistic geniuses were not believers, but they lived, worked and breathed in a civilization that was built (albeit imperfectly) on the Christian worldview. Whether or not every great composer, artist or poet explicitly acknowledged that worldview, they worked on the basis of presuppositional aesthetic norms which arose out of the West’s Christian orientation. Long after our society threw off this heritage, these norms have continued to operate like a lizard’s tail which twitches even after it has been severed from the body. But a severed lizard’s tail will not twitch forever.

What is happening in our society today, and has been happening very gradually for some time now, is that our art and our ideas about aesthetics are finally catching up with the collective worldview. As the nihilism birthed by both modernism and postmodernism has begun to seep into the very air that we breath, beauty has become one of the chief casualties. The result is that our world has become a very ugly place.

This is good news for Christians, since it presents us with an enormous opportunity. In the midst of the shallow ugliness that relativism has birthed in our society, the church of today has the marvelous opportunity to corporately witness to the beauty of God’s holiness.

This means that we should be people of beauty just as we pray to be people of goodness, truth and righteousness. To a world that is slipping into ever-deeper degrees of ugliness, a rediscovery of Biblical aesthetics is necessarily at the heart of our spiritual warfare and evangelism. For too long the Church has evangelized with Gnostic aspirations, thinking we must appeal simply to the spirit or the mind instead of seducing the whole person with the loveliness of Christ’s Kingdom, confirming Nietzsche’s complaint that modern Christianity is anemic, opposed to life rather than an affirmation of it. Believing that God is only interested in disembodied souls, we have retreated from a central aspect of the good news.

Conquering Death

The Gospel is the message that Jesus Christ has saved the world from death. One way that we can show this is by letting the Gospel confront whatever aspects of the death-principle are most prevalent in our age. Since our age manifests the death-principle in, among other things, excessive degrees of ugliness, it follows that the articulation of beauty – in word, deed, music, drama, worship, dance and all the arts – is not an optional extra for the church but ought to be a central feature in our annunciation of Christ’s Lordship. Through our artifacts, lives, homes, churches and all our other Kingdom-building endeavors, we can and should constantly be announcing the beauty of the God we worship. Our prayer should be that of Psalm. 90:17: “And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.”

This project is only possible with a clear understanding of the objectivity of beauty. If we subscribe to the notion that beauty merely exists in the eye of the beholder, our witness as Christians will be severely diminished.

[1] This is a point which Thomas Howard makes in his book Chance or the Dance? A Critique of Modern Secularism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1969), particularly chapter 6.

To join my mailing list, send a blank email to phillips7440 (at sign) with “Blog Me” in the subject heading.

The Objectivity of Beauty Part 10 (Postmodernism and the Pursuit of Ugliness)

We have already seen that a hallmark of Postmodernism is the idea that every person creates his or her own frame of reference. This is known as relativism because truth and values become relative to the observer. What is true for you may not necessarily be true for me.

One of the ways that relativism has outworked itself in Postmodern art is in the demise of content. No longer is the meaning of a work governed by the content; rather, the viewer is free to create his own meaning for an artwork.

Though there has always been a sense in which great works invoke a response that is personal and unique, it has only been comparatively recently that viewers are encouraged to exercise complete autonomy in how they respond to works. Julian Spalding tells how, in recent times, many artists “came to see the very concept of a work of art as a form of dictatorship” and attempted to make “art to be more of a give and take between the artist and the viewer.”[1]

In practice, this has resulted in artists making the content of their works intentionally opaque. Oldenburg’s Placid Civic Monument is a prime example. Oldenburg’s “Monument” consisted of a hole the artist had dug in the ground of New York’s Central Park behind the Metropolitan Museum, and then filled back in again. “Oldenburg tells us that the thing includes all that is related to the event of digging and filing the hole, but did not happen at the spot of the event, such as the deliberations of the Park Board. The whole park and its connections are supposed to enter into it and he also tells us that it is open to any interesting interpretation.” [2]

The idea that an artwork can be “open to any interesting interpretation” is a reflection of the relativism that is axiomatic to Postmodernism. Postmodern art has transcended the crude fixity of objective content by liberating the viewer to create his or her own meaning. Tilghman complained about this when he reminded us that

Not just any description or interpretation can be true of, or relevant to, a work of art, or anything else, for that matter. The subject of any interpretation is the subject of no interpretation. The object of this kind of critical generosity has no value; anything whatsoever would do just as well.

Rejecting Aesthetics

An artist who has truly bought into the assumptions of Postmodernism does not merely attempt to redefine the categories constituting art. Postmodernism has never been interested in simply reconfiguring categories: it is interested in eradicating those categories and distinctions. Just as the categories we employ to discern objective truth (reason, investigation, supernatural revelation, etc.) are oppressive, so the aesthetic categories we use to evaluate artworks are stifling and oppressive. One of the forerunners of postmodern art, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), described a problem he faced when working with his “Readymades” (ordinary objects, such as his famous urinal, that were taken and displayed as art). Speaking of his work, Duchamp wrote,

I had to be careful to avoid the “look” [of being art]. It’s very difficult to choose an object, because after two weeks you either love it or hate it. You have to become so indifferent that you have no aesthetic feeling. The choice of Readymades is always founded on visual indifference and a total lack of good or bad taste.”

Duchamp is not alone in his quest – indeed, his struggle – for aesthetic indifference. The artist Josef Albers said, “I want my art to be as neutral as possible.”[5] The art critic Monroe Beardsley noted, with displeasure, the way in which “The disconnection of art from the aesthetic has been hailed as the most significant development in contemporary visual art, as a final freeing of the artist from all obligation.”[6] Joseph Kossuth argued that “It is necessary to separate aesthetics from art because aesthetics deal with opinions on perception of the world in general.”[7]

Denying the Illusion of Beauty

The twentieth century witnessed the creation of a corpus of works designed specifically to show that beauty, if it exists at all, is completely relative to the framework of the perceiver. Some art galleries intentionally juxtapose work from the great artists of the Western tradition with nihilistic art, the message being obvious: there is no essential difference between the two. As one artist was quoted as saying, “You complain that my art is just bricks. Well, painting is just paint.” Since beauty never did have any objective meaning, according to this viewpoint, it is possible for contemporary artists to claim the great works of the past as their pedigree. There is no essential difference between the works of Raphael and the works of Francis Bacon. The only difference is the relative conceptual categories externally imposed by the viewer.

It should be no suprise that as our society has progressively accepted the idea that beauty is completely subjective that we should also have produced some of the most repulsive, anti-beautiful art this planet has ever witnessed. Anecdotal evidences for the self-conscious pursuit of hideousness in art are legion and hardly need be adduced here. We only have to reflect on the Chapman brothers – that notorious duo who are rich enough to buy paintings of great masters and decadent enough to deface and then exhibit what is left of the work. Granted that the Chapman brothers are extreme and, in some respects, non-representative, yet the conceptual framework underpinning their pursuits is typical. That conceptual framework is not the idea that people have grown tired of beauty and desire ugliness instead. Rather, it is that the very concept of beauty is itself void of objective content. This is the same reason why Theodor Adorno praised Schoenberg’s music. “All of its beauty,” wrote Adorno, “is in denying itself the illusion of beauty. . . .”[8]

A contemporary artist once told me that the new orthodoxy is to teach people to draw badly well. I am not quite sure if I understand how someone can “draw badly well” any more than I understand Adorno’s contention that a thing’s beauty can be its denial of beauty. Nevertheless, what is perfectly understandable is that in the world of postmodern relativism, contemporary artists are embarrassed, even ashamed, at the idea of beauty. I am told by people who have attended art schools that beauty has actually become somewhat of a dirty word.[9]

It may seem that the common man represents a last refuge against total artistic decadence. These are the people who still fail to see the point of animal sculptures crafted from carpet fluff, nor can they even begin to fathom why The Tate would want to spend £22,300 on one of Manzoni’s 90 tins of his own excrement. Yet still, the “man on the street” usually subscribes to the mindset that has legitimized such work, namely that beauty is relative. All you have to do is observe the common reactions if you chance to remark that the music someone prefers is ugly. Nine times out of ten, the person will not openly disagree, but will instead question the meaningfulness of your evaluation. Because taste in music and the other arts is seen as being on the same level as taste in say, food, anyone who makes a value judgment is vulnerable to the charge of arrogance or of “trying to force your opinion on others.”

[1] Julian Spalding, ibid, p. 38.
[2] B. R. Tilghman, “But is it Art?” in Art: Context & Value (Milton Keynes: The Open University), p. 248. See also Barbara Haskell, Claes Olfenburg: Object into Monument (Pasadena: Pasadena Art Museum, 1971), p. 62.
[3] Tilghman, ibid, p. 248.
[4] Cited in Pierre Cabanne, The Brothers Duchamp (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1976), p. 141.
[5] Julian Spalding, The Eclipse of Art: Tackling the Crisis in Art Today (Prestel, 2003), p. 49.
[6] Monroe Beardsley, “Redefining Art” in Theories of Art & Beauty (Milton Keynes, The Open University, 1991), p. 56.
[7] Joseph Kossuth, “Art after Philosophy”, Studio International 178 (Nov. 1969), p. 134.
[8] Adorno, Philosophy of modern music, (London: Sheed and Ward) 1973, p. 133.
[9] Among critics and philosophers of art, the term beauty has also tended to disappear, but for different reasons. See Mary Mothersill, Beauty Restored (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), pp. 257-258. Mothersill argues that though the term “beautiful” does not figure prominently in the shop talk of art criticism, just as the term “legality” is probably rare in the shoptalk of lawyers; nevertheless “when a point about a poem or a musical performance is made, the concept of beauty is in the background.” Beauty is “like knowledge or action, a 'standing' concept, that it is taken for granted in critical discussion of the arts, and that it is indispensable.” (Mothersill, op. cit., p. 257 & 247) As these comments suggest, most professional philosophers of art and art critics have not accepted the total subjectivity of beauty. Though such professionals do not tend to speak in terms of beauty, but prefer the wider range of categories available under our rich vocabulary for aesthetic judgments, art critics have held some ground against total subjectivism. (See Ian Ground’s Art or Bunk?, London: Bristol Classical Press, 1989) Nor is this surprising, for it is hard to see how critics could continue to have anything meaningful to write about if they did come to accept that everything is just a matter of personal taste.

The Objectivity of Beauty Part 9 (Postmodernism & Art)

“The disconnection of art from the aesthetic has been hailed as the most significant development in contemporary visual art, as a final freeing of the artist from all obligation.” ---Monroe Beardsley

The Collage

There are many examples of postmodern art, but perhaps the best is the collage. With its scope for bringing together disconnected images, the collage has become a powerful symbol of the disjointed worldview at the heart of Postmodernism.

In postmodern collages, the random juxtaposition of unrelated images is emphasized. There is no over-arching continuity and no larger themes that help the artwork make sense because it doesn’t need to make sense. “Let things just be ambiguous,” the postmodernist artist says, “or you are forcing your own categories onto something and that is being oppressive.”

Peddling in the Past

Postmodernism is a peddler in various genres of the past. However, it draws on historic genres, not as a way to understand or appreciate other traditions, but in order to debunk them in the same way that it self-consciously debunks itself. Howard Fox puts it like this:

“At root Post-Modern art is neither exclusionary nor reductive but synthetic, freely enlisting the full range of conditions, experiences, and knowledge beyond the object. Far from seeking a single and complete experience, the Post-Modern object strives toward an encyclopaedic condition, allow a myriad of access points, an infinitude of interpretive responses.” (Howard Fox, “Avant-Garde in the Eighties,” in The Post Avant-Garde: Painting in the Eighties, ed. Charles Jencks (London: Academy Editions, 1987), pp. 29-30.

Postmodern art relishes in anachronism. I saw a vivid example of this when I visited the Tate gallery in London. There was no organization to how paintings were displayed on the walls, with the consequence that Pre-Raphaelite work was randomly mixed up with modern and Postmodern artifacts. This was not an accident since a central plank of Postmodernism has been to wave a hand at all of history and say, “there’s really no difference between what they were doing then and what we are doing now. There is no essential difference between a Michelangelo sculpture and a pile of bricks.”

Schizoid Art

Postmodern art is eclectic, fluid, elastic, pastiche, disjointed and anachronistic. It spurns the differences between various genres as it does the distinctions between fine art and mechanical art or between high art and low art. All distinctions are deconstructed with the same vigor that narrative structures are denied. The result is a kind of artistic schizophrenia, where radically different and even contradictory categories can be meshed together with no cohesion or meaning. As Terry Eagleton writes:

"There is, perhaps, a degree of consensus that the typical postmodernist artifact is playful, self-ionizing and even schizoid; and that it reacts to the austere autonomy of high modernism by impudently embracing the language of commence and the commodity. Its stance towards cultural tradition is one of irreverent pastiche, and its contrived depthlessness undermines all metaphysical solemnities, sometimes by a brutal aesthetic of squalor and shock."

The Deconstruction of Art

We have already seen that Postmodernism rejects overarching stories in favor of random disconnected stories. “Stories” in this sense can include any and all categories which give continuity or meaning to particulars. In Postmodern art this plays out in the rejection of all external norms of the craft, all external ideas of what it means to be an artist, all external ideas of what it means for an artifact to be beautiful or even to be art.


The Postmodern artist has striven to show that the very concept of art is relative and void of any objective meaning.

In 1972, when Carl Andre was paid £30,000 to exhibit Equivalent VIII in the Tate gallery, there was a public outcry. The outcry was not because people considered Equivalent VIII to be bad art; rather, the outcry was that anyone could consider a rectangular collection of unworked fire bricks to be ‘art’ in the first place.

That was in 1972 when Postmodernism was in its infancy. Now, however, we have grown so used to such novelties that they cease to be novel. If a rectangular collection of unworked fire bricks can pass as art, and can even have thousands of pages devoted to it in professional journals, is there anything that definitely is not art? It would seem not, for even a night’s sleep can become a work of art, as when the art celebrity Andy Warhol took a video of an actor sleeping and then showed it to audiences. The film lasts eight hours. We are told that this is an example of ‘performance art.’
Similarly, the repertoire of musical arts now include many works in which the division between music and noise becomes a fine and often indistinguishable line. I had the fortune, or rather the misfortune, to once attend a performance in which the score called for various objects to be thrown on the floor. The same composer (John Cage) also wrote a piece titled 433 which consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. The pianists sits in front of a piano with the lid closed.

Even artists themselves are sometimes unable to identify art unless they are told, for I understand that one artist had to be banned from a gallery because he ate Robert Gober’s latest creation – a bag of doughnuts on a pedestal.
The artist Walter de Maria has gone through much effort to ensure that no one will ever mistake his High Energy Bar for just an ordinary stainless-steel bar. He initiated a licensing procedure in which he gave the steel bar a certificate bearing the name of the work and stating that the bar is a work of art. There is, however, an interesting twist since the certificate states that the bar is a work of art only when the certificate is present with it. Take away the certificate for five minutes and apparently the bar reverts back to just an ordinary bar (and, therefore, dropping in its monetary value) until the certificate is brought back.

It is easy to laugh off such art as absurd. That would be a mistake. Art like this is a serious application of the postmodern project of deconstructing all labels, categories and stories. Postmodern art, like postmodern philosophy, is self-reflexive, turning in on itself and showing that it is just as meaningless as everything else. Just as Postmodern semantic theorists argued that one cannot get beyond the sequence of verbal signs to anything that stands outside of, and independent of, the language system that constitutes a text, so postmodern art preaches that there is nothing external to an artwork for it to point towards, whether rationality, value, beauty or any aesthetic category.
Despite their attempts to get beyond story-telling, all the above examples tell a common story. The ideology of Postmodernism runs through all of these examples as a grand narrative.
To join my mailing list, send a blank email to phillips7440 (at sign) with “Blog Me” in the subject heading.

The Objectivity of Beauty Part 7 (from Romanticism to Existentialism)

A feature of Romanticism is searching, without necessarily even knowing what you are searching for. The music of the period reflects this search. Robert Schumann’s piece Why? is a typical example. The piece sounds as if it is coming from nowhere and going nowhere, but it has some beautiful questions to ask along the way.

Romantic art was very beautiful and, in certain genres, represented the Golden Age for Western creativity. Yet it was short lived. When you have beauty that comes from nowhere and is going nowhere, it eventually grows stagnant and evaporates.

In looking to man’s inner resources for inspiration without being rooted in an objective worldview, Romanticism did not have the power to sustain itself. Since the self was made the final centre of meaning, it didn’t take long until all meaning warped into a subjective relativism. Consistent with the implications of both the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement, philosophers began suggesting that there is no meaning outside ourselves. Instead, we create our own meaning.

The implications of this relativism began to be seen in art from the Impressionist Period (late 19th century, overlapping with late Romanticism). There is a dreamlike, ethereal, even unreal quality to Impressionist paintings. Reality does not seem quite so real. Listening to the Impressionist music of Claude Debussy, we never quite know where we have come from or where we are going – we simply drift along in an ethereal world of musical shapes and colours.

As time progressed, artists extrapolated these ideas to the inevitable point of dispensing completely with external reality. When the self is made the centre of reality, all meaning becomes subjective. We see this subjectivity increasing in art is it travelled the path through Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Formalism, Abstract Expressionism. In all these movements one can sense artists both holding back and reaching forwards to the inevitable corollary of complete relativism and irrationality. Step by step, the objective fixities of the world become subsumed in the confused and relative world of the artist’s psyche.


The Romantic movement agreed with the Enlightenment on the importance of truth and meaning. The two movements simply disagreed on where truth and meaning were to be found. Whereas the Enlightenment said that meaning and truth were found objectively in external science and reason, the Romantic movement said that meaning and truth were found subjectively in the human emotion.

The movement of Existentialism in the later half of the 19th century, challenged the assumption that meaning and truth exist at all.

Existentialism was more consistent than the Enlightenment with the implications of a materialistic worldview by emphasizing that

· There is no inherent meaning or significance in life.

· The external realm is absurd.

· Because the external world is void of purpose, each person has to create his or her own meaning through choices.

· Moral values are also created by our existential choice.

· The meaning that I create for myself might not be the same as the meaning that you create for yourself. Each person has to discover his or her own personal truth.

· Essence does not precede existence; rather, existence precedes essence. This means that there are no meaningful conceptual categories independent of our existence. By existing and acting, we bring meaning to our world.

Secular existentialism, in the tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), stressed “the death of God”, whereas Christian existentialism, in the tradition of Søren Kierkegaard (1813 –1855), stressed the “wholly otherness” of God and the “leap of faith” concept. Secular and religious existentialism both emphasized experience over reason and both emphasized concrete existence over abstract analysis.

The Objectivity of Beauty Part 6 (From Modernism to Romanticism)

It is now time to slightly change directions and consider various philosophies that have arisen during the last three hundred years and how those philosophies weigh in to the question of beauty’s objectivity. In this post we will be considering this in relation to Modernism and Romanticism.


We use the adjective “modern” all the time. “That is a very modern hair style.” “The modern world is so fast-paced.” “She only likes to listen to modern music.”

When the word is turned into a noun (“modernism”), however, it takes on a more specialized meaning. One of these meanings refers to the ideology of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a movement in European history that occurred broadly in the 18th century. It stressed such things as rationalism, belief in absolutes, optimism about human progress, and the possibility that human beings could arrive at certain knowledge through the exercise of their intellect.

The Enlightenment’s stress on efficiency led to industrialization socially and utilitarianism ethically.

The art of the Enlightenment is categorized as the “Classical Period.” The Enlightenment had given an ordered and structured vision of the world, embodied in the classical poise of Mozart and Haydn’s music, which falls neatly into evenly balanced four and eight bar phrases. Music became much more simplified from what it had been during the Baroque period (roughly 1600 to 1750).

Modernism and Beauty

Because of their strong rationalism, Enlightenment philosophers tended to also have a strong belief in absolutes. This was especially true in the area of beauty.

In the wake of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment was highly conscious of its Greek and Roman heritage. The influence of classical culture gave 18th century thinkers a yardstick with which to measure their own achievements in many areas, not least in the arts. It was part of the culture and training of 18th century intellectuals to be aware of the difference between ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’ and to prefer the former. No one wanted to say that beauty was relative.

Two good texts which show the Enlightenment’s commitment to aesthetic objectivity are David Hume’s essay ‘On the Standard of Taste’ (first published in 1757) and Edmund Burke’s book Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (first published in 1757). Both of these are available off the internet.


The Romantic Period (roughly 1820-1900) was a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment.

While the art of the Classical Period had been based on reason, order and rules, art during the Romantic Period emphasized emotion, adventure and imagination. This paradigm shift began to be evident as early as the late 18th century, in areas such as painting, architecture, and landscape gardening. In these genres we see that ‘nature’ began to be associated with disorder, asymmetry and flux instead of stability, order and symmetry.

While the Enlightenment had emphasized the importance of discovering external truth through the intellect, the Romantic period emphasized the exploration of one’s internal emotions.

While the Enlightenment had emphasized man’s ability to find meaning through our perceptions of the ordered external world, Romanticism emphasized man’s ability to find meaning through our perceptions of the unpredictable, internal world of the self.

Where the Enlightenment had emphasised rationalism, the Romantics emphasised subjective feelings as the key to self-fulfilment. In contrast to the Enlightenment’s suspicion of mystery and the spiritual dimension, the Romantic movement championed these things within a neo-pagan or Deist context.

Some Romantics, such as the Pre-Raphaelite painters, sought a solution by returning to a romanticized medievalism. To them, this represented an antidote to the dehumanising influences of the growing industrialism which had left people out of touch with their true selves. In other Romantics, such as Blake and Rossetti, we find a strong spirit of anti-establishment together with a sense of unease at the dehumanising aspects of the machine-age.

Beethoven (1770-1827) and Schubert’s (1797-1828) music are considered to be transitional between the Classical and Romantic periods. Other Romantic composers were Berlioz (1803-1869), Chopin (1810-1849), Schumann (1910-1856), Liszt (1811-1886), Wagner (1813-1883), Brahms (1833-1897), Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Dvořák (1841-1904). Although much of the music during this period was written to glorify man, there was also much music that was written to the glory of God, such as Dvorak’s music. Although it is important to understand the man-centred nature of much Romantic music, this should not stop us from recognising and enjoying the beauty of this music.

Romantic composers began to draw from the reservoir of man’s ever changing, unpredictable emotions. Composers such as Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, among others, experimented with bolder harmonies and unexpected modulations which disrupted the stable tonal framework that had characterized music of the Classical Period.

Musical harmonies, like the colours on the artist’s canvas, begin to reflect the emotionally turbulent and unpredictable world of the self. Even though the music of the Baroque Period had conveyed a lot of emotion, it did not contain emotionalism, which focuses our attention inward and glorifies emotion as an end in itself.

During the Romantic period, there was a new appreciation of the artist as an individual. Also there began to emerge the idea of the artist as a guru – somebody set apart from ordinary people who had a special ‘calling’ to express themselves creatively. Romantic art thus began to emphasise things like the artist’s attempt at self-expression and his quest for a personal vision and self-fulfilment.

Summary of Romanticism

Some key features of Romanticism were:

a secular reaction to the rationalism and scientificism of the Enlightenment

belief that the modern world, as epitomised by the Enlightenment, had left people out of touch with nature and with their feelings

fresh assertion of the self

releasing our basic instincts, emotions and impulses to find true expression

rebelling against convention and institutions

a nostalgic longing for primitive cultures. The idea of the ‘noble savage’ evoked a supposed age of innocence prior to the sophistication of modern society, where man could live in unity with nature and himself

Emphasis on asymmetry, flux and even disorder over and against the Enlightenment premium on symmetry, stability and order.

To join my mailing list, send a blank email to phillips7440 (at sign) with “Blog Me” in the subject heading.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Objectivity of Beauty Part 5

Beauty Obscured

Because human beings are made in the image of the Trinitarian God, every person has an imperfect yet genuine awareness of the difference between beauty and ugliness, just as every person has a genuine but imperfect awareness that there is a difference between right and wrong. That awareness is innate to us as images of God; however, because we are fallen, that awareness is imperfect and subject to distortion and corruption. Because of this, and also because of the Creator/creature distinction, it is a fact of life that what one person perceives as beautiful another person may not.

This does not mean that beauty is relative, for even apart from what we have already seen, we do not normally consider that disagreement about perception, even when widespread, means that everything is simply a matter of personal opinion. For example, suppose I give each of my dinner companions two glasses of wine, each from a different vintage. I ask each guest to guess which wine is from which vintage. Suppose further that there is widespread disagreement amongst my guests – they argue and argue but cannot reach a consensus as to which wine is which. Now such disagreement does not mean that the case ceases to have any objective bearing. Even if none of the guests is able to make the correct perceptual discriminations, there is still a correct answer.

Similarly, it is not sufficient to use the fact that there is widespread disagreement on aesthetic matters to undermine the objectivity of beauty. If a thing is truly beautiful, that is as solid a fact as the fact that the world is round. Just as the world would still be round even if no one recognized that it was (and even if everyone erroneously believed in a flat earth), so a beautiful sunset is still beautiful even when there is no one see and affirm the beauty. This is because God - the Ultimate Source of all beauty – sees the sunset He has created and knows it is beautiful.

Beauty and Nurture

Just as our color vision is brought to life by experience, likewise our beauty vision is brought alive through experience. Just as someone who was raised in a colorless room would never know the difference between blue and pink, so someone raised in an environment with little or no beauty will never have the chance to cultivate an appreciation and love for what is beautiful.

Or we might compare it to taste in food: a girl who has grown up all her life eating food from McDonald’s will not readily distinguish and enjoy the differences of various herbs or discriminate between the subtle flavors inherent in different varieties of oranges. A teenager who has heard nothing but the Christian rock group, DC Talk, since he was 12, will require training and nurture before he can distinguish and enjoy the difference between Bach and Handel or between Mozart and Haydn.

To say God has implanted us with an innate sense of beauty does not mean that it works automatically. Just as one’s sense of taste needs to be nurtured before it can function properly, so the sense of beauty also needs careful nurturing.

The same principle governs our innate sense of right and wrong. Scripture tells us what happens when an individual, or even a whole culture group, constantly denies the inclinations of the conscience by despising God’s laws: the conscience ceases to function, or at least ceases to function very well (Romans 1:28; 1 Tim. 4:2). The sense of beauty can also cease to operate correctly when our minds are constantly bombarded with trash, ugliness and decadence.

The uglifying influences of our society often have the effect of desensitizing our beauty-vision. The way to guard against that is to nurture our children to appreciate beauty. This is done, not by saying “this or that is beautiful and ought to be enjoyed.” Rather, the way to cultivate a love of beauty is to saturate a child’s environment with truly beautiful things, whether it be good literature, music, art, etc., at the same time as excluding what is ugly, banal and of poor quality. Regular exposure to beauty in this way can work to awaken the child’s God-given inner sense.

This same point can be expressed philosophically by saying that knowledge which is a priori (innate) and knowledge which is a postoriori (derived from experience) go hand in hand. The one cannot exist without the other, for without a priori awareness, experience would be unintelligible, and without experience, what is innate could never be awakened. God made the two to work together.

But suppose someone has not been raised to appreciate beauty? Suppose they are beauty-blind, as some people are color blind – can anything be done to help such a person?

Yes, and in the next section I’d like to explore how.

Aesthetic Growth

If someone does not see that there is a traffic light ahead, what do we do? We direct their gaze in its direction. The person may still not see the traffic light because of having an impediment to their vision. Some impediments to vision are correctable – for example by wearing glasses – while other impediment, such as blindness, may not be correctable.

Similarly with beauty. If someone does not appreciate that a thing is beautiful, we have to direct their gaze in the right direction. They still may not be able to see the beauty if there are various factors inhibiting their beauty-vision. Such impediments might include ignorance, prejudice, inexperience, shallowness, stubbornness, haste, and so forth. Clearing these impediments away is usually a non-aesthetic process and therefore need not occupy us hear. Suffice to say that after these correctable impediments have been dealt with, then assuming there is no uncorrectable impediment present (such as madness), it becomes possible to awaken a person’s beauty-vision.

But how do we awake a person’s beauty-vision? How do we direct someone’s gaze in the right direction? One way is by getting the individual to see or hear beautiful artworks in a new way. You could start by getting the person to notice factual things about the work, such as that the movement begins in C major but then modulates to G, or that the figures in the top left corner of the painting mirror activity that is happening in the bottom right, or that the cello is echoing the violin, or that in those days brass had royal associations (“and therefore you can just imagine the king marching by when you hear the trumpet, can’t you?”).

Other facts might be information about the background of the work, the artistic context, how the work conformed (or did not) to the dominant conventions of the day, the intention of the artist, and so on. For me personally, the knowledge that the brass in Mozart’s Magic Flute was intended to give a royal sound, or that in Bach and Handel’s day the oboe and flute were reminiscent of the rustic bagpipe and shepherd’s pipe, greatly informs and enhances my aesthetic response. Facts like this can help someone to view an artwork from the inside, so to speak, like learning to speak a new language.

These sorts of factual observations about an artwork I will call Level 1 observations. After we have helped a person to understand facts about the artwork (Level 1), we can begin to show how aesthetic properties flow out of these factual observations. Aesthetic properties are characteristics such as elegance, poise, gracefulness, heaviness, drama, clumsiness, glibness, humor, smoothness, etc. To enjoy or to blame an artwork, a person must be able to perceive these types of qualities. If a person does not perceive these or other aesthetic features, it may be necessary to demonstrate how such qualities arise out of Level 1 factual observations. For example, “the lines make this painting graceful,” “the shift of key creates a tension,” “the rhyming pattern is witty,” “the color scheme is somber,” “the way she entered the stage was graceful”, etc. In each of these examples, an aesthetic judgment (represented by the words in italics) arise out of the non-aesthetic factual features (Level 1). These aesthetic judgments form what I am calling Level 2 observations.

The next stage is Level 3. After first pointing out factual features about the artwork (Level 1) and then the aesthetic properties which arise from those features (Level 2), we need to help the person make an overall verdict of praise or blame. This is where our category of beauty comes into play. Beauty is one of many positive verdicts which arise from a work’s aesthetic features, and therefore much of what I have written about beauty could equally apply to other positive verdict predicates. Verdicts might include statements like “that poem is worthless,” “that sculpture is magnificent,” “his opera is simply glorious.” Our choice of an appropriate verdict-adjective will often depend on what type of aesthetic properties the assessment is based upon, not least because many verdict-adjectives overlap with certain aesthetic properties. For example, “majestically glorious” describes something different than “stunningly beautiful,” although glorious and beautiful are both descriptions connoting positive overall judgments. These overall judgments (Level 3) proceed out of the aesthetic properties (Level 2) which, in turn, proceed out of the factual features (Level 1) inherent in a work.

Sometimes the whole process works the other way around: after pronouncing an overall verdict, we go back and support it by looking at Levels 1 and 2. A good critic may help us to see, hear or feel aesthetic features of the work and only afterwards go back to show how the non-aesthetic properties contribute to the effect. They can show us how the valuable features of a work depend on the fine details of the texture; how, for example, this word, or that color patch, or that chord is essential to the overall effect. It is the task of the critic, like the poet, teacher or writer, to help us to see things in a different way, to bring alive the beauty that was present all along but that somehow we missed.

After taking a person through the above procedures, he may still “just not get it,” or there may still be significant aesthetic disagreement. Even when that is the case, however, it is likely that a person taught with the above method will be in a position to appreciate that which he might still refrain from praising, or praise that which he might still refrain from enjoying. Furthermore, being educated about an artwork allows one to make an informed statement of why he does not like something or where he thinks the critics has gone wrong, and then to intelligently compare and contrast it with other examples from the same genre that he would prefer.

All this runs directly counter to a popular idea I have encountered on numerous occasions, that either you like something or you do not, with the attendant assumption that our tastes are fixed, like the colors of our eyes. However, just as we may grow in wisdom, so we may (and as Christians, should) grow in our aesthetic sensibilities. Just as we can and should aspire to grow in our appreciation for what is good and true, we can and should aspire to grow in our appreciation for what is beautiful.

To join my mailing list, send a blank email to phillips7440 (at sign) with “Blog Me” in the subject heading.

The Objectivity of Beauty Part 4

Measuring Beauty

We have seen in the previous post that the objectivity of beauty can be inferred from Biblical teaching. But this is something very different to saying that the Bible delineates to us a clear criteria for arbitrating between beauty and ugliness. There are no Ten Commandments of aesthetics in the Bible.

To say that a painting is beautiful may be just as true as saying that it is 12 by 8 inches, yet the latter and not the former can be measured and proven. If someone disagreed on the measurement of the canvas, we could always produce the tape measure. But if someone disagrees that Schubert’s Trout Quintet is gloriously beautiful beyond words, there is no concrete or abstract standard against which we can prove the person to be in error.

Nevertheless, certain general aesthetic principles can be inferred by studying what Scripture teaches about the Lord’s character. For example, since the Bible reveals that God – the source of all beauty - is not a God of aggression, decadence, chaos, disorder and frustration, one could cogently argue that art (whether visual, musical or performance art) which promotes these qualities as ends in themselves, is clearly contrary to the character of God and, therefore, ugly by definition. (This does not necessarily mean that we should not view or listen to or enjoy ugly art, or that there are certain aesthetic features which require some degree of ugliness in order to be appreciated. That is a different question altogether). However, beyond these very general considerations, the Bible does not give us much direct guidance for determining whether Titian was a better painter than Michelangelo.

Thus, to say that there is an objective truth about beauty is not to imply that we can always know what that truth is. Only God knows absolutely what is beautiful. It seems reasonable to assume that human beings, even sanctified human beings, will always have disagreements over aesthetics.

Speaking of Beauty

While it is true that the Bible does not give us a well-defined set of parameters for determining what is beautiful, I do not think it follows that our perception of beauty is functionally subjective, any more than the fact that the Bible does not give us a yardstick for determining which objects are green entails us to believe that our perception of colors is purely relative.

In both these areas (colors and aesthetics), the Lord has given us the faculties of perception by which we may acquire objective information. Shortly we will be considering some of the dynamics of how this perception works, but first it is necessary to pause and counter a possible objection.

Like many other things, our awareness of beauty is often deconstructed as being merely a matter of language. “To be sure,” someone will say, “a child learns what the word beauty means just as he will learn the meaning of any word, but that in no way proves that we have an innate awareness of beauty. It only proves that human beings have invented a category and given a name to it.” If the one offering this objection has done his homework, he may even go so far as to point out that since the word “beauty” does not have an equivalent in many of the world’s languages, the concept cannot be innate but is merely a result of linguistic convention.

It is interesting that the ancient Greeks, for all their preoccupation with aesthetic matters, did not have a word comparable to the English beauty. The Greek word kolos, which is often translated “beautiful,” could equally be translated “fine, admirable, noble,” as it is rendered in one edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.
[1] I am inclined to think that if this proves anything, it proves that the concept of beauty is not reducible to language, for there can be no denying that the Greeks were intensely sensitive to beauty, whether they had a name for it or not. One has only to look at Greek architecture and sculpture to see that.

The aesthetic philosopher Collingwood has asserted that

"To call a thing beautiful in Greek is simply to call it admirable or excellent or desirable. A poem or painting may certainly receive the epithet, but only by the same kind of right as a boot or any other simple artifact. The sandals of Hermes, for example, are regularly called beautiful by Homer, not because they are conceived as elegantly designed or decorated, but because they are conceived as jolly good sandals which enable him to fly as well as walk."

Collingwood makes the non sequitur leap from this purely linguistic fact to the idea that “if we go back to the Greek, we find that there is no connection at all between beauty and art”
[3]. But there certainly is a connection between Greek art and what we call beauty. The simple fact that Greek art is so beautiful should be sufficient to establish that connection. Collingwood overlooks this in his failure to distinguish between beauty as a reality and beauty as a concept. The ancient Greeks did not have a concept of micro-organisms, but it does not follow from this that they did not experience, and indeed die from, micro-organisms.

Again, the parallel with colors may prove useful. One would hardly dare suppose that we only see blue because we have a name for it. On the contrary, the word is posterior to the thing itself. One can imagine a culture without any color language, just as our own culture does not have a very sophisticated nomenclature for describing smells, but it does not follow that individuals without color language do not see colors, or that we can detect only the smells we have named. Similarly, it does not follow that a culture without a conscious concept or word for beauty does not have the innate beauty-vision that is the inheritance of being made in the image of the Triune God.

[1] The Basic Works of Aristotle (McKeon, R. (ed.), Random House, 1941, p. 368.

[2] Collingwood, Principles of Art (Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 38

[3] Ibid, p. 37

Click here to read all my posts in this series on the objectivity of beauty.

Read my columns at the Charles Colson Center

Read my writings at Alfred the Great Society

To join my mailing list, send a blank email to robin (at sign) with “Blog Me” in the subject heading. 

Click Here to friend-request me on Facebook and get news feeds every time new articles are added to this blog. 
Click Here to follow me on Twitter.

The Objectivity of Beauty Part 3 (Beauty in Scripture)

Although Scripture does not directly address the question of beauty’s objectivity, it does include other teachings from which we can make certain inferences on this question.

Throughout Scripture we find that the Lord puts a premium on beauty and on the aesthetic dimension of life. For example, when the Lord gives instructions for building the Temple, the Lord’s design is beautiful and includes aesthetically pleasing specimens of representational and abstract art.
[1] As the Psalmist says, “Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary.” (Ps. 96:6) Throughout Scripture the Lord delights to describe physically pleasing women and clothing, and He doesn’t hesitate to pronounce these things as being beautiful.

The Lord’s creation reveals that He is a masterful artist, since He has filled every continent with beauty beyond compare. When Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Ps. 19:1), it is the beauty and majesty of God’s creation to which the Psalmist refers. On the seventh day, when the Lord admired everything He had made, it is clear that He was exercising His aesthetic sense. Despite the ugliness sin has brought to the world, the beauty of God’s artistry remains evident.

All this shows that beauty is important to the Lord.

We can go one step further. Beauty is part of the nature or character of the Trinitarian God. A simple word search in a concordance will reveal that in many of the places in which Scripture speaks of beauty it is in relation to the Lord Himself. For example, the Bible refers to “the beauty of the Lord our God” (Ps 27:4; 90:17), “the beauty of [God’s] holiness” (1 Chron 16:29; Ps. 29:2), and so on. God shines on His people as “the perfection of beauty” (Ps. 50:2) while the beauty of His holiness is an object of praise (2 Chron. 20:21). It follows from these and other passages that beauty is an aspect of who God is. It is part of His character.

To summarize the discussion thus far, we have seen that the Bible teaches two things about beauty. First, Scripture shows us that beauty is important to the Lord. Second, Scripture reveals us that beauty is an aspect of God’s character.

The Objectivity of Beauty

In order for beauty to be important to the Lord it must exist objectively. After all, the Lord could not say in the Psalms that creation actually declares His beautiful handiwork if the difference between beauty and ugliness is merely in the eye of the beholder. If the relativist view of beauty is correct, then all the Psalmist could say is that creation declares God’s beautiful handiwork to me, but if someone else finds no beauty in God’s creation, that is just as valid an assessment. Similarly, if beauty is in the eye/mind of the beholder rather than objectively within things themselves, then strength and beauty do not actually abide in God’s sanctuary as the Psalmist declares, since the only place beauty really resides is in one’s own subjective thought-processes.

This same conclusion (that beauty is an objective quality) can also be reached through Scripture’s teaching that beauty is an aspect of God’s character and a central feature of His holiness. It should be axiomatic that if God exists at all, then the attributes of His deity must necessarily be objective, just as if an elephant objectively exists, then all the essential properties which make the elephant what it is must also necessarily exist. Therefore the attributes of God, including His beauty, must necessarily exist as objective qualities.

This conclusion (that beauty is an objective quality) can also be reached through scripture’s teaching that beauty is an aspect of God’s character and a central feature of His holiness. It should be axiomatic that if God exists at all, then the attributes of His deity must necessarily be objective. Since this is true of creatures (if an elephant objectively exists, then all the essential properties which make the elephant what it is must also necessarily exist), how much more must it be true of God. Therefore the attributes of God, including His beauty, must necessarily be an objective quality.

Because human beings are made in the image of the Trinitarian God, every person has an imperfect yet genuine awareness of the difference between beauty and ugliness, just as every person has a genuine but imperfect awareness that there is a difference between right and wrong. Because we are images of God, the awareness of objective beauty is innate to us as human beings; because we are fallen, that awareness is imperfect and subject to distortion and corruption. Later on we will discuss some of the factors which distort and corrupt this awareness.

[1] For an analysis of the aesthetics of the Temple, see Gene Veith’s book, State of the Arts (Wheaton, ILL: Crossway Books, 1991).

To join my mailing list, send a blank email to phillips7440 (at sign) with “Blog Me” in the subject heading.

The Objectivity of Beauty (part 2)

Why is the objectivity of beauty important? There are at least five reasons why the objectivity of beauty is important and why Christians need to think seriously about this issue from a Biblical worldview.

5 Reasons Why the Objectivity of Beauty is Important for a Christian

1. Understanding the objectivity of beauty is important for Christians because of the requirement to have a Biblical worldview.

“A worldview is a way of viewing or interpreting all of reality. It is an interpretive framework through which or by which one makes sense out of the data of life and the world."[1]

As Christians, the Word of God forms the interpretive framework, or worldview, by which we make sense of the world.

In his second letter to the Corinthian church, the apostle Paul urges believers to “[bring] every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ…” (2 Cor. 10:5) If every thought must be submitted to Christ’s Lordship, then it follows that there is nothing outside the scope of a Biblical worldview.

In the first chapter of Colossians, Paul tells us in many different ways that Christ has authority over all things. If all things come together and have meaning in Christ, then it follows that as Christians we should seek to develop a specifically Christ-centered way of thinking about every topic. There are no neutral subjects. We have a mandate to apply the categories of the Biblical worldview to everything from trees to turnips, from cars to computers and from bees to barns. And also to beauty.

2. Understanding the objectivity of beauty is important for Christians so that we are not taken in by relativism.

Relativism says that there are no absolutes: what is true for you may not necessarily be true for me.

It is in the area of beauty that Christians are quick to embrace relativism by assuming that judgments about a thing’s beauty are completely subjective. As the common truism puts it, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

By understanding the objectivity of beauty, we are armed against this particular conduit of relativism.

3. Understanding the objectivity of beauty is important for Christian evangelism.

Without an understanding of beauty’s objectivity, Christians are hindered from effectively witnessing to the beauty of God’s holiness since ‘beauty’ is reduced to a vacuous concept. To a world that is slipping into ever deeper degrees of ugliness, a rediscovery of objective goodness, truth and beauty is at the heart of our testimony to the world.

4. Understanding the objectivity of beauty is important so that we can grow in aesthetic wisdom.

If beauty exists merely in the eye of the beholder, then aesthetic growth is impossible since growth implies a standard outside of ourselves towards which we can be moving. If we do not appreciate that beauty is objective, we will have no motivation for growing in aesthetic wisdom.

[1] Norman Geisler and William D. Watkins, Worlds Apart: A Handbook on Worldviews, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), p. 11.

The Objectivity of Beauty (part 1)

Can you prove the existence of God? Should abortion be criminalized? What does God think about the war in Iraq?

These are some of the many questions that Christians are usually eager to discuss. Rarely will you hear anyone want to discuss whether beauty is an objective quality.

Sometimes this is because of disinterest. Other times it is because we have unthinkingly assumed that beauty exists in the eye of the beholder. “After all,” so many people say when I bring up this subject, “since what may be beautiful to you may not be necessarily beautiful to me, beauty can’t be objective.” End of story. Nothing more to discuss.

My purpose in addressing this question in the following series of blog posts is not simply to challenge the common assumption that beauty exists in the eye (or mind) of the beholder. Rather, I want to give the reader the tools to think Biblically about this question.

It is my strong belief that the objectivity of beauty remains an issue at the very heart of the Biblical worldview. Despite its neglect in Christian discourse, this is an issue that ought to be of great concern to all of us, and not simply to aesthetic philosophers.

The problem is that most of us don’t know where to even start. With most other questions of importance to the Christian faith, there are a plethora of resources available for tackling the Big Questions. Such is not the case with this issue. Even apart from the lack of resources, most of us don’t even know what categories we need to use to think about this issue.

The upcoming series of blog posts attempts to address that need.

Click here to read all my posts in this series on the objectivity of beauty.

Read my columns at the Charles Colson Center
Read my writings at Alfred the Great Society
To join my mailing list, send a blank email to robin (at sign) with “Blog Me” in the subject heading. 
Click Here to friend-request me on Facebook and get news feeds every time new articles are added to this blog.  

Click Here to follow me on Twitter.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Thought Control

When the “peat bog soldiers” were sent by the Nazi’s to work until they died, they took consolation in singing a song titled, “Die Gedanken sind frei” (“Thoughts Are Free”). The idea expressed in the title of this piece - that thought remains the outpost of human liberty – gave a measure of comfort to the prisoners who had been deprived of every other human freedom. At least they could defy their captors in this one remaining quarter: they still exercised control over their minds.

In his dysutopian classic 1984, George Orwell imagined a society in which even this final liberty had been taken away. Using omnipresent surveillance technology, Orwell’s thought police root out and punish those who engage in unapproved thinking.

For years, Orwell’s predictions seemed to have little relevance to the free world of the West. While communist nations routinely used the Leninist notion of "false consciousness” to brainwash and control the minds of its citizens, the Western world has consistently stood as a hedge against such methods by putting a premium on intellectual freedom. As the oft-quoted maxim (falsely attributed to Voltaire) puts it, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
In recent years, however, Western society has experienced a paradigm shift, as new legislation and jurisprudence has begun increasingly to focus not merely on actions, but also on thoughts.
I first became aware of this tendency when Dr. N. T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham addressed the House of Lords on 9 February, 2006. In his address, the Bishop listed a number of recent cases, noting that
“since the crimes in question have to do, not with actions but with ideas and beliefs, what we are seeing is thought crime.” He went on: “My Lords, I did not think I would see such a thing in this country in my lifetime…. The word for such a state of affairs is ‘tyranny’: sudden moral climate change, enforced by thought police.”
Elsewhere I have written about Britain’s recent volley of new laws with thought-crime implications, and this is not the place to repeat it. Suffice to say, I hoped that by moving to America I would encounter an environment of more intellectual freedom. Surely, in the “land of the free”, incorrect thoughts would be debated rather than criminalized. As it turned out, this hope was naïve. Many prominent Americans seem even more intent than their British counterparts in turning Orwell’s predictions into a blueprint rather than a warning.

When I first arrived in America in the summer of 2007, everyone was talking about new “hate crime” legislation that was being considered in congress. What interested me was that under the offence of “hate crime”, not only what we do, but the thoughts and motives behind it, can also be publishable. Thus, if the thought behind an act of violence can be showed to involve certain types of hate, the crime is considered doubly bad. This can be seen in the comment of Representative Barbara Cubin (R-Wyoming) when she said, "We will not stand for the arbitrary killing of other people due to any hateful act of intolerance." Similarly, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan said, "Angelinos have no tolerance for crimes motivated by hatred or bias of any kind." [emphasis added in both] Commenting on this trend to penalize, not just the crime, but the state of mind behind it, Gregory Koukl observed that
“Until recently, the law has been completely uninterested in penalizing motive. Whether one was driven to commit a crime by greed, malice, love, or hate was irrelevant. Only the conduct mattered. As far as the law was concerned, one could believe as he wished. He could like or dislike according to his whim. He could love or hate as he pleased.
Hate crime legislation changes all that. Now motive as well as conduct can be punished.”

The hate crime legislation did not pass. However, many states already have measures which use the concept of “hate crime” to criminalize government-disapproved cognitive conditions. For example, throughout the California public school system, Christian students are routinely given special “diversity training” to force them to think politically correct thoughts about homosexuality. Once content to merely address the problems of “homophobic bullying” in schools, the gay lobby is now going after students who even think that homosexuality is a sin.
The de facto criminalization of certain thought has also found expression as a mechanism for short-circuiting debate within the American media. On issues such as intelligent design, global warming, homosexual rights, abstinence education and a host of other questions, American liberals allow for only one correct viewpoint. In a final swipe of McCarthyism, those who dissent from the grinding uniformity demanded by the liberal establishment are treated, not as mistaken, but as bad. Thus, journalists who dissent from climate change hysteria, for example, do not require refutation but stand in need of therapy, since any alternative interpretation to global warming automatically puts one on the same level as delusional flat-earthers.

I'll give another example. Lawmakers who dissent from the standard line on homosexual and abortion rights are castigated, not merely as mistaken, but as the modern equivalents of the Spanish Inquisition. Scientists who conduct research using an intelligent design paradigm are not simply making a blunder, but are the self-delusional descendents of the 17th century churchmen who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope. Through these and similar ad hominem devices, the sages of our age are effectively becoming a new priestcraft, insulated against critique within the institutions they permeate.

Even in American universities, which have traditionally been havens of intellectual freedom, thought control techniques have become rife. Almost all American universities now have some form of moral and political re-education built into freshman orientation and residential programming. In his article, ‘Thought Reform 101: The Orwellian implications of today's college orientation’ (published by Reason Magazine in 2000), Alan Kors shows that many of these programs are explicitly racist, separating students by skin colour and focusing on racial differences rather than commonalities. Using psychological techniques of group programming to induce thought control, these programs apply guilt-concepts to reverse the cognitive operations in students’ minds. In one case that was documented in The New York Times, freshmen at Columbia University were given the chance to rid themselves of “their own social and personal beliefs…” Students who fail to go along with these thought-control processes are demonized, castigated and manipulated through guilt.

Now that freedom of thought rather than merely speech is an issue, perhaps the familiar quotation needs updating. “I may disapprove of what you think, but I will defend to the death your right to think it.” It would seem that in America, even this basic human right is now under attack.

Further Reading

The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the Corruption of Public Debate


Read my columns at the Charles Colson Center

Read my writings at Alfred the Great Society

To join my mailing list, send a blank email to robin (at sign) with “Blog Me” in the subject heading. 

Click Here to friend-request me on Facebook and get news feeds every time new articles are added to this blog. 
Click Here to follow me on Twitter.

Buy Essential Oils at Discounted Prices!