Wednesday, January 21, 2009

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

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