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.

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