Voices
Krieg Barrie/WORLD

Acquired taste

Beauty is more than in the eye of the beholder

Issue: "The other campaign," Feb. 9, 2008

Christians have to battle the mindset that insists "there are no absolutes." But Christians often do not realize what the absolutes are that they need to defend. The classic thinkers spoke of three kinds of absolutes: the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Often, Christians reject the claims that truth and morality are relative while agreeing with the postmodernists that beauty is relative. But to think that beauty is nothing more than a subjective preference-unconnected to standards that originate in God Himself-is to buy into a foundational principle of today's anti-Christian worldview.

The Bible tells us to set our minds on "whatever" is "excellent" and "of good report" (Philippians 4:8). Beauty does involve personal taste, but our tastes need discipline. Growing in taste means learning to take pleasure in what is objectively good.

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Consider this principle from Aesthetics 101: A work is beautiful to the extent that it displays at the same time both complexity and unity.

In painting a black canvas has unity, but it has no complexity. A canvas of random paint-splatterings may have complexity, but it has no unity. The Sistine Chapel, or a Rembrandt woodcut, or a Hudson River landscape has both, being full of individual details that come together into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Pop music typically consists of no more than three chords in a simple melody with simple lyrics. Not much is going on. Contrast that with a hymn (whether traditional or contemporary): It consists of many different musical notes for different voices, all coming together in the unity of harmony. Its lyrics, in turn, are packed with theology, figures of speech, biblical references, and emotions. The hymn is objectively better by aesthetic standards than the pop ditty. Even greater aesthetically is the symphonic composition in which every instrument is playing a different musical line yet all come together into a majestic unity.

There is nothing wrong with an occasional indulgence in junk food, though if all you eat is sugar and French fries, you will be malnourished. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with an occasional indulgence in junk culture. But just as you need the nutrition found in a home-cooked meal, you need the cultural nutrition that comes from enjoying the best.

Taking subjective pleasure in what is objectively excellent takes knowledge and experience. Here is a practical suggestion: Play classical music. Not just any classical music, some of which is less accessible and an "acquired taste." Start with two composers: Bach and Mozart. Focus on their instrumental works, not the chorales or operas. Notice how their music is both complex and unified. Notice the pleasure it gives you.

Before too long, you will develop a taste for musical excellence. Then you can go from there into other kinds of aesthetic excellence.

Comments? Email Ed Veith at gveith@worldmag.com

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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