About the Author
Joshua Farris Drake (PhD, University of Glasgow) is professor of music and humanities at Grove City College. He is the coeditor of CongSing.org. Joshua and his wife, Vicki, have four children.
David S. Dockery (PhD, University of Texas System) serves as president of the International Alliance for Christian Education as well as president and distinguished professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Previously, he served as president of Union University and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a much-sought-after speaker and lecturer, a former consulting editor for Christianity Today, and the author or editor of more than forty books. Dockery and his wife, Lanese, have three married sons and seven grandchildren.
Read an Excerpt
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY THE WORD BEAUTY?
It isn't the likeliest place to find art. The new ballpark is hemmed in on three sides by traffic and on the fourth by a garbage incinerator. The smells of these peripherals are driven out, it's true, by those of flat beer and roller-warmed hot dogs, but this can hardly be said to draw the art-appreciation buffs, who, we're told, prefer wine and cheese. And yet it is there that park designers put a statue of a beloved home-run hitter. No doubt he was amused. The ordinary fellow from an ordinary place, who spoke plainly and lived his life without pretention, now stands 7.5 feet tall in 750 pounds of bronze. A pigeon, unconvinced by the likeness of a batter's high-velocity swing, balances quietly on the cap, leaving an untidy mess. And the boy and his grandfather who stand there on game day know that the statue is beautiful — from the pivot of the ankle to the visionary, skyward glance over Sixth Street.
We begin with beauty because it is what makes art, art. When people call something "art," they're saying two things, really: first, that somebody made it (for we don't call accidents "art"), and, second, that its appearance has the potential to reward those who pay attention to it. That is, it can be appreciated for its beauty. If we put a tribal ceremonial mask or a Louis XVI secretary desk in an art museum — indeed, if we use the word art to describe a matching outfit and shoes or the perfect baseball swing — it's because we believe that in addition to whatever other functions these things have, they are also beautiful. They provide aesthetic delight. When the main purpose of a made object is to reward aesthetic contemplation, we call it "high art" or "fine art." We begin with beauty, therefore, because nothing — neither art nor an approach to art — can be evaluated without a sense of what it is for. Although certain philosophers quibble over identifying beauty as the purpose of art, this is only because they fear some people's usage of the word beauty may be too constrictive. But ordinary people have always known that the reason we draw and sing is to please viewers with beautiful drawings and hearers with beautiful songs.
Such consensus, however, does not make the idea easy. Beauty has been a central problem in Western thought since the days of Plato and a problem that non-Christians, especially, have difficulty solving. Darwinian materialists may be satisfied that they have found a plausible explanation for the peacock's iridescent plumage. They find it somewhat harder to explain quite why the peahen finds iridescence especially sexy. And if her tastes pose some problems, ours pose even more. The materialist cannot explain why a human soul responds as it does to the night sky or to the sound of the sea — or, for that matter, to Rembrandt's Denial of Peter in the Rijksmuseum or to Bach's "Gratias agimus tibi" in the Mass in B Minor.
When the artist Makoto Fujimura began studying traditional Japanese nihonga painting as a graduate student in Tokyo during the late 1980s, he was not yet a Christian. One day an assistant professor came into his studio unannounced, looked at the painting Fujimura was working on, said its surface was so beautiful that it was almost terrifying, and walked out. Recalling the incident decades later, Fujimura asks, "Do you know what my response was? I immediately washed the painting down. I couldn't take that. I just didn't have a place for that comment, because, being honest with myself, I felt, if that's true, then I don't have a place in my own heart for beauty that's almost terrifying."
We begin with beauty, frankly, because it drives us to consider the Christian intellectual tradition, which alone gives real answers to the question of how beauty — the source of pleasure — can also terrify. After briefly considering the classical and postmodern views of beauty that dominate our culture, this first chapter will argue that Christian doctrine alone provides a satisfactory explanation of beauty and, thus, a satisfactory explanation of art.
A DESCRIPTIVE DEFINITION
Dictionaries provide descriptive, not prescriptive, definitions. We may or may not like such definitions. We may want to tweak them to conform to what we believe words ought to mean. But there's no doubt that the editors at Merriam-Webster describe rightly when they say that by beauty, we mean "the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit." This may or may not tell us what beauty is, but it certainly tells us what people mean by the term. Whenever anyone speaks of "beauty," at the very least he is referring to the capacity of an object to please those who apprehend it.
THE CLASSICAL VIEW OF BEAUTY
In ancient times the equivalent Greek word, kalos, worked the same way. Since beauty is considered to be in the thing perceived, the classical view concludes that beauty is objective. It is an attribute of the object. Therefore it must be something that can be empirically studied and even measured, as leading Greek thinkers tried to do. The outstanding fifth-century BC sculptor Polycleitos wrote a famous book, now lost, called the Kanon, in which he published the numbers of perfect beauty. They were all simple ratios. The analogy to music excited the Pythagoreans, who inferred great significance from the fact that vibrating strings produce harmonious sounds when their lengths are measured in simple proportions. Classical architects planned buildings not with blueprints or elevation drawings but with numerical formulas. All this assumed that beauty is uniform, that all beautiful things are beautiful in the same way. Aristotle taught that "the chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree." Plato taught not only the uniformity of beauty but also its absolute nature: implicit in the Republic and Phaedrus and explicit in the Symposium is a conflation of the good and the beautiful. The beautiful is the good. In such a worldview beauty becomes the very purpose of life, and aesthetics provides the basis for ethics.
This has been the most influential aesthetic position in Western history. Whatever we may think of it, everyone can at least agree that many beautiful things do fit Aristotle's analysis: the symmetries of the human face, for example. Moreover, one can only be thankful for the countless beauties that classicists have dreamed up over the centuries, from the formal clarity of a Botticelli mural to that of Jefferson's Monticello. If we divorce the Parthenon in Athens from its original function to house the goddess, we can treat it as an unparalleled architectural achievement, which in its own way reveals the glory of man's Creator. But make no mistake: not only were the masterpieces of classical antiquity made in the service of idols but also the classical vision itself, at its purest, is an idol. When form is made absolute, when — like the media-bewitched teen starving herself before the mirror — we devote our lives to the pursuit of some created formal standard, the result is not beautiful at all, but wicked and ugly. Hear C. S. Lewis's warning against aestheticism: "These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers."
But this is not the only critique of classicism. The classical view of beauty may be dominant in the Western tradition, with neoclassical movements peculiar to every era, but every era also produced its own alternative to the classical vision. And it's easy to see why. Every reader, surely, can think of things he knows to be beautiful, even though they are not ordered or not symmetrical or not definite: a thunderstorm, say, or a clear, blue sky. How are we to explain the beauty of these? Nineteenth-century romantics, to cite just one alternative, saw the sublime — that which fills us with awe — as a higher aesthetic category than those of classicism. They preferred the Swiss Alps to English formal gardens. Yet neither romanticism nor any other reaction against classicism has provided a viable explanation for all human experiences of beauty. Can a scheme that accounts for our reaction to Victoria Falls and the Pleiades also account for the aesthetic value of something as comfortable and domestic as a lullaby or a quilt?
THE POSTMODERN VIEW OF BEAUTY
Who, then, can tell what beauty is? We've only mentioned the classical position and, in passing, the romantic critique of it, but of course every culture and every worldview has its own aesthetic values. How could any one explanation account for all instances of beauty? In the pluralistic 1980s and 90s the problems of beauty came to seem insurmountable. Indeed, the descriptive definition seems to contradict itself. Read it again. Beauty is "the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit." The first half locates beauty in the thing perceived, whereas the second half links it to pleasure — which is something that takes place inside the perceiver, not in the thing perceived. So which is it? Is beauty a quality of the perceived object or a quality of the perceiving subject? It can't be both. Something cannot be both objective and subjective, except perhaps in Hinduism. Since what pleases me may not be what pleases you, postmoderns have roundly rejected the opening phrase of the definition. To the postmodern, beauty is in fact a quality of the subject — a quality of the one looking, not of the thing being seen. It's the sensation I have whenever I perceive something I like. It is just a matter of taste, which cannot be accounted for, except by sociologists who study how we are culturally conditioned to consider some things beautiful and not other things. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Let's think about that adage for a minute. It's of fairly recent origin (late nineteenth century). But we have so imbibed postmodern relativism that most people think of this adage not as a matter of worldview but as a truism. The best way to learn its meaning is to consider when we say it: invariably in the midst of a dispute over the aesthetic worth of something, and it has the effect of ending the dispute. For if beauty exists in the beholder — in you and me, and not in the thing under dispute — then why are we disputing? Nobody argues about subjective phenomena. We don't argue about whether you are hungry or whether I'm afraid.
The adage performs a metaphysical sleight of hand. Throughout human history cultures have felt the need for some category corresponding to this English word beauty. It provides the basis for all critical thinking about form and preference. How do we know that some preferences are better than others? Well, we assess the beauty of the thing preferred. Drug addicts prefer intoxication. Intoxication is manifestly not beautiful. Therefore we know something is wrong with their preference. Without a concept of beauty, we could still call any action motivated by their preference immoral (provided we still have a concept of the good), but we couldn't criticize the preference itself. In short, the idea of beauty is what allows us to call an appetite for bad things wrongheaded. But the adage (which almost everybody assumes to be true) would remind us that beauty and preference are the same thing. When we act as if beauty were an objective standard by which we can judge preferences, we are — it seems — just playing a mental game that arbitrarily privileges our preferences over other people's preferences, for any argument about the healthiness of certain preferences is circular. End of discussion. Now we can all get along.
To postmoderns, beauty is therefore no longer a matter for serious reflection and study. For the first time in history, many respectable artists cannot care less whether their work is beautiful. Yet, in Christian circles, postmoderns are frequently said to care more about aesthetics than they do about morality and the truth. When people say this, what they mean is that postmoderns are more persuaded by how attracted they are to a proposition than by how well it conforms to God's law or to the principles of logic. There are two problems with this way of speaking. First, it describes something not new to postmodernism; we human beings have always believed what we want to believe even in the face of a contrary reality (Romans 1). The second problem with this way of speaking is that it adopts the postmodern usage of these terms. If you criticize postmoderns for caring more about beauty than about goodness or truth, when you mean that they care more about their own preferences than they do about goodness or truth, your thinking has been colored by the postmodern take on beauty. You've made it a synonym for preference. In fact no movement in history has been more hostile to beauty than postmodernism. One of the most celebrated anthologies of postmodern cultural thought from the 1980s was entitled The Anti-Aesthetic, in recognition that now politics had displaced beauty as the essence of art. It turns out that what is new in postmodernism is not a prioritizing of the beautiful over the good and the true but rather a revolt against authority of any kind — a revolt as much against the beautiful as against the good and the true. A revolt against reality itself.
A corollary of this is that we are also mistaken when we talk about how visually oriented the current generation is. One frequently hears that postmoderns are more disposed to understand through images than through words and propositions. And yet this has not been borne out by our experience as teachers of art history and appreciation; we find many students to be insecure in their ability to see some of the most basic things in pictures. However prominent visual media are in our society, they do surprisingly little to hone our powers of sight. Quite the contrary. It turns out that postmoderns do not neglect words for the sake of images. Rather, they neglect all communicative forms, both verbal and visual. If you want to attract a postmodern audience, sure, use pictures. Use words. Just see to it that the pictures and words don't say very much. For we have come to distrust meaning itself. We have come to associate authenticity with an incommunicative formlessness. The less a form says, the more sincere it is.
Now, in these matters, is the church different from the world? American evangelicals in the twentieth century were pretty faithful in asserting the importance of truth and goodness. Most grew up knowing that it was not up to them to define what these things were. Truth and goodness were part of an external reality to which one had to submit, if one wasn't going to go about constantly bruising one's shins in a self-inflicted psychosis. So what about beauty? Early on, we Christians bought into postmodernity's aesthetic relativism hook, line, and sinker. Some still fight for goodness and truth; we know that the goodness of God's will and the truth of his Word are absolute, but the forms they take are said to be culturally determined and morally neutral. Wasn't it the Pharisees who cared about form? As long as we get the substance of the gospel right, it does not matter how we proclaim it, or so we think. But we're inconsistent. For all our aesthetic relativism, we fight over forms today as much as ever. It's just that now we have a guilty conscience about it, because deep inside we have come to think that forms have little to do with the "big" issues.
THE CHRISTIAN VIEW OF BEAUTY
It has not always been this way. In Mark 14:3–8, Jesus assumed that beauty is more than preference but something objective and important — so much so that it ought to play a role in the disciples' ethical decision making:
And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, "Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor." And they scolded her. But Jesus said, "Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Art and Music"
Copyright © 2014 Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 What Do We Mean by the Word Beauty?,
2 Why Should We Enjoy Art and Music?,
3 How Do We Judge Art and Music?,
4 Looking at Art,
5 Listening to Music,
Questions for Reflection,
Resources for Further Study,
What People are Saying About This
“The virtues of this book are immediately evident. It asks the right questions, provides the right answers, and illustrates the claims made about art and music with analysis of examples—all within a context of the Christian faith and the Bible.”—Leland Ryken, Emeritus Professor of English, Wheaton College
“Drake and Munson know that our minds and imaginations require training to work as intended. They know that failure to cultivate eyes to see and ears to hear prevents us from perceiving the glory of God’s creation in great works of art and music. Their book offers courageous instruction for those open to attending to beauty.”—Ken Myers, Host and Producer, Mars Hill Audio Journal
“This incredibly thought-provoking book illustrates the relationship between art, music, and spirituality. In our day, it is particularly important to highlight these connections and provide an overall view. I am intrigued by the authors’ insights, and others will be as well. I enthusiastically recommend this book.”—Manfred Honeck, Music Director, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra