Thursday, February 5, 2009

Is All Beauty Objective?, The Friendly Debate Continues

I am very glad that we are fleshing out our thoughts regarding beauty. It is an important and profound subject. Now, I see more clearly the points at which Gina & I agree, and disagree. I love a good conversation!

The dictionary definition of beauty is as follows: 1) the quality attributed to whatever pleases or satisfies the senses or mind as by line, color, form, texture, proportion, rhythmic motion, tone, etc., or by behavior, attitude, etc. 2) a thing having this quality 3) good looks 4) any very attractive feature

I think I believe that some beauty is objective and some is subjective. I guess this is a philosophical distinction on the order of the Platonic question, “if a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one there to hear it fall, does it make a sound”? If an object, piece of music or natural wonder is intrinsically beautiful, does it’s categorization as beautiful depend upon it’s intrinsic beauty or the agreeable perceptions of human beings? I would argue that some things, like natural wonders, are intrinsically beautiful and that their beauty does not depend in any way on human perception. I would also argue that music can be either intrinsically beautiful or not intrinsically beautiful. For music that is not intrinsically beautiful, I think that human beings decide, as individuals, whether or not they find beauty in it.

This seems to be in keeping with the dictionary definition. “Whatever pleases or satisfies the senses or mind”…. I would submit that it is the mind of each individual person that determines whether or not the object of it’s perception is beautiful. The obvious exception to this would be those things that are beautiful from God's perspective.

Perhaps there is no one area in which this is more clear cut that the area of “good looks”. In large part what appears beautiful to one person does not appear beautiful to another. Determining an objective consensus of what the most attractive features of a person are can be perplexing. Some think long hair is beautiful, some think short hair is. Some prefer light skin, some dark. Some think blue eyes are beautiful, some prefer brown.

One can even see this principle illustrated on a cultural level. American men tend to think that Barbie is the ideal of feminine beauty. Primitive Hawaians tended to think that the more obese a person became, the more beautiful they were. A hundred years ago, Japanese men idealized the Geisha with their snow white makeup, buffant hairdos and tiny deformed feet. In the African Bush, women stretch the flesh of their ears around earrings the size of dinner plates. Men impale the flesh of their noses with foot long bones. These are the ideals of attractiveness. Again, I would submit that some beauty is objective & some is subjective. Other people’s subjective ideals of beauty can strike us as funny or nonsensical.

Gina’s example of classical music is also a good illustration of this point. Nine times out of ten, my own reaction to classical music is that it is profoundly boring. There are a few movements, in a few pieces, that move my soul. By in large though, I cannot escape it quickly enough, whenever I am exposed to it. I do not think that it is beautiful.

Perhaps this is because I am a lyrics person. I am deeply moved and pierced by the beauty of the words, when it comes to music. The actual music itself can be below average, if only the lyrics are pure poetry and deeply meaningful. That is where I find beauty.

At our church, I tend to go to the Contemporary Service. Gina mentioned, in her original posting on this subject, that there are 2 services at our church--- Traditional and Contemporary. The main difference between the 2, in my mind, is that the Traditional service uses a pipe organ to accompany the music and the Contemporary service uses a small band that includes guitars, keyboards, saxophones/trumpets, etc. I prefer the Contemporary service because I can really focus on the lyrics of the worship songs. While I also appreciate the Traditional Service, I tend to experience the organ music as an obstacle to worship.

The Traditional Service attendees are blessed by being allowed to worship in the beautiful sanctuary. We worship in a gymnasium. Being deprived of the undeniable aesthetic beauty of the sanctuary during worship is worth it to me though, because I often loose myself in the beauty of the contemporary worship music—with my eyes closed. I just can’t get lost that way, during worship, in most of the more traditional music.

Anyway, my Dear Friend Gina & I probably agree on 99.999999% of everything. It is interesting for me to learn that we disagree about, what I believe, is the subjective nature of beauty.

Gina’s final point, in her last posting, about Judaism & Christianity having perceived truth, goodness and beauty as objective for most of history was very interesting to me. I did not know that…. It is interesting that the western world now perceives these 3 as largely subjective.

I would agree that truth and goodness are purely objective. However, I do think that beauty contains both objective and subjective aspects.



  1. God is the source of all beauty, truth and goodness and therefore they are wholly objective. The fullness of which is incomprehensible by His creators. Through art we communicate in part. In our fallenness we may communicate imperfectly or even lie.

    Iconography is the art of objective truth and is beautiful. Pornography is not subjectively beautiful, it is a lie.

    Through our bodies we may know and communicate truth or we may come to prefer and communicate the lie.

    We are called to nothing but truth, goodness and beauty when God will be all in all.

    The flat tires can be inflated :-)

  2. I meant to write "The fullness of which is incomprehensible by His creation." not by His "creator" as I typed.

    Turns out it makes a big difference. Should probably take better advantage of the preview function in the future.