Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Symmetry's failure

I was looking at my latest blog post and realized I failed to mention something that was very important to the concept of harmony that needed to be addressed. That idea is symmetry, which is generally advanced as one of the characteristics of beauty, usually in association with human beauty. There are several problems I have with this idea, and the first one is that most beautiful things are not symmetrical. Think of the natural world of trees and flowers, and you can immediately see that you are grateful for asymmetry. And most beautiful photographs do not have a perfectly symmetrical subject placed in the center.

In human beauty, symmetry is held up as a standard for measuring beauty, but that works only somewhat. Symmetry is only one of the aspects of the human face that make it attractive, and there are plenty of attractive people with asymmetrical faces. In fact, just look at pictures of actors and actresses. Many of them don't have perfectly symmetrical faces, yet are very pleasing to look at (hence they have a job where people look at them).

That is why harmony is superior, because instead of looking for a perfectly symmetrical object, you look at how everything, even the asymmetrical parts, work together to make something beautiful.

In music we see this quite, because most melodies are not perfectly symmetrical. Sometimes dissonance is needed to add to the beauty of a piece as a whole, and our harmonies are not built on finding a perfectly symmetrical relationship between all the notes.

And since we are relating characteristics of beauty to God, how is He symmetrical?

This is why I had to come to the idea of harmony instead. Note, this does not discount symmetry as a characteristic of a beautiful object. A symmetrical face is more likely to be harmonious, but it is not a universal characteristic of all things beautiful.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Beauty: Harmony

We move on to the actual discussion of the universal characteristics of beauty, and taking those characteristics and seeing if they are a reflection of God. Unfortunately, it’s very easy to speak of the ideas of beauty without seeing what that beauty ultimately points to. It’s easy to look at a beautiful girl without moving on to contemplating the God whose image she reflects, not only as an image-bearer, but also in her beauty.

I picked up a few books on aesthetics and beauty to engage my own mind, to see what other people have said about beauty. I thought I would read them to determine if they have any insights that could aid me into discovering characteristics. One of the books I purchased was Beauty by Roger Scruton, (such a creative title) and in the chapter on Everyday Beauty, I found my first concept. It is interesting how the idea came to me, because the author didn’t really actually mention the word, but the concept that stuck was Harmony. I define harmony as how things work together as a whole. In the chapter of the book I am referencing, he was speaking of how we set the table, and how we do interior decoration in a manner where everything complements each other. This also tied back into something he had pointed out earlier in architectural beauty, where a beautiful work of architecture relies on other buildings that do not vie for our attention to be fully beautiful. They perfectly compliment the great work of architecture, are in harmony with it. Our eyes are drawn to the true beauty because the other structures are not in competition with it.

This is why some very complex, intricate designs become garish, because everything is trying to get us to look at it, leading them to be competing for our attention, and competing things cannot be in harmony with one another. The artist used all his skill without any thought into composition and making something pleasant to look at. That is why composition, and not technical skill, is the most important aspect to a work of art. Of course, one cannot discount artistic skill, because in order for work of art to be fully beautiful it must include a harmonious blend of composition and artistic skill. Every aspect must work together towards the beauty of the whole.

In music we see the principle of harmony quite clearly. A musical composition not only must have notes in harmony with one another, but the entire work must have the right melody and structure to make the beauty of the piece fuller. A beautiful passage would not be as beautiful without the context surrounding it. I think of the Nimrod variation by Elgar, and I know that the section where you are most struck by the beauty would be nothing without the rest of the piece. The entire work works together perfectly, everything relies on what is previous to it to make the beauty full and complete.

What remains is how it relates to God. I think Harmony is a characteristic of God in how every aspect of his character perfectly compliments each other. And like a musical piece, where the violins will pull back out of the spotlight so that the flute can stir our hearts with a beautiful solo, sometimes God’s attributes leave center stage so another can be seen. Like at Sodom and Gomorrah, where God’s wrath was displayed to a greater extent than his other attributes, or at salvation where is love and mercy and forgiving nature is displayed to those who choose Him. Both events display aspects of the same God, and in order to see the full beauty of who He is, his attributes need to perfectly complement each other.

Another way in which harmony is inherent within God is in the Godhead, where the three members of the Trinity are in perfect communion and cooperation, working together perfectly to create the story of our world. They perfectly compliment each other. The only time where this harmony was perhaps broken was at the cross. And maybe this idea has implications on theology. But that is a topic beyond the scope of my knowledge or of this blog series.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Beauty: Introduction

This is a topic that will take me a few blog posts to address due to the amount of thought I’ve put into it and the fact that if I put it into one post it would probably scare away any readers by it’s length. I feel that an introduction is necessary because the topic of Beauty, especially as addressed in this way, is not common, in fact is very rare. The scary part of the lack of material on this specific angle of the subject is that I am largely working on my own and have no real authority to check myself by. I don’t have any maps to show me how far off the trail I have strayed.

How this topic first interested me was actually the result of a Facebook note by a fellow classmate where he spoke of beauty and how there is no absolute standard (in his opinion). I made the suggestion that perhaps God is the absolute standard of beauty. I continued to think about this, and then early on in the Spring semester asked my professor if he had any books he could recommend on God in relation to Beauty, and he told me he didn’t, but that I could write my term paper on it. I purchased some books on beauty to see what qualities other people have seen in Beauty and to see if they relate to God in any way, if perhaps beauty could be a reflection of God.

Why I think this topic of beauty is important is first of all because beauty, and our ability to appreciate it, is a result of the creative act of God. The fact that I have an aesthetic response to a sunrise, or a pretty face is because God made me to. And reading the Old Testament, one can see that God values beauty. You see this in the Old Testament in the making of the Tabernacle where God speaks of skilled artists to make the tabernacle beautiful. Quite frequently the inspired author of the Old Testament will mention the beauty or handsome appearance of a character, even though that seems to have no real relation with the person’s actions, whether good or bad.

Beauty and worship are inextricably linked to each other. To worship is to ascribe worth to something, and to call something beautiful is ascribing a specific type of worth to it. Calling something beautiful means that it is worth our interest, our attention. Beautiful music is able to tell us something about God and to tell others something about our attitude towards God. If we strive for beauty in our music, art, and other aspects of the worship service, it would glorify God by showing we believe He is worth the effort it takes to make something beautiful. Making a beautiful work of art or performing a beautiful piece of music is not easy, we all know that, but to aim for that is to say to God, “You are worth this hard work. You are worthy of being worshipped with beauty.” Think about it, men never give their girlfriends or wives ugly jewelry, but beautiful jewelry. Why? Because we’re saying they’re worth that much, and in order to perfectly compliment their beauty a beautiful object must be given. In the same way, if God is worth everything, to worship him with ugly music or mediocre music doesn’t make any sense. And, if God is beautiful, then it only makes sense that we’d use something that reflects Him to worship Him, namely, beauty.

Thus, we need to determine what beauty is.