Earlier this year, the Washington Post conducted an unusual social experiment that reveals something disturbing about our culture—something that should concern any person interested in the wellbeing and future of our society and the preservation of the true, the good, and the beautiful.
World class violinist, Joshua Bell, entered the Washington D.C. Metro train station dressed in jeans, long-sleeved t-shirt, and a baseball hat. He then removed his $3.5 million dollar Stradivarius from its case and began to play. He played six pieces representing some of the most extraordinary works of Classical music for the next 43 minutes as rush-hour commuters passed by on their way to work. The objective was to “assess the priorities, perception, and taste of the general public” and determine: Could beauty transcend the manic pace and cultural banality of these morning commuters? Apparently, it could not. Of the 1070 people who heard Joshua Bell, “only seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around, at least briefly, and take in the performance.” And, twenty-seven gave a total of $32 and change. Across from where Bell stood steady groups of five and six people did take the time to “line up” at the newspaper kiosk to buy lottery tickets.
Now, you may be tempted at this point to say “So what, I don’t particularly like Classical music either?” However, I would ask you to bear with me because there is something unique about this particular form of music that at its best touches a universal truth, which, on some level, holds appeal for all human beings. Consider for example, the film Platoon by Oliver Stone. While I do not agree with Oliver Stone’s perspective on much of anything--one piece of music was played repeatedly throughout this film and powerfully conveyed the anguish and tragedy of war in general but in particular, the Vietnam War in the minds of moviegoers. Recall the tragic scene when the chopper is pulling away and Sgt. Elias Grodin, played by Willem Dafoe, is left behind and ultimately gunned down as his comrades can only watch. While this scene was made powerful by the slow motion photography; it was the music--Barber’s anguished Adagio for Strings, which proved so powerful in capturing the nation’s collective grief over Vietnam some twelve years after the conflict ended. You did not have to be an aficionado of Classical music to experience the depth and power of this beautiful piece of music. Most moviegoers could not identify Barber’s Adagio and yet all were moved in almost the exact same way by his haunting piece. This near universal effect reveals something objectively true about reality that our senses discern regardless of experience, backgrounds and understanding. There is a universal truth regarding the nature of beauty.
In regards to music and the aforementioned experiment, Classical music was born out of a specific way of thinking about the world which understood music as an abstract expression of objective reality. From the time of the ancient Greeks music was thought to reflect an orderly, mathematical structure built into the universe itself. With the rise of Christianity, these ideas were both absorbed into the biblical worldview and carried further with the creation of a system for composing orchestral music. A brief discussion with my father-in-law, a former flutist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, about music composition reveals the myriad complexity and mathematical precision unique to Western Classical music—it’s akin to talking physics! This mathematical quality is both absolute and universally true. There is an order in the universe that exists apart from mankind’s creation or knowledge awaiting discovery and the best music is so because at the moment when it is “best” it touches this truth. This is why Barber’s Adagio for Strings, among others, has almost universal ability to tangibly stir the depths of our emotions.
Beauty is objective because God has defined it in and through His creation and thus man searches for beauty and true art expresses beauty within the framework of this standard. Of course there are varied preferences but these occur within fixed boundaries. As Os Guiness points out, “human creativity is derivative and reflective, working within the bounds of what God has formed.” In other words, while there may be preferences with regard to what is beautiful, nonetheless the broader context in which we categorize beauty comes from those standards already established within creation. None can look at a sunset in the same way we look at “road kill.” The former is universally accepted as representing beauty while the latter is universally accepted as ugly and repulsive. We do not have to be taught this is true as our nature knows it to be true. There may be degrees to which one admires the beauty of the sunset but it is beautiful nonetheless. Likewise, no rational person could suggest that “road kill” is aesthetically beautiful, although some modern artists have tried.
However, when man believes that he defines what is and is not beauty (i.e. subjective) then this objectivity is lost—our senses are dulled and our ability to discern this universal truth is diminished. The net effect is a barrier to belief in the One True God not to mention a sub-human existence in which real beauty has no place.
Simply compare the understanding of beauty and music that I have just described with that of today’s popular art and music. So much of today’s music either expresses rage and anger, hedonism or superficial sentimentality. There has been a loss of emphasis on discovering true beauty. That is not to say that there is no good pop music. I enjoy a wide variety of musical genres from classic Rock-N-Roll and Country to Jazz and Folk. However, I can still appreciate the more profound beauty and depth of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor or Franz Schubert’s breathtaking Ave Maria. These, more so than pop music, point me toward the Creator God who has defined true beauty that, when experienced, touches the transcendent.
To illustrate the truth of “objective” beauty, the observers in the Washington Post experiment were struck by one observation in particular. The Post reported “there was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from the vast majority who hurried on past unheeding. Whites, blacks, and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.” Despite their lack of knowledge or familiarity, every single child could recognize the beauty of what they were hearing and they were drawn to it.
Perhaps these children, unencumbered by the modern pressures of life, were still able to recognize true beauty and be drawn to its significance. The poet Billy Collins once quipped that “all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter.” However, I would add that it is because God has written His truth on every human heart and this would include the truth about what is and is not beautiful. Collins later observed that “life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us.” This is a sad but probably true reality that we must resist.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “The preservation of society, and of the species itself, are ends that do not hang on the precarious thread of Reason: they are given by Instinct.” It is up to parents, and in particular Christian parents, to cultivate this “instinct” in their children in order to recognize “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, and whatever is admirable.” For such things point to the Creator—they are indicators of the transcendent, that we are more than accidental animals; we are in fact beings created in the image of a good and holy God. Beauty transcends reason—it touches the Divine instinct in humanity. The Devil wars against beauty in order to suppress this instinct and so we, the Church, in glory to God, must work to preserve the true, the good, and the beautiful.
© 2007 by S. Michael Craven
Subscribe to my weekly commentaries by e-Mail HERE
S. Michael Craven is the Founding Director of the Center for Christ & Culture
Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.