Contemporary Classical Composer

Plato

Reflections on Beauty: Part Two

June 2, 2022

Various critical traditions associated with left-wing politics have promoted apathy or antipathy toward beauty, beginning with Karl Marx, who planted the seeds of the idea that beauty is a distraction from the all-important aim of overthrowing capitalism. Beauty was part of the “ideology” used to validate the privilege and power of the ruling class. Marx’s twentieth-century disciple, Theodore Adorno, openly advocated ugliness in art as a form of protest against the evils of the free market. The vindictive resentment of the far left—whether justified or not—is incompatible with the experience of beauty as a self-transcendent vision. Such an experience would detract from the real end of tearing down capitalism and taking revenge on those who have benefited from it. A similar sentiment is evident in the work of more recent critics such as John Richardson, who condemned Philip Glass’ opera Akhnaten for not doing enough to oppose “the orientialist/capitalist-imperialist project” in its portrayal of ancient Egypt. The power differential between America and Egypt was the real concern. There is, however, no nationalist or imperialist mentality evident in that opera. Meanwhile, there are striking harmonies, compelling melodies, brilliant costumes, fascinating sets, and colorful orchestration—in short, much to miss if one heeds the bad critique.

Certainly some artworks reflect racism or other anti-humanist views, and the critic ought to expose it when necessary; but the critic’s job is also to use wisdom and know when charges of injustice are appropriate. Irresponsible critiques are themselves unjust. Critical theory (as it’s known) errs on this side, i.e. of projecting its concern with oppression onto the work it condemns. Critical theorists, however, are unlikely to admit the error, which they see as a virtue. One can always insist that a pencil drawing is merely two-dimensional, and refuse to admit that two-dimensions are hinting at three, and interpret the diagonal lines as mere angles. In a similar way, the critical theorist—or those infected by his claims—can always insist that the only relevant thing to behold in the art is orientalism or patriarchal oppression, etc. The cost of this fallacy is that one misses out on potentially wonderful experiences, and worse, blocks others from the same. Excellent art—not to mention the seascape, your sweetheart and so on—can and should bring joy without letting political preoccupations get in the way. The extremist’s rage against oppression, however, leaves little psychological room for the disinterested appreciation, let alone the rapt adoration, of beauty. It is a small world to live in.

For the far-left critic, art must explicitly take a political side. The artist must oppose social hierarchies in his work, on pain of being condemned as complicit with the oppressors. You’re either with us or against us, the artist is told. And if you’re with us, you’d better prove it. This mentality has the potential to imperialize the leftist’s brain, so that more and more and soon everything in his world is interpreted through the lens of power differentials. This is unfortunate, not just because it is a sad fate, but because it reflects poorly on the left. “Socialism,” wrote E.F. Schumacher, emphasizes “non-economic values,”—e.g. that which offers “moral, aesthetic, and cultural enrichment.” Socialism wisely rejects the idea that society should be built on the individual’s single-minded pursuit of material profit. Marxism and its related thought-systems, however, envision those with power and privilege on the guillotine, and demand that artists and writers throw garbage at them. This embittered mindset is in competition with the love of beauty. The better versions of socialism, however, are allied with anti-materialism. Similar distinctions can be made of the feminist and anti-racist movements, of which there are extreme kinds fueled by vindictive resentment, and reasonable kinds motivated by the commitment to, let’s say, absolute justice, to borrow again from Plato. These distinctions are important because they show that the problem is not with the left, but with the far-left—which veers into intolerance, authoritarianism, and eventually blood and brutality, as history shows.

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The beauty we see in art, nature, and people is non-trivial. If we allow ourselves to be arrested by its power, we allow the part of ourselves to live that seeks meaning and joy. This thirst cannot be denied indefinitely in the human race, and as a result, the love of beauty which arouses and, to some extent, quenches that thirst will never disappear from human cultures.

We have not addressed another quality that we attribute to art, nature, and even people: the sublime—that which inspires awe and wonder. Beauty and the sublime have different connotations. A list of things under each heading will yield different results. For me, Beethoven’s Ninth is on both lists. But my things, of one kind or another, will differ from yours. Some of them might coincide. Any two people who share the same experiences are more than fellow-humans that owe respect to one another; they are the same kind of person

Read The First Post on this Topic

Reflections on Beauty: Part One

May 31, 2022

Last week I was enjoying the vistas of the Sonoran desert hills while the Phoenix morning air was still cool, and mentally visited the old question of whether beauty is subjective or objective—whether it exists in the mind of the observer, or is a real attribute of beautiful objects. It must be both, I thought, but how can that be? I enjoyed the rest of my hike, and when I got home I did some reading on the subject, and scribbled the following list under the heading of Beautiful Things:

  • Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
  • Borodin’s “Notturno” from String Quartet no. 2
  • John Tavener’s “Mother of God, Here I Stand”
  • Cabanel’s Birth of Venus
  • The Bust of Socrates
  • Sedona, AZ
  • The Grand Tetons, WY
  • Cupsogue Beach, Long Island
  • Piazza Venezia, Rome
  • Every photo and video of Audrey Hepburn

While writing I was conscious that all ten of these items fall into one of the following categories: Art (music, painting, sculpture), Nature, and People. Then I thought:

Beauty is the quality that stimulates amazement and delight in me as an observer. Beauty does not exist in my brain; the pleasure it creates exists in my brain. The things listed above—they are beautiful. I respond accordingly. People like me respond similarly.

Beauty is a reflection of the face of God. It is a glimpse of that with which I yearn to be connected. God is conceived and experienced differently by different people. He is not like physical objects, the existence of which can be empirically verified. But he speaks to us through physical reality—he fills us with longing, or he longs within us, for connection with the beauty we see in the world—or rather with the deeper reality of which these are the manifestations—divine love, or in Plato’s terms, absolute beauty.

Beauty is the manifestation of divine love acknowledged by human beings, who are also manifestations of divine love. When beauty is experienced, God is seeing an aspect of himself with longing through a physical form into which he has been incarnated.

Thus the experience of beauty is different for different people. God is speaking to them differently—or being glimpsed by them through different things—or glimpsing himself through himself in different ways. Forms awaken longing or joy in the individual that possesses some kind of symmetry with it. Thus beauty is personal. But patterns emerge. Groups emerge. I and people like me emerge, who see beauty in similar things. These groups may be described as informal communities. They are Tolkien fans, supporters of the Phoenix Chorale, Arizona backpackers with REI memberships, subscribers to any number of magazines, etc. None of the individuals in these groups will experience the thing they love in exactly the same way. No doubt they will be as indifferent to strangers within the “community” as to anyone else. But the core agreement puts them into intellectual proximity and is one of the conditions of friendship. Humans are delighted to find others like themselves, who see what they see. The faster the agreement, the greater the joy of discovering the other person. Even as few as two may agree, and form an island together. They will clasp hands and affirm that their opinion is not arbitrary or coincidental, but a natural response to the excellence of the thing they love—because beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but in the object, and similar souls acknowledge it.

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This attempt to articulate the mystery of the experience of beauty acknowledges its transcendent quality. The individual perceives excellence outside himself or herself. This experience should not be minimized. Accordingly, we should reject the subjectivist view that makes beautiful mean nothing more than I happen to get pleasure from it; and we can reject that view without denying that people obviously have different experiences and will rank the value or impact of them differently.

The subjectivist movement of last century (not the most important intellectual phenomenon happening at the time) coincided with a decline of interest in beauty amongst the artists historically regarded as prominent—Schoenberg, Kandinsky, Cage, Warhol, etc. This hiatus could not last very long because it contradicts human nature. The longing for deeper meaning cannot disappear, and honest people are eventually bound to admit their reflections. By the end of the century there was a renewal of interest in beauty in the academy and in the arts. Of course, subjectivism remains alive, and ever-opposed to the spiritual experience of beauty as described above.

Read Part Two

Artist Statement

In my work I acknowledge John Keats’ simple maxim—“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

Books I Read in 2015: Plato, The Republic

January 11, 2016

This post marks the first in a series of reflections on books I read in 2015, offered mainly for my friends and family, as well as anyone else online looking for reviews of these works or otherwise interested in subjects ranging from philosophy, science, theology, and spirituality to economics, politics, and history. The first on the list is:

Plato, Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett, Edited by Elizabeth Watson Scharffenberger (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004).

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There is too much in this long and truth-packed document for me to attempt to summarize or comment on in a brief space; but within the greatness, I found many striking parallels with the Bible. After reading through, I closed the book convinced that Plato was a Christian. Of course he predated Christ, but the essence of his teaching harmonizes beautifully with that of Christ. No wonder medieval Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas deeply respected him. Among the striking parallels with the Bible are the following: Glaucon poses the question as to who is happier, the unjust man who is prosperous and celebrated as righteous, or the just man who is viewed as wicked, and then “scourged, racked, bound…and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, impaled.” Years ago I read C.S. Lewis cite this passage as one of the most outstanding ‘pagan’ anticipations of the truth. Reading it for myself confirmed to me the idea that what I as a Christian call the Spirit of Prophecy is not limited to people who have a conscious knowledge of the Gospel. Equally striking, furthermore, was Plato’s quotation of Romans 8:28 in Book 10 (four centuries before Paul!): “Even when [the just man] is in poverty or sickness, or any other seeming misfortune, all things will in the end work together for good to him in life and death…” Peppered throughout Plato’s Republic are many other images, ideas, and turns of phrase that recall various passages in scripture. If there is a single Spirit of Truth which, as Paul preached to the Athenians in the first century, is not far from all men but quite near, it is no surprise that such spontaneous concord should be discovered.

Overall, Socrates’ task is to answer Glaucon’s challenge to prove that the just person is truly happier than the unjust; this he does by sketching in detail the structure of human civilization, ultimately drawing parallels between the State and the individual, which is a microcosm of the former. Like the State, the individual has forces within that strive for mastery, but which must be ruled by wisdom and love for absolute truth. The dialogue becomes an occasion for Plato to propound his political vision, and to envisage the ideal State. Few works have been as influential throughout history.

Glaucon’s challenge is only resolved in the end when Socrates appeals to the immortality of the soul. The idea that there is reward and/or punishment beyond the grave offers rational justification for preferring the life of a just man, even when it means misery and sore travail, to the life of the unjust man, even when it means adulation, merriment and delight in this life.

Also paramount in this book, and of special interest to me as a composer, is Plato’s view on literature and music. Its purpose, he says, is to impart and reinforce the love of virtue within the citizens of the State, particularly the young in the context of education. Music and poetry—Plato often singles out Homer—can be judged based on whether it tunes the strings of the soul either to courage and temperance or to pusillanimity and lust. Reading this reminded me of Beethoven, whose personal library included the Republic and whose music often embodies the virtues Plato praises in this work. The essence of Plato’s teaching, I believe, remains relevant today: goodness in art reflects goodness in humans, and both should be encouraged and celebrated heartily.