Beauty is Objective

Gene Edward Veith is a wise professor who also serves as a writer on worldview and culture for WORLD magazine. In WORLD’s most recent issue, he wrote a very interesting and insightful piece on beauty as an absolute.

The article is posted below. If I’m breaking any rules by posting it here, I will repent… but just to cover my #*@, y’all should consider subscribing to WORLD. It is an excellent news magazine written from a Christian worldview by top-notch scholars and writers.

Acquired taste: Beauty is more than in the eye of the beholder | Gene Edward Veith

Copyright © 2008 WORLD Magazine; February 09, 2008, Vol. 23, No. 3

Christians have to battle the mindset that insists “there are no absolutes.” But Christians often do not realize what the absolutes are that they need to defend. The classic thinkers spoke of three kinds of absolutes: the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Often, Christians reject the claims that truth and morality are relative while agreeing with the postmodernists that beauty is relative. But to think that beauty is nothing more than a subjective preference—unconnected to standards that originate in God Himself—is to buy into a foundational principle of today’s anti-Christian worldview.

The Bible tells us to set our minds on “whatever” is “excellent” and “of good report” (Philippians 4:8). Beauty does involve personal taste, but our tastes need discipline. Growing in taste means learning to take pleasure in what is objectively good.

Consider this principle from Aesthetics 101: A work is beautiful to the extent that it displays at the same time both complexity and unity.

In painting a black canvas has unity, but it has no complexity. A canvas of random paint-splatterings may have complexity, but it has no unity. The Sistine Chapel, or a Rembrandt woodcut, or a Hudson River landscape has both, being full of individual details that come together into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Pop music typically consists of no more than three chords in a simple melody with simple lyrics. Not much is going on. Contrast that with a hymn (whether traditional or contemporary): It consists of many different musical notes for different voices, all coming together in the unity of harmony. Its lyrics, in turn, are packed with theology, figures of speech, biblical references, and emotions. The hymn is objectively better by aesthetic standards than the pop ditty. Even greater aesthetically is the symphonic composition in which every instrument is playing a different musical line yet all come together into a majestic unity.

There is nothing wrong with an occasional indulgence in junk food, though if all you eat is sugar and French fries, you will be malnourished. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with an occasional indulgence in junk culture. But just as you need the nutrition found in a home-cooked meal, you need the cultural nutrition that comes from enjoying the best.

Taking subjective pleasure in what is objectively excellent takes knowledge and experience. Here is a practical suggestion: Play classical music. Not just any classical music, some of which is less accessible and an “acquired taste.” Start with two composers: Bach and Mozart. Focus on their instrumental works, not the chorales or operas. Notice how their music is both complex and unified. Notice the pleasure it gives you.

Before too long, you will develop a taste for musical excellence. Then you can go from there into other kinds of aesthetic excellence.


Leave a Comment

  1. Bob,

    Thanks for your post in the other thread. I think that your assessment of CCM has been true at times and not true at other times. I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, which is what I feel happens at times in that analysis. But, we’re 70% together on that. . thanks for your thoughts.

    I agree and disagree with this post. And, I think that the writer contradicts himself mutliple times. I disagree with him on his analysis of pop music and hymns. I also find it interesting that he wants us to focus on the instrumental works of Bach and Mozart but not their chorales or operas. Why? Because, he’s making a value judgement, that’s why.

    I lead a traditional and a contemporary service at my church in Boulder right now. Almost on a weekly basis there are more chords and similar “complexity” in some of our worship songs than there are in the hymns. That’s a strawman and an unfounded argument, in my experience.


    I agree with the writer on this front. We should diversify our pallete. If you don’t ever listen to music that has more “complexity” than you’re not getting a full artistic experience. This works the other way, too,. . however. And many of those in music academia and the classical world are longing to loosen up and improvise. . play some basic changes, etc. . . (this is my personal experience with such musicians).

    This article, frankly is a bit simplistic. And, to evaluate it by bit would be too long here. So, let me just say that I agree with him that we need a balance, we need diversity and we need to not just jump into tne newest pop song and think it’s the “greatest” ever.

    From a musician’s standpoint. . once you get into the music you can see much more unity between classical and pop than this writer gives credit for. And, you see the beauty and God-glorifying potential of both.


  2. By the way. . if anyone is interested in more on this issue. . .check out

    Dr. Harold Best–Dean of music Wheaton Conservatory

    two of his books are. . .

    “Music through the eyes of Faith”

    “Unceasing Worship”

    He also has many articles and such online.

  3. What about people? If we make the general statement, “beauty is objective”, does this line of thought extend to the physical appearance of men and women?

    My concern is that major historical and sociological
    problems have arisen (and by “problems” I mean, in
    some cases, genocide), when an individual or group has
    sought to establish an objective standard of beauty for humankind. While I agree that
    there are indeed objective standards for aesthetically
    pleasing works of art, music or written composition, I
    am wary of making the blanket statement that “beauty is objective”, which would mean that the same holds true for people.
    A person who believes that all people are created in
    the image of God will see beauty altogether differently from, for example, Hitler or those who discard handicapped babies in China.


  4. Marie I like your comments. Good stuff. I think that in terms of people, if you look at humanity on the whole, you can see the complexity and diversity within our race, but also see how we are united as one. I can look at the children I see on Sunday in our children’s ministry and then see the elderly people that come into my work as beautiful individually and as a united sample of humanity. So in that respect (in looking at humanity), if we use Veith’s definition of beauty, I think it could hold up. Those who commit genocide are not really looking for true beauty; they are trying to gain power.

    That being said I am not so quick to agree with the definition of complex and unified as beauty. Anyone who was at the Alex Dupree concert at Mosaic knows what I am talking about. It was just a couple of dudes with guitars. I have seen full symphonies play, I was part of a 200 piece marching band (that sounded great, by the way). I have heard good complex music. But I can honestly say that the Alex Dupree concert was the most beautiful concerts I have been to. At times it was just him singing and strumming. It was simple and incredible.

    I also don’t know that something has to give me pleasure to be beautiful. Classical music is good and I can appreciate it, but it does not give me the pleasure that Veith speaks of. Same with jazz. But that’s not to say it isn’t great. Also, artists like Damien Rice, Sufjan, even Derek Webb can make me extremely sad or lonely at times when I listen to them. But it is still beautiful music.

    I think there could be something to this objective beauty thing. I just don’t like this particular definition. But maybe I need to train myself in true beauty.

    The uncultured swine

  5. Patrick,

    Yeah, I don’t like this particular definition either, and I spent 4 years of my life studying classical music,. . and love it. 🙂

    “the hymn is objectively better by aesthetic standards than the pop ditty”.

    Which Hymn? Which pop ditty? Whose aesthetic standards?

  6. I am going to stick up for this guy’s definition.

    I don’t think that this author is defining complex as “the most instruments” or “most complicated to understand,” although I see how his comparison of classical music to pop music could get us off in that direction.

    I was not at the Dupree concert at Mosaic, but I saw him at Suckau. The beauty of his performance didn’t come from the sheer number of instruments or people or voices, but from the complex yet coherent and stirring combination of unique instrumentation, vocals, lyrics, stories, emotion, etc. The fact that you can combine all of these elements into something that comes out sounding simple and easy is greater testament to the accomplishment. Even if you are the biggest Avril Lavigne fan in the world, I think you have to admit that Dupree’s creation is objectively a more worthy creation than Complicated (which really isn’t all that complicated if you get my drift).

    If this type of unity in complexity isn’t what we are innately in tune to, then why do have such long discussions about which musical artists are better and more meaningful? To give up on the idea of absolute beauty, you could never argue that Sufjan Stevens is superior to Britney Spears, that – something we all know deep down is true.

  7. Clatterbuck,

    We can argue that Sufjan is superior to Britney Spears, for instance. I don’t think we can argue that Sufjan’s music is objective beauty, and Britney’s is not.

    That kind of Pop music (britney, avril) is obviously more simple than Mozart, or Sufjan. But these are stylistic differences and complexity differences. They aren’t objective artistic differences.

    Mozart never knew what an electric guitar was, and Dupree doesn’t ever have coreography or dancing. . . so it’s just patently a different, more simple kind of art.

    Again, I agree, let’s yell it from the rooftops “top 40 pop music is mostly lame and simplistic, . . let’s broaden our horizons!!”.

    That doesn’t mean that there isn’t beauty to be had in music on the radio,. . . or that Classical music is superior, artistically, to u2 or Bruce Sprinsteen. . . .just different, and more complex.


  8. Some of you guys are getting all sideways on an illustration (pop vs. classical) of Veith’s main point, which was that beauty is not subjective. This is called the discipline of aesthetics. In the words of Jesus: “Go and learn what this means…”

  9. axiology is the study of value and quality; its subfields are ethics and aesthetics.
    interesting. we often engage in culture war over the nature of ethics but aesthetics could just be an often ignored (in the christian subculture) twin of ethics. symmetry, unity, complexity, contrast. that’s some truly aesthetically pleasing philosophy.

    that info’s from a spotty bit on wikipedia. I’m also finding some related information from a Dr. Peter Jones who can be found on the Resurgence website which is linked to from the CD homepage

  10. Bob,

    I think I understand his “discipline of aesthetics” and agree with it. I just don’t think his examples follow from that, so I’ve been focusing on them.

    If the point here is that we should discipline ourselves with many different kinds of aesthetics, than I’m all for it. I think he’s going a bit further than that, though.

    I really think Dr. Harold Best holds some knowledge in this area,. . as he is a musician and, once the head of the National Music Educators Association.

    Sorry, as a musician, I can’t in good conscience agree with this article. He’s painting with too broad a brush.

    A simple compromise for me, might be to find the “good, true, and beautiful” in many different things. And, not to ascribe one particular style or genre of art as having more of those qualities than another.

    I’ve probably said all I need to say here. Thanks for working through all of this.


  11. After talking to an esteemed expert in the area of truth and beauty (read Josh Meyer), I think that it would be more helpful to focus on the “unity” rather “complexity” angle in this guy’s defintion.

    In the words of Josh (as far as I can remember them), “Complexity itself isn’t beautiful; everything in this sinful world is a mess of complexity. What is beautiful is when that complexity is harnessed and brought into submission so that we can use it.”

    Doesn’t that view of objective beauty point us to the gospel, namely the beauty of the Kingdom of God taking a complex world that has been shattered into a million pieces by sin and making all of it new and beautiful and reconciled again?

    Whether it is a perfectly crafted pop song, culinary dish, piece of renaissance art or logical argument – the artist’s work might be thought of as a reflection of God’s work of renewal and its objective beauty proportional to its ability to reconcile complex, broken stuff into something coherent.

  12. Aaron, I’m with ya. I think he chose to paint with a broad brush because he’s a writer, and he had to (you can’t say everything in 500 words).

    I would agree with HIM that taken as a whole, classical music is more aesthetically beautiful than pop simply because of the depth of its unity and complexity.

    I would agree with YOU that within each genre there are more and less beautiful musical compositions, and that much beauty can be found even in rock/pop music.

    It’s interesting to me that the rock/pop artists I tend to like most are also those who have classical training and are therefore able to bring greater levels of unity and complexity to their music.

    Harold Best and Peter Jones are two guys worth reading/listening to. Good sources.

    Clatty, good gospel application, nice job! That’s where this is all driving.

  13. I should also note: the ONLY two classical CD’s I own are Bach and Mozart. And though I am much more apt to listen to U2 for pleasure, I would have to agree with Dr. Veith that Bach and Mozart never get old.

  14. Well, after reading this a couple times and reading some of the comments I thought I’d chime in -not a very complex or unifying chime, mind you 🙂

    Veith says that there isn’t anything wrong with an occasional indulgence in junk. Really? Well let me hang this one up and go watch some smut on VH1. Sounds to me like he’s trying to play it safe and speak his mind at the same time. Or maybe he knows he’s guilty of ‘mediocrity’ as well. Hey bud, just cause you have an addiction to McD’s doesn’t mean it’s ever ok! I’m half kidding on that one.

    And to add that hymns have ’emotion’ in them -as if Pop music as a whole(because that’s what he’s addressing) doesn’t have emotion?! Come on now.

    I do understand the direction he’s going -and why you posted, Bob. But, I feel he didn’t fully succeed.

    I will check out the magazine, though! Sounds great -can’t believe I’ve never heard of it?!


    I really don’t think aesthetic beauty is an absolute. I believe that the beauty of holiness is an absolute and I’m pretty sure the beauty of holiness and aesthetic beauty are completely unrelated. The beauty of holiness is absolutely and objectively found in the nature of God, but it is spiritual, in the same way that truth and goodness are. It is not round or square, or blue or red – it’s invisible, un-tastable, entirely untouchable. The beauty of holiness finds it’s reference point in the person of God; Aesthetic beauty finds it’s subjective reference points in his creation. And creation seems to say that there is no objectively perfect shape, or color, or sound. Beauty in creation is subjective to context.

    We should not make rules about what styles are more beautiful than others. That will lead to all kinds of snobbery, classism, and racism.
    (these thoughts are highly influenced by harold best and mike cosper)

  16. Michael,

    Thanks for posting… you are definitely someone who has more experience in this field than I do. I was talking with Cosper last week and he mentioned some of these same ideas. A few of us are reading some of Harold’s work right now, so hopefully it will spur some thought and reflection.

    I do see your point about objective aesthetics leading to snobbery and such. At the same time, there is something in Veith’s point of view that resonates with me. Are you aware of any good point/counterpoint resources that contrast these two points of view?

Leave a Reply