I spent early 2000s on a liberal arts campus, a campus trying to cope with the cultural arrogance that would lead to terrorism, racism, and other acts of tyranny. I was ardently pressed to agree that no universal standard of beauty exists. The mind that can enshrine its own preferences as universal is the same mind that blows up buildings and kills people, so the peaceful mind must hold its preferences in an open hand. On the face of it, this position brooks no argument. A standard of beauty develops within a particular set of social circumstances into which a person did not even choose to be born. It certainly is true that you cannot privilege one cultural happenstance over another. Circumstances are dispersed and received according to an inscrutable logic and, since culture is the business of people, the byproducts of circumstances emanate from the same essential dignity. So each standard of beauty must stand on a level playing field. We ought to take more care with our words, though, and to do so, we must think a little less of ourselves.
The problem with the preceding argument against a universal standard of beauty is in its presumption, that presumption being that beauty means the same thing as taste. Taste is the human experience of partaking in beauty. We would therefore be mistaken to elevate our experience of it to the definition of beauty itself. Preference varies, but beauty does not change alongside. To presume otherwise, even with the aim of equality for all cultural expression, may aim at humility, but it opens the door for its own kind of arrogance: the arrogance of relativism, that sneakiest form of totalitarianism. Taste must be kept distinct from and secondary to beauty in order for beauty to remain intact, otherwise beauty would have to contain ugliness and this simply cannot be. All beauty satisfies taste, but not all taste is satisfied by beauty.
This may seem to lean towards the very divisiveness that would lead to blowing things up; who, then, decides what is beautiful and ugly? But, that question continues to conflate taste and beauty. Things get blown up in the name of taste, when its whims demand that beauty refuse too much. But a relativistic approach still diminishes beauty, asking that it submit to too much. We must start over from scratch. Is there a universal standard of beauty? Yes, and it is this: that there is beauty.
I can think of no culture that does not agree on this. Whenever two or more people get together, it seems they always get down to the business of finding some things praiseworthy and calling those things beautiful. That in itself—that opportunity to praise—makes a pretty persuasive case against too much much of being by yourself, I’d say. Yes, on the subject of beauty, there is near universal agreement: it’s there and it’s true.
What, then, is beauty? I’m satisfied to think of it like this. Beauty is when we find the materials of our world ordered in a way that least resembles the broken state of their origin, even if in the midst of brokenness. This is a thing we can recreate. A song, a story, an image that pushes against its surroundings and says something different, calls us toward some border. In darkness, and we are all immersed in darkness of one kind or another, beauty carves out space in which we can delight. While our glimpses of quickened order are hemmed in by chaos on all sides, and our curse is to see the order unmade before our eyes, still we continue on, seeking and wielding beauty against gloom with a universal tirelessness that I take as proof that we are creatures of the former and not the latter.
We make music. We quarry sounds around us and we shape them and stack them in sonic palaces, converting noise to song. Our instruments may vary from region to region, as may our preferred timing and distances between the tones, but in praise of ordered sound we remain unanimous.
We make images and in so doing, do nothing less than make a music of light. With highlight and shadow, we order where light appears, and with pigment we reap the unending white light we receive and draw from its spectrum shade and hue. We arrange this harvest on canvas or paper, preparing a feast for the eye.
We make words and this is the greatest music, the music of our selves. This time, it was the sounds in our own thoughts and on our own lips that we put into an order that would summon from deep waters our thoughts and release them into the light. The word formed a community from disparate lives. Others’ words entered us like a torch, illuminating our hidden spaces, and our own words did the same in them and so the light between us grew. In time we shaped light and shadow in a particular way to reflect the sounds we made. We made an alphabet, written language to make tangible the human interior. Manifestation of spirit, this is the ultimate blessing of the word. This blessing enabled us to perfect our relationship with beauty.
With music as with image, the beauty is a blessing we take into ourselves. While this is good and can be so resonant on its own, when we give voice to what stirred in us, our experience seems heightened. What was visceral is refined and we feel cultivated, deepened. To keep it inside, to always keep it inside, is to be cut off from something vital, and ultimately, to step into something destructive. Beauty trapped in a cage is mere pleasure, which has been known to turn on us. The word is the means by which we work beauty into our interior dark and the irreplaceable vessel by which we share beauty with each other, even if so few words as, ‘Look here,’ or, ‘Listen there.’ When image and sound come into communion with the word, the symphony is complete and chaos is most broadly dispersed.
We are makers of songs, images, and words, makers of order in disorder, seekers of beauty in chaos without exception. The universal standard of beauty is that there is beauty. Yes, and how did we ever come to this consensus, perhaps the only human consensus? Well, no matter where or when we were born, we were all born into this world, and nowhere is beauty more effortless than in nature. Wherever we turn, sights and sounds can strike the human spirit like a hammer on a bell. Valleys seen from high places, rivers and seas in eternal motion: these graces, or others like them, are common to all. These were our templates, the visions and sounds that called us out of our interior dark, summoning us to the threshold of stillness and wonder. All our work with light and shadow, consonance and dissonance, and even consonants and vowels has been our attempt to reflect back into the world that which it so abundantly and promiscuously pours out in our presence simply by hewing to its natural state. This very good world is the muse to all of our musics; we answer its call and all the more urgently when faced with the darkness which also swirls around us.
At this point, we must seriously grapple with the origin of this world because that place is the origin of whatever calls out to us. What call are we almost irresistibly compelled to answer? Or whose? Why do we answer back with acts of beauty, especially when the world itself seems so dark? Why do we reject the darkness?
Admittedly, not everyone has tried to answer back with beauty. There are some who say all this talk of beauty and chaos, light and darkness, is an over-wrought load of sentimentality to be dismantled with all urgency. With hard-headed zeal, some set out to make unredemptive even irredeemable work, to reflect chaos into chaos. You know what, I’m going to go ahead and co-opt that just like I’ve co-opted basically all the rest of art. The final act of beauty is its inevitability. What may seem unredemptive and unbeautiful fails by its own design. Its every act to frustrate our embedded appetite for beauty must push against something, it must push against the frontier of beauty; by trying to subvert beauty, which demarcates the border with chaos, ugliness merely charts the chaos from within. Anything that can be mapped can be left, and these dark expressions drive us to beauty by training us what to reject. Every time a person makes an unbeautiful choice, they must choose against something else. We instinctively feel what was chosen against and so we experience beauty except as an absence, and ultimately as a longing.
Our final question, with a universal standard and workable definition of beauty in hand, is this: how do we discern good taste and how can we do so while promoting human flourishing? Some choices, in art, yes, and beyond, aren’t beautiful. As matters of taste, they exist outside of beauty by their own design. By subverting taste to beauty, though, we can make distinctions without being tyrannical. First, an elevated sense of beauty is not threatened by bad taste, in fact, it brings more clarity and gentleness. You see, by positioning beauty above taste, we must subject even our own taste to it, including how we respond to the taste of others. We honor beauty when our taste is tuned to human, not tribal, nourishment. Second, we can see if taste is diseased by the light of the beauty hanging overhead, but we can also see clearly to contrast disease and mere difference. What makes us flourish, what tears us apart? Guided by beauty, we can approach our differences knowing that all darkness is of a piece and so darkness can not drive out darkness but only join with it. Then we can cling to beauty, that it is diversely reflected, and wield our own acts of beauty, carving out space in darkness and making space in which to delight.