beautiful beauty

The Value of Beauty

6:00:00 AMChase J. Cloutier

As you prepare to leave work one day, your thoughts turn to music. For as long as you can remember, you have enjoyed listening to the music of the symphony. Luckily a local radio station often broadcasts music performed by the city symphony. Every evening as you finish your work day, you anticipate the ride home listening to the soothing sounds of the strings, the brazen bellows of the brass, and the whirling whispers of the woodwinds. Whenever you hear the symphony, you perceive in their playing such masterful artistry, subtle technique, and
exuberant enthusiasm. Who wouldn’t love the symphony?

Today is of special importance because the radio station is featuring a piece of music that just premiered last night. It was said to be a performance never to forget. However, today is also the day you promised to give your co-worker a ride home. His car is in the shop, after all. As you both walk out to the car, you mention the exciting performance that is being broadcast. Maybe your co-worker will enjoy the piece as well. Starting the car and pulling out onto the road, you turn the radio to your favorite channel.

As the first glorious moments of the symphony ring out, your heart begins to soar and leap with the delightful melodies being performed. The symphony is as excellent as you’ve ever heard it. The performance turns out to be even better than you anticipated. “Do you think we could change it?” asks your co-worker.
Change it? Are we listening to the same thing? “Why do you want to change the channel?” “Oh, I don’t really like the symphony. It just doesn’t sound that good to me.”

Based on the great variety of musical tastes in society, one may be tempted to conclude that the beauty of music is completely subjective; it all depends on which person you ask. I may like a certain song on the radio, but that does not mean all of my friends will like it. My standards of beauty differ from that of others. Who’s to say that my subjective standard of beauty is superior to any other? What enables me to judge the standards of others as uninformed, mediocre, or just plain wrong?

This touches upon an issue of which we are all aware on some level. Each of us has had an experience of beauty in music which lifted us up and brought joy to our hearts. Yet there is so much disagreement on what constitutes beautiful music -- maybe beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder (or maybe the ear?).

In the first chapter of the Aesthetics, Dietrich von Hildebrand broaches the topic of the objectivity of beauty. Many thinkers in the philosophy of aesthetics today think that beauty is just a word we use to describe a pleasurable experience in ourselves. If we feel a delight when we see or hear some object, then we call that thing beautiful. It is not on account of any property or quality of the object itself that we call an object beautiful. Rather, beauty is only constituted in our reaction to an object.

I believe many music-lovers in today’s culture would not take it so far. While they respect that others have different musical tastes, they want to believe that their own musical tastes are justified. One thinks that there are good reasons to like this type of music over another. I love this music because it is beautiful, because of the quality inherent in it. “Beauty presents itself unambiguously as a property of an object -- more specifically, as a value.” (1) The object does not all of a sudden become beautiful once I enjoy it. This is why we are genuinely upset if someone else thinks our favorite piece of music -- the work of art which we treasure more than any other -- is ugly. We think to ourselves -- they are wrong. In truth, this musical work is exceedingly beautiful.

In his discussion on the objectivity of beauty, von Hildebrand points to this phenomenon of the experience of beauty. If we have truly experienced the beautiful, we come to an intuitive awareness of its intrinsic importance. That which is beautiful is not merely subjectively satisfying. Beauty constitutes a value -- that is, it is important in itself. It stands out in our experience as worthy of admiration. In the dialogue of subject with object one comes to perceive the value of beauty.

While our preferences and affinities do have a role to play in our appreciation of the beautiful, the main focus in aesthetic experience is on the beautiful thing itself. Thus, the response of the subject can be evaluated, to a certain extent, according to how beautiful this object really is. Ultimately, we should strive to apprehend and respond to all that is beautiful. There is an education in the beautiful and a cultivation of the aesthetic sense which we are all capable of entering into. Often this requires some humility and openness to the aesthetic sense of others. It may mean attending your first symphony with a friend or it may demand tuning in to a new radio station.
File:Listening to is Yes' self-titled debut album from 1969.jpg

---------- 1. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics Vol. 1 (Forthcoming publication of the Hildebrand Project), 15-16. Image 1: St. Cecilia with Two Angels, Antiveduto Grammatica, c. 1620-1625. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. (source)
Image 2: Sled dog and gramophone, Herbert Ponting, 1910-1913. (source) Image 3: Listening to album, Ed Uthman, 1969. (source)

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