Year in and year out, the Trinity School Fine Arts Night is one of the most enjoyable events on the calendar. Invariably, parents are astounded by what their children have accomplished.
Whether it's a copy in pencil of a Holbein portrait, a recorder performance or a musical composition rendered according to the very stringent rules of counterpoint, parents are delighted. They are just amazed that their child who never exhibited any particular talents in these areas could create something so beautiful.
"Beautiful." That's what they say. That's what they recognize—beauty. They are not trying to articulate some philosophical or aesthetic position. They are simply describing their perception. It's a matter of seeing what is before their eyes and hearing what presents itself to their ears. It is beautiful, and they know it.
Amid all the learned speculation about beauty, this fact is, I think, the most important: Most people do have the ability to discern beauty and they can distinguish it from what is ugly. They recognize order, harmony of line and sound, the pleasing arrangement of color, etc.
Our students live in an age which celebrates the relativity of all thought, and so they often invoke the relativistic mantra that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Yet, something is terribly wrong with that notion. I tell the students: If they were watching the sunset from the cliffs of Big Sur on the California coast and a companion said that the sunset was ugly, they would accurately judge that either their companion did not know the correct use of the English word "ugly" or that he or she had some kind of disordered perception. They would know that something was wrong with that judgment. It is simply a fact: that sunset is beautiful; to say differently is to be wrong. It is a mistake.
Often, the "eye of the beholder" phrase is used to link the perception of beauty to taste: "it's just a matter of what you like." This is also, on the face of it, wrong. We have all had the experience of recognizing something as beautiful that we don't particularly like. If you play some Mozart for random listeners, they will recognize the beauty. At the same time, they might say that they don't particularly like the piece, or it doesn't suit their tastes, but they know it is beautiful. I don't particularly like Mahler's music, but I do recognize that it is beautiful. I can recognize a painting or a symphony as beautiful, and at the same time not want it hanging on my living room wall or played on my sound system. There is a real distinction between beauty and taste, or between beauty and what I like and dislike.
Indeed, part of the task of learning to recognize and appreciate beauty is the task of learning that beauty is independent of one's taste. The good news is that often we can educate our taste, we can broaden it and make it more discriminating. When I was in college, I lived with a professor and his wife. They were great opera lovers and aficionados of classical music. I had been raised on jazz. In my home we laughed at opera and would mimic what we took to be the screeching histrionics of the coloratura sopranos. Well, this professor and his wife took me Pymagalion-like, and over the course of a year taught me about opera and classical music. More importantly, they helped broaden my taste. They taught me to like opera, to desire it. They did this, not so much by talking to me, but by surrounding me with beautiful music. Often, as we listened, they would point out important features of the music. To this day I can thank them for enriching my life with a love for music that ranges from Josquin Depres to Charlie Mingus.
At Trinity School we work hard to bring all the students into contact with beauty. We want the halls full of beautiful music and the walls to be hung with beautiful drawings and paintings. The students study beautiful music, beautiful paintings, beautiful drama, beautiful poetry, beautiful novels, beautiful architecture and beautiful sculpture. Yes, even beautiful mathematics.
Being surrounded by beauty is crucial in learning to love and understand the beautiful. The reverse is also true. If one is surrounded by the cheap, the tawdry, the less than beautiful, one's tastes are, to that degree, unformed or deformed. This is one of the facts of life in American pop culture, so much of which is vulgar and cheap and tawdry. This mass culture has a corrosive effect on the tastes and sensibilities of children.
Here, we often find ourselves swimming upstream in the work of forming a student's taste for the beautiful. It can be a struggle both for the student and for the faculty, but it is one which, as parental delight on Fine Arts Night testifies, results in real success. The students learn to love and create beautiful things.
This post is the third of three installments on truth, goodness, and beauty by Dr. Kerry Koller the President of Trinity Schools.