Beauty on the Comeback Trail
By Crispin Sartwell
Like monarchs, angels, and comedians, concepts fall, and rarely has a concept taken a more tragic or comical tumble than beauty. Once, it inhabited the sphere of ultimate value, glittering in the empyrean along with truth, goodness, and justice (all of which were considered by Plato or the romantic poets to be the same thing). Long about 1910, it got kicked downstairs to the department of hairstyling. From eternal essence it got demoted to superficial appearance.
Beauty’s pratfall was registered both in the arts and in philosophy. Picasso or De Kooning didn’t paint to make beautiful things; they painted to transform the world. And probably the last great treatments of the topic in philosophy – at least until recently – were Santayana’s Sense of Beauty (1895) and Benedetto Croce’s Aesthetic (1902).
The reasons for the indignities heaped on beauty are complex. One of them is that, beginning in the eighteenth century (for example in Hume and Kant), beauty was conceived more and more as a subjective matter, and as conceptually connected to pleasure. By the time Santayana wrote his dissertation, he could argue that beauty was actually a kind of mistake: the person who experiences beauty attributes his own subjective pleasure to the object that causes it. If beauty is entirely subjective or in the eye of the beholder, then not only is it not an eternal concept, it is not a concept at all: ‘beauty’ means whatever anyone thinks it means, and hence it means nothing.
In Romanticism and Modernism, the artist – think Beethoven, Van Gogh, Giacometti – was conceived as a genius, his works emerging inexplicably from his superhuman-but-ill skull to re-make human experience. The idea that someone like that was working to bring people pleasure would have seemed in the era an intolerable trivialization of art; we could leave that task to the entertainment or cosmetics industry. So beauty, conceived as a source or even a variety of pleasure, came to seem an unworthy goal.
And it came to be associated with what we would now call right-wing politics: with the architecture and visual expressions of the Catholic Church, with the French monarchy and its rococo kitsch, with capitalism and its robber-baron art patrons, with the Third Reich (for example in Leni Riefenstahl’s undeniably beautiful film Olympia). The left turned against beauty as a whole, and in the realm of concepts beauty was pitted against justice, luxurious ornament or conspicuous consumption against subsistence for the poor and education for the masses.
Indeed, the association of beauty and pleasure with fascism is one of the darkest episodes in the history of human consciousness. Arthur Danto, in The Abuse of Beauty, one of several important recent philosophical treatments of the topic, quotes Max Ernst, recalling the dadaists after World War I: “We had experienced the collapse into ridicule and shame of everything represented to us as just, true, and beautiful. My works of that period were not meant to attract, but to make people scream.”
Yet even after the fall, beauty has never ceased to be a fundamental human experience or even one of the reasons life is worth living. And if the beauty of a rose or a sunset seems exhausted or clichéd as a subject of art, poetry, or philosophy, we have never ceased to experience such things as beautiful, perhaps with as much purity as ever, with as much of a sense of a renewal of commitment to life and to the world.
And though such a venerable dimension of human experience and of the arts could never be entirely neglected, beauty seems to be in revival both in art and in philosophy. The first steps in making beauty viable would be to detach it conceptually from pleasure and to treat it as more than merely subjective.
Indeed, to hold that when I find a flower or a song beautiful, I am delectating my own internal states, is a horrendous solipsistic distortion. If I say that the night sky is beautiful, I want to celebrate it, not myself, and though I may be registering pleasure (though also perhaps, many other things: awe, love, freedom, fear), I am talking about the night sky, not me, or else the point of the thing is completely lost. Indeed, the idea that I am fundamentally pursuing my own pleasure in seeking out or making beautiful things is, I would say, not only obviously false, but sad: love of things outside myself is not the same as love of myself, or else it is essentially meaningless.
We ought to re-connect beauty to the experience not of pleasure, but of love and longing, which has been traditional since the Greeks. Plato made that connection in the Symposium, and Sappho famously said that the most beautiful thing is what one loves. But love and longing are ways of reaching out into the world: ways of devoting oneself to things and people. In love or longing, one moves toward what one loves or longs for, not into oneself, or else the love is a delusion. In the words of the Everly Brothers’ beautiful song, love hurts, and to account for love merely in terms of pleasure is extremely wrong.
Though pleasure seems fairly straightforward, human beings have dark and twisted longings, and much of the art of the twentieth century might even be beautiful in a dark or twisted way.
Alexander Nehamas makes some of these points in his book Only a Promise of Happiness. And Elaine Scarry, in Of Beauty and Being Just, tries to answer the political objections: the Greeks conceived justice as a harmonious or symmetrical arrangement of elements or forces, which is also the way Aristotle or the architect of the Parthenon conceived beauty.
In short, beauty is being re-enriched as a concept, and insofar as we still long and still love, we still seek beautiful things. Perhaps beauty is not eternal. But it appears to have picked itself up from its pratfall, bruised but ready for more.
Crispin Sartwell teaches at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. He is the author of Six Names of Beauty (Routledge 2006).