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).
i have to say that the olympics track and field competition is, among other things, an amazing celebration of black womanhood. lord that field for the 100 metres: what a magnificent group of african warrior princesses, with incredible fire in the eyes (as well as unbelievable acceleration, of course). also i'll pay tribute to the rather shocking virginity of 29-year-old lolo jones. let's just say that she's running against the tendency of the culture. that is sexy.
shelly-ann fraser-pryce (the world's fastest woman):
that's my current candidate for the world's most beautiful song. it's an old bill monroe thing, sung here by the bluegrass supergroup longview, dudley connell (johnson mountain boys) on lead vocal.
Crispin used to be a rock and roll critic. So he can relate to this. If you read Crispin, you can probably relate to this. If not, why are you reading this?
Anyway, since only Robots read the Defeatists, I felt that this bit of aesthetic information needed to reach a wider audience. And, he made the mistake of giving me the keys to Storm a half dozen years ago, and I occasionally have to take it out for a spin.
Steve Simmels over at Powerpop has nailed it again, and I feel compelled to acknowledge our alien overlords. David Alan Coe wrote the ultimate Country Song in "You never called me by my name" and everything since has paled...He said once that "Nobody says nothin' that Hank Williams didn't sing." Well, now we know that the soft rock equivalent of Hank Williams is...Journey.
Crispin has now got a great burden, as the sole remaining articulate, anarchist philosopher cum 3 card monte dealer in the world of...blogs, the articulate, the anarchists, the philosophers since IOZ has probably announced either his apotheosis or his retirement from this stuff. Me, I'm studying to be a homeless street musician. Anway, an occasional visit, and in this case to help a bit with Crispin's hard work, and turn on readers of this blog to a really marvelous resource.
From the Internet Archive, a live recent performance of Alejandro Escovedo and band. Escovedo is a fascinating artist, who has done lots of gigs in places like Austin, Huntsville State Prison, various places like CBGBs and the Democratic National Convention that nominated our current president. The Internet Archive is a marvelous tool for musicians, researchers, and people who just want to noodle around in books, live music, early 78s, speeches and whatever else they've managed to throw up there.
well, i'm not down with the violence, but i like the sovereign citizens' approach of revolution through paperwork: bringing resistance to where the bureaucracy lives. and they sure are good lookin.
meanwhile, i'm indexing my book on josiah warren, whose central concept was the sovereignty of the individual. perhaps he didn't quite grasp the richness and beauty of the applications.
well what the hell, let's blog about scandals. this is a nice piece about why the mistress/groupie/bimbo always looks the same: spitzer, tiger etc: the girl is invariably a "warm-blooded blow-up doll." now i am not an expert on this. i am not a celebrity, or rich person, a governor, or a famous athlete. i've never conducted an affair when i was married, except once and then i left my wife immediately for the other woman. what i am, however, is an expert on beauty - indeed, the world's greatest, along with roger scruton and alexander nehamas.
anyway, in six names of beauty i defined beauty as "the object of longing." and beauty since plato or perhaps long before has been connected to love. but if you are a married governor or a golf superstar having an affair, you don't want to long for someone. you want to have sex. that's why you want the girl to be sexy, but definitely not beautiful. the last thing you want is to fall in love. so you're looking for the girl whose looks are about sex and not about love, and who is neither lovely nor interesting enough to have you thinking about her all the time or wanting her to have your babies etc., but who is sexy enough in a nice cliched way to get you...going. you want to have intense sex, then roll off and forget about the whole thing. best if she doesn't even look distinctive, or if you might confuse her with all the others.
it's perhaps not surprising that i can see what the dude is trying to accomplish. what puzzles me is what the girl is trying to accomplish: how she sees herself, what she wants to be.
saw the year's first hummingbird at my feeder today. seems very early!
i'm kinda broke. but were i obscenely flush i'd go our and buy eakinses, deacquired by the hirschorn.
you might check this out: a panel including me, on beauty, circa 2006.
last in the beauty series: the decline of beauty: politics and art.
fourth in beauty series: subjectivity and pleasure: hume, kant, santyana.
second in the beauty series: idealist theories (plato, plotinus, hegel).
a bit underoccupied on my break, i'm doing a series of youtube vids on the nature, history, and politics of beauty.
so my mother and i were driving through the mountains of southern west virginia, and we decided to drive up off the two-lane highway into one of the hollows. (now: isn't this problematic? we were actually doing poverty tourism.) there were some shacks, dead cars etc, but also beautifully kept little homes. and we got to the end of the road and there was this house with hummingbird feeders and hummingbird-loved flowers all over. and there were dozens and dozens of hummingbirds, buzzing and swarming like bees, one of the wildest of most beautiful sights i've ever seen. it was a kind of work of installation art made by collaboration with the manufacturers of hummingbird feeders and the situation of being embedded in that particular environment. and of course someone's eccentric sensibility and constant care.
well, now! i believe that i just saw a coyote near my house. i live near the towns of new freedom and shrewsbury, pa, but right around here it's very rural; since the trees leafed out i can't see another house, and there are miles of alternating farm fields and pretty old-growth woods behind me. i had heard rumors of coyotes around here, but didn't take them real seriously. sucker was bigger than i would have thought, as well. grey/red/brown, with more tail than any domestic dog, and definitely moving in a way you'd never see a dog move: mad hops over a briar barrier.
as y'all know, i'm at work on the american radical abolitionist nathaniel peabody rogers. here's a passage from his 1842 review of cobbett's american gardener.
This work on gardening is a modest, unpretending book, like all sterling productions. It is written in a style as beautiful as the subject, and as natural as a garden ought to be. It is worth buying for the style of it, aside from the information it contains. Every body can understand it at a glance, without a dictionary. And the book that can't be, ought never to be read. These books that abound in dictionary words, are learned nonsense and imposition. Cobbett's Gardener is full of short, every day words, which the people can understand, as readily as they can tell an onion stalk, or a cabbage plant. It is like Pierpont's poetry in that - abounding in monosyllabled words. You will find whole lines of them uninterrupted, every one as full of meaning, as it can hold - the beautiful, strong, old Saxon - the talk-words - words for use, and not for show. Every young man and woman, who has been injured in their talk and writing by going to school, ought to buy Cobbett's Gardener, or some other of his works. A young collegian should read it twice a day, till he gets well of his pedantry. Cobbett will cure him if any body can.
"Do you teach your sons Latin, Mr. Cobbett?" asked a gentleman. "No," said the common-sense sage - "but I learn them to shave with cold water!" A bit of learning worth more to a man with a beard, than all the Latin the Monkery ever preserved from the ruins of Rome.
You can understand the "Gardener" with once reading, just as readily as you could talk of a sensible gardener himself - and those who have followed it, say it turns out to be true - contrary to the fact of most agricultural books, which are mere speculations and theorizing, which no body can afford to practise. The subject of this book is a beautiful one to read of and talk of, if you have not any ground to work it out on. Gardening - nothing is more interesting or profiting. We associate Paradise always with the idea of it. The great Lord Bacon (by the way not half the man that Cobbett was) said "Gardening was the purest of human pleasures." One of his famous "Essays" was "Of Gardening," if I remember the title. But he wrote of a garden for kings and princes, - Cobbett's gardens are for men - for families - and that speaks of the difference between the two authors . Bacon was a worshipper and slave of kings, - Cobbett a friend of man. The learned world call the one "The great Sir Francis Bacon," and the other Cobbett or Bill Cobbett.
A glorious garden, whether small or large, is a sort of Eden, and it is a fine idea, whether it was a literal fact, or an allegory merely, to show God's kindness to the man and woman He had made, that He put them, at their beginning, into a garden, "to dress it and to keep it." We fancy Eden was every thing a garden could be; but I dare say it would not have hurt Adam and Eve to have put into their hands a copy of Cobbett, written in the primeval language of humanity, which, whatever it was, they spoke, no doubt, in the same style Cobbett writes.
well, i wish i were the dad, but what ya gonna do? i take "kingston" to be a tribute to jamaican music. good idea.
Beautiful Things: Fake Flowers
By Crispin Sartwell
"Fake flowers are better than real," my five-year-old daughter Jane told me recently in a restaurant bestrewn with artificial phlox, "because they don't get all messed up."
I always thought of fake flowers as a signal failure of taste. Indeed, I think that even in a case where they look precisely the same, real flowers are beautiful and fake flowers are not.
Beauty is connected with time. What is beautiful is fragile or elusive. Experiencing something beautiful is poignant because it is a longing. The beautiful thing calls on us to long because it is already being lost.
This is as true of persons as of flowers and despite the efforts of cosmetic companies and plastic surgeons, a lovely girl is also a cut flower. "To the virgins, to make much of time."
The cut flower is, hence, not only beautiful, but a symbol of every beautiful thing - everything that blossoms, glows, and passes - which is why it accompanies the valentine, the wedding, and the funeral. The cut flower is the central beautiful object in our culture.
So even if they look the same, the real flower and the fake flower are antonyms: they mean oppositely.
But the longing that a fragile beautiful thing calls forth motivates us to hold onto it, preserve it, depict it, reproduce it. The movie starlet ages, but her image remains forever as a testimony to the moment of her bloom. Flowers themselves are one of the great subjects of painting, from Dutch painters such as Willem van Aelst who spent whole careers depicting them to Monet's water lilies.
The fake flower represents the same impulse on an everyday level: the other day I saw a bucket of fake blue roses for sale at a gas station, with fake blue rose scent.
Fake flowers are everywhere and they express something deep and common and sad and sweet: our inability to fully face losing what we love. Even in their ugliness, they capture and preserve our need for beauty.
so, i've been writing a series of mini-columns that are like little bits of "6 names of beauty." i'm still trying to find someone to sell them to, so don't tell anyone i'm putting them up on my blog.
Beautiful Things: Weapons
By Crispin Sartwell
A good weapon is a most beautiful thing.
There are few objects on which human beings have lavished more craft or ingenuity; there are few things which are as enshrouded in mystique or more redolent as symbols.
From the enchanted object that can only be wielded by the true king; to the soul or self of the samurai; to the footsoldier's axe and pike; to the dagger, the dirk, the stiletto; to the merest shiv, lovingly sharpened: blades are objects of devotion and fantasy.
The blade's relation to air is a figure of speed, purpose, effectiveness, an image of how, at best, we might move inside an environment.
There is no more compact and perfect machine than a decent pistol, nothing better suited to the human hand. The Colt, the Barretta, the Glock: you can't say you're not getting riddled with symbols as well as projectiles.
It's true that human beings are violent and destructive. But even our detractors can't say we are violent and destructive without art or without devotion or without pleasure.
Indeed, of all the arts of our species, the art of weaponry is perhaps the furthest advanced. But it will never be perfect until it becomes capable of consuming or erasing the entire universe. The only reasonable conclusion from our devotion to the weapon is that The End is something for which we yearn.
And though the apocalypse will be an occasion for wry, melancholy reflection, it will, of course, be beautiful, like a sunset or a supernova.