Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
In the eye of the beholder
Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly is an urban consultant and writer.
The mystery of beauty has long bedazzled us. But what do we yearn for: the power it gives, or the reprieve from reality?
Beauty. We don’t talk about it much. The very word feels fusty and uncool. Its traditional reservoirs, religion and the arts, no longer put beauty on their to-do lists and even those artists who confess to aesthetic ambition are reluctant to step out with the b-word. In smart circles beauty is barely respectable, barely meaningful.
These days, art strives to be interesting and provocative; religion to be contemporary, accessible and, above all, popular. But beauty? It’s all a matter of taste. Personal, subjective: beholder’s-eye territory. Conversation closed.
It’s not as though beauty is useful. Traditionally, the fine arts have been distinguished from the mere “applied” or “decorative” versions precisely by their disdain for usefulness. Uselessness, apparently, is of the essence.
Yet out there in mass-culture land, beauty is bigger and hotter than ever. Girls get lung cancer and amenorrhoea in pursuit of it. Boys fight, steal and die for it. Marketers fake it, industries depend on it, governments vainly legislate for it. Whole empires are built on good-looking products. We are, if anything, more visually obsessed than ever. So beauty must mean something. Something real, or at the very least consensual. What, though, and why does it matter?
We tend to think of relativism the idea that values change from culture to culture, time to time, person to person as a strictly recent idea, born of postmodernism. In some ways it is. But beauty, on the other hand, has been subjective from way back.
For Plato, it was relatively simple. Beauty was a single, ideal form, of which all earthly beauties in literature, artefacts, people were but flawed and fleeting copies. By the time of Saint Thomas Aquinas, 1500 years later, philosophers were beginning to recognise beauty as having both objective and subjective aspects.
Leaning on Aristotle as well as Plato, Aquinas saw the objective part of beauty arising from order, a unifying principle that allows an object to express its essence or “natural perfection”. Aquinas also noted, however, that such order becomes beautiful only when “it speaks clearly . . . to a human intelligence”. Perception, in other words, was an active and essential contributor to appreciating beauty.
The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rationalism, reinforced the idea of beauty as “taste”, and by the 19th century the subjective nature of beauty was widely accepted.
“Oh, she has no feelers!” Hans Christian Andersen’s lady June beetles sniff to their male colleague, who is captivated by Thumbelina’s slender beauty. “And her waist is so slim! She looks just like a human being. How ugly she is!” The June beetle, needless to say, drops Thumbelina forthwith. Andersen’s story, written in 1835 , predated postmodernism by 150 years, yet both he and his audience were clearly comfortable with the beholder’s active role in the creation of beauty.
Modernism, which has shaped our thinking since early last century, had conflicting views about beauty, wanting to deny its primacy yet accepting its social function. Far from opposing use, beauty became use. It was something revealed, not made. The process was paradoxical; a stripping-back to ordinariness. Beauty was typically presented as utilitarian, but also as a path to some deeper truth.
Yet our idea of female beauty has been transformed from something moral and spiritual, as in Victorian times, into a commodity. Formerly personal and intrinsic, beauty was suddenly to be envied, purchased, applied. It changed from a portal into a mask.
And now there’s postmodernism, where everything is relative, everything is subjective, where truth and reality have become personal opinions. This ought to have produced cultural anarchy: the end of fashion, advertising, the beauty industry and the art market. We should be so lucky. In fact, the reverse occurred. Mass conformism masquerades as funky self-expression, and architecture has become overtly decorative for the first time in a century.
Why? What is it in beauty that we so crave? Why was Thumbelina suddenly worthless to her June beetle, once her beauty evaporated? And what, in this most pluralist of times, could possibly provide a base for an accepted idea of beauty?
Power, in a word. Beauty is currency. Holding it confers power, and consensus is essential to sustain its value. That’s what fashion is for. The parameters may change from bosomy to emaciated, from dark to blonde but the principle remains. From birth, girls are taught devotion to the acquisition of beauty. Not for the pleasure it may bring to them or others, though this may be a happy side effect, but for what it can buy.
Feminism has barely affected this aspiration. As surely now as in any Cinderella tale, it is written into the gender contract: rich guy gets gorgeous girl. It’s not even the small print. The same goes for the power of the beautiful object. Van Gogh’s irises are worth all those millions only because they gratify some unwritten but accepted code of the Beautiful.
And yet this still doesn’t explain the craving. Beauty is desirable because it brings power; but it is powerful because it’s desirable. Beyond this circularity, though, the question remains. What is it that makes us desire beauty so?
This is where the story gets really interesting, because here aesthetics intersect with ethics. Is it possible that we desire beauty because it implies an intimation of goodness?
Many philosophers have described this intersection. Some have attempted to render human beauty in strictly Darwinian terms, arguing its purpose as purveyor of the “selfish gene”. But this view depends on reducing beauty to a sign of physical health (and, by implication, reproductive capacity), combined with the dubious supposition that beautiful people have more babies. In any case, it bears no insight into non-human kinds of beauty (such as buildings, music, nature).
For Plato, the true lover (of wisdom) enjoys privileged access not just to beauty, but to the Beautiful, and so touches “true virtue”. Aristotle also bound beauty into his idea of virtue. For the 20th-century Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar , beauty, truth and goodness are intertwined, with God at their centre. Iris Murdoch, for whom these were lifelong obsessions, saw beauty as “the visible and accessible aspect of the Good”.
We may disagree. The separation of aesthetics from morality is, after all, a basic Enlightenment tenet. But intuition is with them. As Spectator columnist Paul Johnson noted recently: “Prescriptive societies associated gifts of beauty with leadership. Handsome princes could breed best from flawless belles. That was why they were awarded the golden apple, and why Paris stole Helen. The good looks of the gods and goddesses reflected their membership of the pantheon ‘effortless superiority’. Apotheosis demanded glamour, as well as conveying it.” Of course, there are exceptions, such as Snow White’s evil queen. But such characters thrill us precisely because they flout our expectations that beauty signifies goodness.
And it’s not only the ancients. Hollywood is just as addicted to the idea that “beauty equals virtue”. It’s partly from habit, but also from our deep-rooted idea of beauty as a portal, Matrix-style. It’s a basic market principle. If the good guys are not good-looking, the movie loses its ability to suspend disbelief, and will flop. Our hard-wired hunch is that beauty symbolises virtue. This gives beauty its own power the power of connectivity.
But with what? For Iris Murdoch, it is a sense of the Other. Of some greater existence. Call it truth, call it reality. Call it God, perhaps. “Art and morals are, with certain provisos, one,” she wrote. “The essence of both of them is love. Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.” This echoes Keats’s insight that “beauty is truth, and truth, beauty”.
Surprisingly similar, too, is Einstein’s memorable quip that his theory of gravity was “too beautiful to be wrong”. No matter that the theory has been widely discredited; the significance lies in Einstein’s belief that beauty and truth were bound by necessity.
Since then, while art has shunned beauty and truth as plausible aims, science has adopted both. Even today, American Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg, for instance, cites the beauty of string theory the latest unifying theory of matter as the most compelling evidence for its validity.
Of course, at a practical level there is no causal link between environmental beauty and human virtue. Equally, though, it is clear that beauty is good for us. The 19th-century British designer and social reformer William Morris was ridiculed for insisting on a “healthy and beautiful house” as a fundamental human right. Now, though, the growing body of evidence that music and the visual arts can generate both physiological and psychiatric improvement brings a whole new meaning to the idea of beauty therapy.
There’s nothing new in the idea, except perhaps to Western thought, that the mind-body connection is more intimate and complex than we ever imagined. Beauty may have physical effects, but its power is metaphysical. Spiritual even. Murdoch speaks of the apprehension of beauty as a “sacrament”, and its power as “the magnetism which draws us out of the cave”.
Nonetheless, relations between beauty and religion have long been strained. Is beauty a conduit to God or a substitute? A portal or a mask? This stand-off can be summarised, in the words of French writer Jean-Luc Marion , as the distinction between icon and idol.
The early church wasn’t that bothered. Paul Johnson continues: “Indeed, religion demanded good looks and perfect health for its hierarchs. Leviticus insisted that all priests be without physical blemish, and there were more stringent provisions for the high priest, who was forbidden to come into contact with the corpses of even close relatives, lest his pristine wellbeing be imperilled.”
But there’s beauty, and then there’s up-your-nose opulence. Which was Oliver Cromwell’s point, really. And for anyone who missed out on the Reformation first time round, Sydney’s Anglicans are rerunning it. Not content with the triumph over literature of plain, scrubbed English that has trashed the King James Bible and prayer book, Sydney Anglicanism’s dominant neo-puritan faction is turning its attention to the hymns, robes and flowers of traditional church accoutrements.
The evangelical view, of course, is that the emphasis should be on the word of God, not the stuff. On the face of it, this seems right and proper. As the American sociologist Richard Sennett noted, Judaeo-Christian culture is, at root, nomadic and unfurnished. Jesus was born in a stable, not a palace.
But where, in this urgent stripping-down, do you stop? At some point austerity can also hide rather than reveal. “The same object or piece of music can take one person into praise of God and another into a worldly, humanist view,” observes Canberra theologian Heather Thomson.
For many, believers as well as pagans like me, ecclesiastic beauty the shadows and the incense, the lyricism and the resonance, the deep drifts of forgotten time is, like natural beauty, an essential carrier of sacred mystery. The humanist argument is that the great masters chose religious subjects merely as vehicles for artistic expression.
But it is difficult, faced with the vast weight of devotional art that fattens our cultural treasure chest, to deny the sense of divine inspiration in such works, from Bach’s St Matthew Passion to Velazquez’s Christ on the Cross. It’s difficult to dismiss that sense of transcendent other, breathing life into the work just as the artist breathes life into raw material. The very word inspiration says as much.
I’m with the medieval masons, then, in seeing the light through Chartres’s stained-glass windows as “a sacrament and analogy for God”, in the words of British scholar Tim Gorringe . And with von Balthasar when he declares: “We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. We can be sure that whoever sneers at [beauty] as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”
I prefer Anglo-Saxon to gothic, gothic to baroque and almost anything to the barley-sugar rococo of, say, the 18th-century Karlskirche in Vienna. But are these judgements aesthetic or moral? Is the difference between icon and idol one of degree or of kind?
One option is to cast the distinction as the difference between beauty and decoration. Beauty reveals, while decoration conceals. In architecture, for example, gothic might exemplify the former, its aesthetic being designed to enrich; while high-mannerist styles, from rococo to postmodern, might exemplify the latter. But that still doesn’t solve the question.
Modernism denied beauty as a goal but revolved around it like a flame-trapped moth. The latest novel by John Updike, Seek My Face, satirises the situation thus: “Beauty is dead. Impressionism began to kill it, the rediscovery of primitive and archaic art finished it off. Beauty and comedy belong to the same Christian lie. Nietzsche said it: ‘Truth is ugly.’ He said: ‘We possess art lest we perish of the truth.’ The only virtue left in this day and age is courage before the hopeless. The only art is one whose symbols will catch the fundamental truth of life, its tragedy. Primitive art is magical because it is shaped by terror.”
Ironically, modernism’s emphasis on usefulness as the path to beauty helped create a world where reverence for everyday beauty was suspect, and where, in von Balthasar’s words, “power and the profit margin are the sole criteria, where the disinterested, the useless, the purposeless is despised, persecuted and in the end exterminated a world in which art itself is forced to wear the mask and features of technique”.
It’s a vision of living death, for believer and humanist alike. And one that today’s endless obsession with appearance has done little to rectify. So perhaps, in the end, this is the purpose of beauty. Perhaps our trivial yearnings towards a beautiful celebrity or smart apartment, and those immortal longings inspired by Bach or Velazquez, have this, at least, in common: a primal need to flee the tyrannical ego and triumph, however fleetingly, over death.
ILLUS: Beauty therapy .
Audrey Hepburn, left; a William Morris Hammersmith carpet, bottom left; Vincent van Gogh’s Irises (1889), right; and Sydney Symphony Orchestra performing Bach.
PHOTOS: FROM AUDREY HEPBURN, BY LEONARDO ARTE; JON REID