PART I: The Beautiful Experience
I am not interested in ideas about beauty. I don’t find it thought provoking. On the contrary, I find beauty to be thought annihilating. Which is as it should be. I believe the experience of beauty to be universal. Every culture has a sense of beauty—although we could argue the details and the semantics.
The real question isn’t “is beauty in the eye of the beholder or is it a quality in the beheld” anyway—the real question is: “do we desire something because it’s beautiful or is it beautiful because we desire it?” It’s a chicken/egg question.
.Because beauty is really not a particularly verbal or intellectual experience, critics, theorists and philosophers can argue forever that its irrelevant and we can all even agree on that point...basically, you can deny it all you want, and still, the appetite continues to rage completely unfazed, unabated and entirely undiminished. Similar to the smitten lover who knows they’ve chosen an inappropriate partner, passionate love blazes on regardless of all rational logic.
What is “beauty”? “Beautiful” is a sacrosanct term reserved for the extra special peak aesthetic experience that appeals to our “soul” as well as to our senses; “Beauty” is the transformative experience of being filled with desire and inspiration.
I want to be clear, that in discussing “beauty” I am distinguishing between “beautiful nature” and “man made beauty” and also between “beautiful ideas” and “beautiful objects”. As an artist I am interested in the aesthetics of man-made objects.
Nature is beautiful. No kidding—one hears this ALL the time, its hardly a burning debate. But it’s not really very interesting in a discussion of aesthetics because we are not responsible for creating it and we have no impact on its meaning. A flower, a tiger or a sunset is ultimately utterly without morals or meaning. A sunset only means the earth is still in rotation...unless it’s a painting of a sunset. Art can embody intentional metaphor, and narrative—even though it can be deployed exploitatively rather than empathetically. At the very least, it has the potential to address humans on their own terms.
Beautiful ideas are similarly uninteresting—world peace, caring for others—all beautiful ideas but they are cheap, easy to come by and not particularly in contention. Yet they STILL need aesthetic help in selling them to humanity. Any fool can and they often do have good ideas but it’s the guy who writes the best song who gets the followers who are actually inspired to make changes. This is why I find much conceptual art is so dreary.
I believe "beauty" and "pretty are, by definition, two different things. A pretty object needs something more to make it beautiful. But beauty doesn't need anything more to make it relevant. Pretty is only skin deep—but beauty is much, much deeper as any ugly person can tell you.
Pretty is the word we give to a superficial attractiveness that gives pleasure or is emotionally neutral. “Pretty” appeals to our senses and maybe our egos. Since all humans share the same biology, the same five senses, and that is more than enough to ensure that there are aesthetic qualities that are universally agreed upon. The human mind cannot tolerate much ambiguity or constant incompletion. It seeks patterns and imposes them on disorder. We are biologically wired to be alert to color contrasts, patterns, symmetry, and radiant light. Not to mention how much software we have devoted to facial recognition and the fact that mirror neurons fire like crazy whenever we see anything resembling a person. So that’s what “pretty” is, its inert, powerlessly pleasing. Pretty is “nice”.
PART II: What is Beauty?
The impact of beauty is nothing short of fierce. Nancy Etcoff points out that many of the words we use to qualify “beauty” are violent: bombshell, knockout, drop-dead gorgeous. This is how bad we want it; this is what we are willing to risk getting it. Beauty provokes a gut “WOW!” response, which is why I called it “thought annihilating”—it doesn’t really appeal to the intellect.
Beauty is also always positive; by which, I mean, “life affirming”; and by this I am referring to beauty’s momentary triumph over time and death (which I will get to momentarily). Because this feels so good we hope that it is good--we struggle to find these desires noble and moral. There is a long historical confusion between beauty and goodness. It doesn’t help that anything we desire can be exploited for nefarious purposes and beauty can and has been used to sell people just about everything.
Beauty fills us with desire.
I think we want two things in life. We yearn to be complete and we want to know there is a good reason for suffering and profound meaning in all that seems random and troublesome. Beauty, like love or truth or god, belongs to the category that promises catharsis, completion and enlightenment rather than simply pleasure and we imagine that possessing beauty will bring relief once and for all.
Beauty is to art what love is in life. It is more about desire and anticipation rather than relief and release. Beauty is something without which, you suffer. Something you will go to great lengths to experience.
The desire for beauty defies rationality and common sense. It is dangerous because it causes one to abandon safety and self-interest in its pursuit. Under its influence one feels vulnerable, out of control. The loss of beauty causes pain; its death causes more pain. However, beauty is all the more poignant because it is transitory, and it cannot actually be possessed although it tantalizes us with this possibility and that keeps us awake, alive and feeling.
This is why I find man-made beauty the most interesting, or a flower--a rainbow, a sunset can only be itself and follow its own independent destiny which includes its inevitable demise. But art can address our desires both directly and eternally; it has nothing better to do, in fact!
Beauty fills us with inspiration.
I think as a species, we have a nagging sensation we are incomplete and we yearn for the long lost missing thing that will make us whole again, take us home again. We want to fit in—and we want to be unique simultaneously.
This is why we enjoy being full for the most part; like all galactic matter, we enjoy expanding and contracting and there’s nothing like a big bang every now and then. We like to define, refine and confirm our barriers to protect our sense of uniqueness and identity and yet we like to let the outside in- to prove we are not empty and not alone--as in breathing, eating, or sexual union— but also metaphorically, as in “full of inspiration” or “full of love”. Nancy Etcoff, whom I mentioned above, is a neuropsychologist at Harvard who has studied both prettiness and happiness. It would seem that what for many years was called “the pleasure center” of the brain is more about anticipation than results. If you stimulate that section of a rat’s brain every time it pushes a lever, it will push it until it dies of starvation. This may sound a lot like addiction (and certainly explains addiction as a spiritual crisis wherein one replaces an abstraction with a substance) but the reward is not so important as hope and faith…so ladies and gentlemen—it’s not really about the climax so much as the penetration, if you catch my drift. (Don’t worry people—it’s not really a gender thing, OK?)
When we are full—our boundaries become fuzzy—we become at-one, or a lot less hungry or lonely, if you will. The hole becomes a whole. But something happens to one’s sense of being a discreet being in these cases.
Which brings me to the role of “self” in beauty. Beauty is not only is thought annihilating and language annihilating but also ego annihilating—it allows one to transcend the self which is why it feels so good. When someone surrenders their ego, they are for the moment, anyway—AT-ONE. with something larger than the self. The petty miseries of life seem to dissolve away. “Get over yourself” is more than a glib phrase—it's a path to enlightenment.
One of the things inspiration does is it completes a circuit, jumps a synapse. “Inspiration” literally means to be taking a breath—the opposite of which is expiring, a synonym for death. And in the case of art, one is symbolically inhaling the life of another. It’s a form of deep human communication and empathy that transcends time, space, and even death. Seeing an object made well, made intelligently and with care and love, made to be special or beautiful collapses all barriers, and for a second, you share an understanding. Even though the maker may be long gone, you can see exactly what they dreamed, as they were able to see how you feel.
Beauty is the aesthetic expression of Eros. (In the older sense of the word*.) The kiss of life is no joke--it is not “artificial” respiration but metaphorical--Eros and Psyche's kiss. “I need your kiss, in the coldness of the night, to worm my senses and my feelings. I want fall in your breath and find the reason why humans can't live without air, as I can't live without your kisses.”
The experience of beauty is transformative. It can transform the awful into the awesome.
In addition to being the promise of that long lost thing, perhaps beauty’s function is its ability to transform chaos into something transcendent and meaningful. To transmute suffering into a beatific state (whence “beauty”). To transubstantiate our mortal flesh into something more eternal, more metaphorical.
This explains why so much of we call beautiful art must reference heartbreak and tragedy. There’s no transformation from joy to joy—obviously there’s no need to change that particular situation! Nor is there any transformation from emptiness to emptiness or ugliness-to-ugliness, this is just a reaffirmation of our worst fears.
The transference of empathy is important—beauty is empathic, empathetic and embodies the notion of pathos in every way possible with the exception of apathy. Beauty makes it possible to face, even embrace, the unbearable and traumatic, which would otherwise be too painful to contemplate. Beauty’s power is transformative because it assists us in feeling our feelings in a richer, deeper way, and it is a full spectrum emotional experience in which all is fair game to express. This certainly explains the appeal of tragedy. One can call an absence of pain and sorrow “happiness”, but joy can really only exists in contrast to darkness.
Beauty is dangerous.
Beauty can be so powerful it can make meaninglessness and atrocity into a union with the cosmic. Because this experience is so glorious, so fleeting, mysterious, erotic, traumatic, even, it is always calling attention to its own inevitable loss. Therefore, beauty embodies a healthy measure of anxiety and fear.
Beauty is also amoral and may deliver one to some odd conclusions, not always in line with society’s rules. There’s a lot open to interpretation with beauty and who knows what the brain of the beholder is bringing to the experience. Beauty is ironic—it promises everything but it delivers just about anything it wants to—from a momentary peek at the deepest mystery of our existence to the cheap euphoria of a commercial jingle. No wonder it’s so dangerous and threatening. No wonder it gets abolished from time to time.
Beauty, truth, the meaning of life, god, and love: these are all just synonyms for the same thing, the thing that makes it all worth the trouble. And to me, this makes beauty something worth fighting for.
PART III: Creating Beauty
Trying to make something beautiful because you wish it to be so is almost as ludicrous as trying to make something meaningful. Interacting with the material world to create a physical object involves a lot more than intention and wishing. One can take “the beautiful” as subject matter and illustrate it directly. But to transcend apery, the image or form must actually embody the experience, not just parrot it back to the audience, which is why so much falls flat.
In order for an artwork to transcend pretty and become beautiful the appearance of the object itself must invoke a sense of...of...of...what? Imperative desire? Intense pleasure? Deep emotional longing? Shock and awe? Mystery and/ or the miraculous? Love? Hate? All the above and more?
If none of this makes any sense, well here’s a more usable, concrete definition:
Beauty is the formal elements of art (line, color, shape, pattern, texture, composition, rhythm) and the concept --it’s intelligence and it’s emotional tones-- in a confluence that results in a visual equivalent of “love”. Beautiful art is MORE than the sum of its parts. Of course, one can’t find a recipe to follow or even hope that with the right attitude and ability, beauty will result. You can only have intuition, faith and hope that beauty will arise out of a righteous quest based on love. Does that sound silly? Oh well.
The biological qualities we find attractive or pretty: symmetry, recognizability and familiarity, bright color, pattern, shape are “beautiful” when they are emphasized, ornamented, enhanced, exaggerated and celebrated. When they are made WRONG in the RIGHT way. Artists draw your attention to these qualities by tweaking them a bit so they are unexpected. There is something about beauty that is familiar, yet unique. Obvious, yet mysterious. Easy, yet difficult. Comfortable yet disturbing. Pretty, yet ugly. Lovely, yet hateful. And in every case, a lot in between.
I believe what I am describing here is, in a sort of reductive extreme, called “peak shift”.
Part III Banishing Beauty from Art
So why did beauty go out of style in the art world?
First of all technique, materials and process became an issue. After the Industrial Revolution, a pernicious mind/body split became manifest in the art world. One might observe that mass production was, in part, to make things more democratic—decent plates and bed sheets for the proletariat at last! But at a cost—I don’t just mean that machine-made things are bereft and depressing. They ARE bereft and depressing (as the social experiment with public housing so deftly illustrated) or “objects always reflect the character of their maker so when that maker is a soulless automaton, you will be eroding the human condition” I do believe that, but perhaps that’s an argument for another day. —But I refer to the unwinnable contest between hand and machine—I am saying when machines do it cheaper, beauty becomes a social and economic battle and extremely undemocratic as unique human made objects (objects made with love and intelligence) are mostly available only to the wealthy (and those who can make them, of course!). Albeit, beautiful objects have always been more valuable and the better they are the less affordable. So status is always lurking in the margins making kind, generous, liberal people very uncomfortable. When the middle class arose, it was out with the “wall bling” and in with the Wal-Mart.
Second of all was the recognition that making something beautiful requires ability and time. Whether that comes from hands–on practice or raw talent, it doesn’t really matter—either way—its totally at odds with middle class democracy as it is either merely a coincidence of genetics or the result of having a lot of spare hours and money to indulge on an expensive hobby. And if the plates and sheets from Wal-Mart are nice enough...well why gripe? So judgment became suspect—hierarchical elitism based on obsolete patriarchies and exclusionary practices. It seems to be kind and generous to “level the playing field” and see everyone as equal. Perhaps we are born with that potential, but as we grow we make choices, we must face our limits and its utterly disingenuous to treat all aesthetic experiences as equally moving.
Body dysmorphia is another reason for beauty’s suspect position in contemporary art. We just can’t seem to reconcile our brains with anything below the neck. Perhaps its because of all the embarrassing and undignified noises and demands our bodies make on us that we would prefer to launch our heads into outer space. We want to liberate them from our crotches, our stinky feet. Or maybe its just because our bodies and the bodies of even the most loved of loved ones will betray us by dying and rotting.
Safer to emphasize the idea, then one can farm it out to a pair of invisible, contracted skilled hands at no cost to the concept. Then, not only have you created needed jobs and the artist doesn’t have to rely the capricious talent of some mutant savant (probably of the idiot variety if “Amadeus” taught us anything) nor do they need filthy lucre to be considered worthy. Thus, technique became mindless labor entirely divorced from the sublime, lofty philosophies of the Artist. The issue became polarized: sweaty toiling cattle tilling the fields versus pure inspiration and the clean zaps of an enlightened brain thinking deep thoughts. Of course, the brain is a moist and goopy organ with plenty of obnoxious physical needs. How can we ever feel at-one with some greater context if we simultaneously deny our own bodies? The mind/body split will only lead to a dead end until we are at last the artificial intelligence we seem to be slouching towards. Bionic brains, here we come!
The other devastating blow to aesthetic beauty was World Wars I and II. If beauty is analogous to high passion it was never more obvious how much tragedy and atrocity that can lead to. Best to stay cool, and the Birth of Cool was the death knell for beauty. People became afraid of passion and sought to devalue it. War also spelled out in bold type how frivolous and luxurious beauty can be. With all that suffering, is not the indulgence in individual pleasure not insulting, idiotic, a fearful escapist denial or glitzy sugarcoating of the truth?
Beauty became an insult. It became economically impractical. Everyone can see how utterly unfair it is, OFF WITH ITS HEAD!
And voila! The head and the body are two separate things!
And yet we still desire beauty, just as much as we ever did, despite our best interests. And you know why? Because despite what it seems—it is still an experience available to ALL. Anyone can get a glimpse of who we are and why we are.... Beauty absolutely can deliver on its promise of love, completion and enlightenment to anyone as long as they are open to it.
Would you feel better knowing how many lives had been saved by beauty? So many.
©Judith Schaechter 2010
Thanks to Crispin Sartwell and Sharon Church