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Beauty

Beauty is, of course, subjective. Beauty is never proved, only recognized; never earned, only achieved. No one thing is beauty. Symmetry may be beauty or boredom. Ruins may thrill or disgust. In this sense only beauty is in the eye of the beholder – it has no table of recombining elements.

Beauty is subjective, but it is not a matter of taste. It is always recognized, if not always enjoyed. Beauties that are to your taste are sweet; beauties revolting or exceeding your taste are disgusting; but the phenomenon is something beside taste: something is beautiful, whether it appeals to you or not, not as something is tasty, but as something is edible.

Beauty is subjective, but not a matter of taste. The experience of beauty has two parts: what is beautiful has a certain power to provoke a reaction; and that power affects us, subjectively, as beauty – or as ugliness. Classical beauties may make harmonies to the eye of one, or slip like a razor on the flesh of another. Romantic beauties may demand the enthusiasm of one, and bewilder another. But no one, who is not afflicted with inattention or arrogance, is insensible to beauty. They may be unmoved, but not untouched. What can be experienced as beautiful can be experienced as ugly; what can be experienced as ugly can be experienced as beautiful. The only thing that cannot be experienced as beautiful is not what is ugly, but what is indifferent.

And beauty is always individual. Things are beautiful only when each is beautiful in and of itself. Paintings flock in museums and churches; buildings are passed on tours or captured on postcards or in photostreams; faces succeed each other in crowds, on the big screen, on the small screen; and weak habit makes us think, “That is a beautiful painting, or building, or face.” But it is only proper to say – when we trouble ourselves to mean what we say – “That painting, that building, that face, is beautiful.”

Beauty is not a religion. Beauty is not obeyed, only found or made. There is no secret law in beauty, not of art, not of music, not of face, no secret truth. Truth is always ugly to some, because it comes to the table like a fish with eyes: it does not let you forget, or take for granted. Beauty may lie or be true, but beauty has no secrets; no sanctuaries; beauty is cheap and easy as a leaf, as the patina of a wall, as the elementally fragile yet powerful machinery of the hands before you. Finding beauties is but a habit, making beauties – or drawing the attention of others to those you have discovered – is but a task.

Photography has made this obvious only for vision, but it is true for the other senses. There are fine, subtle, beautiful sounds in the world, every day, which only compilers of sound libraries trouble to note. In nature’s surfeit of visual beauty, in leaf or cloud, we may lose ourselves as long as we wish; but a single sound, whatever pleasure or interest it brings, does not last. It required the appearance of intelligence, the songbird’s brain, to make sound another vision; and we who are born with speech, its tones and rhythms, have perfected sound with harmony and satisfied the ear with beauty not merely broad enough to become lost in, but actively leading.

And the other senses? The chef and the perfumier concert smells and tastes (every strong smell has an element of taste). The sense of touch is more neglected, though certainly there are harmonies of physical sensation, and they are the strongest part of memory, though neglected in favor of smell because harder to recreate.

Truth may or may not be relative; honesty is absolute. Beauty is subject to confusion, has been fought over and abandoned as unwinnable, because there is no distinction in aesthetics parallel to that of truth and honesty. It is obvious that one may be honestly wrong; but our vocabulary only gives us a contradiction, not a distinction, when we say that something is beautifully ugly or ugly-beautiful.

Sometimes critics borrow the word and call a work of art honest. But they mean honest in the sense that has to do with truth. This confuses the question, by entangling aesthetics with concerns not its own. We hear the word honest and create a standard of judgment for art based on truthfulness – which, by subjecting beauty to truth, becomes the straight road to dishonesty in the aesthetic sense.

The honestly ugly, or the dishonestly ugly, does not correspond to the acquired taste or the personally distasteful. Guqin music, for example, is very beautiful and very hard on Western minds; gamelan music on Western ears. That is not what I mean; that is something outside my experience, a distant speciality, an unmapped land. I can no more like or dislike it, on the first encounter, than some newly discovered alien race or planet. My reaction to it is only the index of my attitude toward any novelty.

The eye for beauty, we discover in the training of the artist, is capable of indefinite refinement. With sufficient discrimination anything, it would appear, may be found beautiful; with sufficient skill anything may be presented so as to appear beautiful. Ruskin to the drawing student: “In general, everything that you think very ugly will be good for you to draw.”

Still, we are revolted by the idea that everything is beautiful. The problem of aesthetics resembles the problem of theodicy. We are revolted by the idea of beauty everywhere as we are revolted by the idea that ours is the best of all possible worlds. Any serious venture in theodicy begins with Anselm’s observation that given that all things are good, and pursue their own good, it is not therefore necessary that all the goods they pursue are compatible. It may be found likewise with beauty.

In experience not all beauties are compatible: city or wild wood or desert, sun or night. It is the same with taste. The slightest preference in taste, conceived innately, implanted by education, or arrived at arbitrarily, by placing one beauty before another, creates the perception and the fact of ugliness in the beauties it casts into shadow. To see beauty here is to see ugliness there; to love this beauty is to hate that ugliness. This is not naivety. We must choose among beauties, as we much choose among goods. If we cannot choose which goods are our own, and where we stand, if we cannot say that this good is more important than that one, we end as cowards. And there is a like quality, another courage, conditional to aesthetic experience. Everywhere, always, in everything – we must choose.

We sink; sinking, we enter the sea. The sea is the model and measure of all beauty. It would be no loss to take beauty as another name for the sea, beautiful for sea-like or sea-recalling. It is not that every beauty is first the sea’s. Its waves’ rhythm is not the origin of music. Its wave-jagged reflections are not the first images. Not everything is beautiful which comes from the sea, nor is everything made beautiful which goes into the sea. But the love of beauty is the same as the love of the sea. There is no love of or experience of beauty which does not begin in or come to sea – or at least, unknowing, to a space for the unmet sea. If beauty is the Creator’s concern, the sea embodies it; if beauty is an adapted and adaptive instrument of life, the sea taught it. Aesthetics is not a subject for philosophical debate, sociobiological fantasy, or critical caviling or febrility. The sea is not the answer to every problem of aesthetics. But as there is a scientific method where the answer is not nature but the way to the answer is go to nature – so I would instore an aesthetic method: go to the sea.