Departments

Beauty

I.
Beauty is a philosophically well-tilled field. The soil is loose, airy and ready for the roots of any fruit or flower. No one need fear being bound to an inelastic definition of beauty, or being required to supply or use a definition at all. But, even without venturing a definition, it would be an honorable office to philosophy to rescue the idea and thus the experience of beauty from scientists who take the perception of beauty for a judgment and not a faculty, from artists and others who would smother beauty with idolatry, and from the shouting moralizers, puritans or relativists, who respectively would have it that beauty is a snare or a delusion.

Scientists mistake beauty for a puzzle. Beauty is never proved, only recognized; never composed, only achieved. It is vain to try to show that any one thing is one with 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. If beauty is not confused with taste, with the accumulated experience of an individual, then 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 or not, not as something is tasty, but as something is edible.

Beauty is always individual; things are beautiful only if each is beautiful of and by itself. There is no characteristic, abstractable beauty of paintings, of buildings, of faces. Paintings flock in museum; buildings are passed on tours or captured on postcards or in picture accounts; faces succeed each other in crowds or on the big or the small screen; and weak habit makes us think, "That is a beautiful painting, or building, or face." But it is proper only to say—when we trouble ourselves to mean what we say—"That painting, that building, that face, is beautiful." And beauty is undeniable. It differs with individuals only in how it affects them. 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.

Poets, artists, musicians, designers, and lovers, mistake beauty for 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. Auditory beauties are not rarer. There are fine, subtle, beautiful sounds in the world, every day, which compilers of sound libraries alone trouble to note. There is a connoisseurship to be acquired in this connection, but not a satisfying one. In nature's inescapably visual beauties, in leaf or cloud, we may lose ourselves as long as we wish; but a single sound, whatever pleasure or interest it brings, lasts too briefly. It required the appearance of intelligence, the songbird's brain, to originate an auditory experience comparable with 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 abducting. And the other senses: smell, taste, touch. The chef and the perfumier concert smells and tastes (every strong smell has an element of taste). The sense of touch is more neglected. Certainly there are harmonies of physical sensation, and they are the strongest part of memory (neglected in favor of smell because harder to recreate) and experience. There are characterizing chains of physical sensation in everything indulged in with no view to further reward: in beaches, gardening, sport, sex— but I know no art that concerts them.

II.
Beauty is to art as truth is to science: always the end, always the test, but definable only in part because apprehended only in part. Opinions as to truth are varied, and truth is, that far, relative in practice; but truthfulness and fidelity are not relative. Mistakes are relative; deception is absolute. Beauty is subject to confusion, has been fought over and abandoned as unwinnable, because there is no distinction in æsthetics 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 parallel word and call a work of art honest. It is the unobjectionable meeting of a necessity, but it further confuses the question, by entangling æsthetics with concerns not its own. Fashion hears the word honest and creates a standard of judgment for art taking honesty for truthfulness—which, by subjecting beauty to truth, becomes the straight road to dishonesty in the æsthetic sense.

If the distinction's applications are not obvious, I will exemplify. The beautifully ugly, or the honestly 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 is meant; that is something outside one's experience, a distant speciality, an unmapped land. You can no more like or dislike it than some newly discovered alien race or planet. Your reaction to it is only the index of your attitude toward any novelty. Most free verse is, I judge, finally ugly; but a poem may be beautifully ugly, it may be like an honest mistake; and if so, it deserves respect. Now, much—most—of XVIIIth century poetry is ugly-beautiful. It shows all the device and imagination and dress of poetry; but its didacticism, its putting of morals, it deconstructibility—it is eminently quotable because it is eminently miscellaneous—have denied it the readership of the more honest—in our sense, here opposing the original—Romantic XIXth century poets who swept them aside—and who still dominate over XXth century poets who thought that they could save poetry from science by pinioning a few angels of their own. But the worst example of the ugly-beautiful, of lying beauty, may always be found in old war poems.

There is nothing relevant to this distinction about whether a work appeals to public taste, in general or sectorally. Hogarth and Rockwell comes to mind as artists who were what the people wanted. The precincts of genre fiction are generally honest, and sometimes beautiful; but a characteristically higher proportion of mainstream fiction is ugly-beautiful or ugly-ugly—damn ugly, I call it, with an appeal like straight spirits—one proves you a man, the other an intellectual.

III.
The eye for beauty, it is apparent 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. This raising of beauty from unlikely places may even earn the name of genius if the place is unlikely enough. Writers drag the broadest nets in this connection, making beautiful things which are as terrible as human beings may conceive or bear—without necessarily making them appealing.

Still, the mind revolts at the idea, and is revolted by the idea, that everything is beautiful. The problem of æsthetics is not without connection to theodicy. We are revolted by the notion of beauty everywhere as by the notion that ours is the best of all possible worlds. Any serious venture in theodicy begins with Anselm's contention 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 the same with beauty. It is plain even in experience that not all beauties are compatible: city or wild wood or desert, sun or night. It is the same in taste. The slightest preference in taste, conceived arbitrarily, educationally, or innately, by placing one beauty before another creates the perception and the fact of ugliness. This is not a matter of training; it is a necessity. To see beauty here is to see ugliness there; to love this beauty is to hate that ugliness. This is not an escapable naïveté—as we must choose among goods which are our own and where we stand, as we must say that this good is more important than that one or be cowards—there is a quality like courage—judgment—conditional to æsthetic experience.

IV.
Essayists' coinages—excepting essai—have a personal flavor and do not easily catch on. I will not attempt a neologism. Pretty has acquired a sufficiently pejorative air to be bent to this purpose—but there are things that are just pretty, and nothing else, and I will not abet or approve the loss of this distinction and the innocuous faculty of, and willingness to appreciate it. It will, I think, be enough to produce the right reaction to speak of flat beauty and deep beauty.

Flat beauty is always mirror-flat: it only reflects, without or with distortions—distortions yielding the art which relies on the first reaction. Deep beauty is always sea-deep. This finishes us—this suffices, for 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. Æsthetics is not a subject for philosophical debate, sociobiological fantasy, or critical caviling or febrility. The sea is not the answer to every problem of æsthetics. But as there is a scientific method where the answer is not nature but the way to the answer is go to nature—so there is an æsthetic method: go to the sea.