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Arthur Krystal, Harper’s Review-a-day: Hello, Beautiful: What We Talk About When We Talk About Beauty (History of Beauty, Umberto Eco)

Hello, Beautiful: What We Talk About When We Talk About Beauty
review by Arthur Krystal, September 10, 2011

History of Beauty by Umberto Eco


Beauty is a mess, a sinkhole, a trap. Approach it philosophically and you’re immediately bogged down in questions of idealism, empiricism, subjectivity, and objectivity. Plato began the conversation, Kant tried to finish it, and Santayana, embracing Plato and Kant, tried to encapsulate it. Take a cultural run at it, and you’re stumbling over issues of relativism, where nothing is either beautiful or ugly but time, class, nation, or ethnicity makes it so. There is also everything that artists, poets, and critics have said about beauty, with enough variance in emphasis to make your head spin. More recently, an entirely new field of study has emerged that considers beauty — and attendant feelings of attraction and repulsion — from an evolutionary standpoint. And, as if all this were not enough, there exists the impression that no matter what or how much is said about beauty, something is sure to remain unsaid.

It is, of course, possible to restrict beauty’s scope or narrow its frame of reference, as a recent spate of books by Elaine ScarryWendy SteinerDenis Donoghue, and Arthur Danto have done. But it takes a truly audacious scholar to attempt a “History of Beauty” that is neither mind-numbingly academic nor ridiculously reductive. We now, thanks to Umberto Eco, have such a book. The great charm of Eco’s work is that it is both grand and companionable, mixing erudition and philosophical sophistication with contemporary notions of the cool and the fashionable. Eco, semiotician who occasionally turns his hand to fiction, is a student of aesthetics — he wrote the excellent Art of Beauty in the Middle Ages — and this new historical survey come generously illustrated with the paintings, sculptures, and buildings that trace the beautiful over the centuries. The slightly oversized tome may shout “textbook,” but in this case here’s no reason to cover our ears. Although the book has plenty of text, most of it serviceably translated, it is also history as chronological progression of primary sources (plus artworks) and narrative about the ideas expressed in them. One may disagree about Eco’s choice of illustrations or the emphasis he places on certain periods, but there’s not disputing his desire that beauty be seen in as serious and comprehensive light as is possible in a one-volume work.

Unfortunately, Eco has included sections on the media and the movies in what appears to be an obligatory nod to both the consumer and undergraduate. We understand that the publisher would like the book to sell, and we take some pleasure in the fact that Dennis Rodman’s dream of sharing a book with Denis Diderot has finally been realized, but any history of ideas that refers to “the refined masculine Beauty of Richard Gere” tends to weaken its scholarly pedigree. Eco, on occasion, gives the impression of wanting to be an Hegelian hipster, which is a little like wanting to see the Parthenon tap dance, but it’s a small enough failing in a book that tackles such a dizzying and capacious subject.

History of Beauty as mentioned, is only one of perhaps a dozen books published in the last decade on beauty. (I discount, of course, the usual tip-giving books on how to enhance one’s inner or natural beauty.) Additionally, there have been scores of magazine and journal articles, as well as various symposia calling for scholarly papers. Is this news? Evidently, yes. “We hear that [beauty] is back,” writes Denis Donoghue in Speaking of Beauty. He means, of course, that beauty is back in the graces of the academy. Beauty, as most students in the humanities know, was cast out by theory some forty years ago. According to certain poststructuralist precepts, beauty was nothing more than a cultural house of cards set up by the economically and educationally advantages to reinforce the social hierarchy.

There is some truth to this charge, but not enough to demonstrate, either logically or empirically, the absence of beauty. Moreover, casting aspersions on beauty is nothing new. In 1852,Flaubert had already asserted that “The time for beauty is over;”1 and, as both Arthur Danto’s The Abuse of Beauty and Wendy Steiner’s Venus in Exile take pains to show, the rift between art and beauty following the First World War was a considered attempt by the avant-garde to expose the irrelevance of the aesthetic ideals that had dominated the literary and plastic arts since the Renaissance. By 1948, when Barnett Newman got around to indicting beauty as the “bugbear of European art and European aesthetic philosophies,” the aesthetic manifesto had already been edited to remove all traces of beauty’s moral and philosophical significance.

Short of a book like Eco’s, it’s impossible to summarize the shadings and shifting emphases that philosophers and poets have attached to beauty over the course of time. “At what point,” T. S. Eliot wondered, “does the attempt to design and create an object for the sake of beauty become conscious? At what point in civilization does any conscious distinction between practical or magical utility and aesthetic beauty arise?” Eliot is reminding us that Neolithic cave paintings, Sumerian seals, and Egyptian sarcophagus carvings were not created to be “beautiful,” nor was the response to them an aesthetic one, at least not in the way we use the word.2 Aesthetic beauty began with Plato, who, with a nod toward Pythagoras, molded the term kalos — which Homer had applied to pleasing or sensuous appearance — into an immutable Form or Ideal. The Beautiful reconciled the universal with the particular and manifested itself in proportion, harmony, and due measure. Anything said to be “beautiful” thus participated in the idea of Beauty, which, like Goodness and Truth, was eternal. Not long after Plato brought us news of these supernal realities, Aristotle began to tamper with his teacher’s generalizations. The Good and the Beautiful remained allied, but Aristotle also allowed for differences, stressing, for instance, beauty’s concrete realization in art.

By the time the idea of beauty entered he mainstream of Western thought in the fifth century A.D., through the writings of Plotinus and Augustine, beauty had become a creative force identified with the cosmos itself. As the expression of God’s will, the cosmos (which means “order”) was necessarily and ineluctably beautiful. Art, therefore, could not help but do the bidding of religion, and those charged in the Middle Ages with the creation of beauty, though they may have argued over technique, were not “artists” or arbiters of taste but workmen and artisans who understood that the classical rules of order also reflected God’s order. As long as God was in the house, the problem of Form and its expression was simply a persnickety one, dissolving in the unity of the cosmos.

But once beauty became an aesthetic rather than a religious concern, its nature had to be reassessed. Simply put, the beauty of Form eventually gave way to the forms that Beauty takes. As art gained legitimacy, divesting itself of religious and teleological instruction, beauty changed from being a property of the Ideal to being an attribute of the real. Formal rules still applied to artistic expression, but a subtle shift was occurring. The Copernican revolution, which had thrown the earth into orbit around the sun, also shifted man’s interests from divine workings to his more perishable works. Although this was no small readjustment to make, it was Johannes Kepler’s revelation, Eco nicely points out, that resonated with artists. Copernicus may have moved the center of the universe, but it was Kepler who discovered that “celestial laws do not follow simple Classical harmonies, but require a steadily growing complexity.”

Now arguments about art and beauty could really begin. If appearances were not what they seemed, then the mirror that artists help up to nature had to do more than reflect what it faced. This concern ran through the seventeenth-century querelle des anciennes et des modernes, which pitted writers who favored innovation in the arts against those who insisted on maintaining long-established rules of decorum. For the “moderns,” a work could be beautiful without being a slave to the classical verities of symmetry, harmony, and clarity. Even more presumptuous was the Enlightenment’s view that man himself had a say in what was beautiful and what wasn’t.

In his famous essay “Of the Standard of Taste” (1757), David Hume did not dispense with formal relationships but maintained that “beauty is no quality in things themselves”; things become beautiful insofar as the sensations associated with them please us because of nature, custom, or caprice. And because beauty was dependent on the mind that experienced it, experience served to heighten our awareness and temper out judgments. Eventually, familiarity breeds “disinterestedness,” whereby pleasure becomes linked to understanding how successfully an objects construction and purpose fit together. This is all well and good, but in what sense can such lofty appreciation be seen as truly valid? It can’t. Indeed, in Hume’s universe, nothing is certain beyond all logical doubt, which is the reason that Immanuel Kant proposed a qualified subjectivism that, at the same time, could render absolutely valid judgments. Although Kant conceded that disinterested pleasure was independent of inviolable rules or concepts, he somehow managed to convince himself that beauty was both universal and a “symbol of the morally good.”

Edmund Burke, however, was not so sanguine. Following Hume’s lead that sensations are at the root of whatever imperfect knowledge we may have, Burke also maintained that certain sensations, if powerful enough, are absolute in a way that brooks no disinterestedness. Burke’s “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,” published in the same year as Hume’s essay, argued that beauty “belongs” to things only when they induce in us feelings like “affection and tenderness.” What sort of beautiful things might those be? — any that possess qualities of comparative smallness, smoothness, variety (though the parts must be in come relation), and delicacy. So an Arabian horse wins out over a charger, and a greyhound over a mastiff. And a woman’s beauty, incidentally, “is enhanced by [her timidity, a quality of mind analogous to it.” Is that a problem for anyone?

Even more than Hume, Burke stressed the physiological effects of things. Beauty, for instance, which is characterized by charm, harmony, simplicity, radiance, along with perfection of detail, derives from feelings of pleasure and has a relaxing effect on the “fibers” of the human body. By contrast, the sublime, which derives from feelings of pain, tightens these fibers. Beauty merely invites; the sublime commands.

By relegating beauty to what pleases us, Burke not only cut out its metaphysical heart but demoted it to mere appearances. Even the idea that the beautiful was composed — in both senses of the word, having form and serenity — worked to diminish it. The sublime, after all, was not so much composed as intimidating. This distinction allows us to turn from beauty (since it depends on our apprehension of it) but not from the sublime, which exists independently of us. The effect of Burke’s treatise was immediate. If feeling rather than reason was behind artistic expression — if the sublime scattered pleasure and beauty before it, just as genius sent taste and the rules of decorum packing — then artists who demonstrated greater energy and raw power were better than those who adhered to order and regularity. Because the beautiful could be realized, it was limited. But the sublime, which channeled the infinite and the inexpressible, could never be fully or artfully rendered. From this Burke deduces that: “A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.” Goodbye Aquinas and Descartes; with a wave of the sublime, Burke cast out the neoclassical.

By the end of the nineteenth century, whatever philosophical revisions and refinement the idea of beauty now accrued were but variations on a theme. What did change, of course, were attitudes toward beauty. The French symbolist poets, for example, rapturously advocated a nuanced, allusive, and oblique form of beauty found in music and in the poetry that aspired to music. (“Je suis belle, o morels! comme un reve de Pierre,” wrote Baudelaire, in what is one of the most lovely and mysterious lines in French poetry.) So rarified was this sense of artistic beauty that it inevitably came to be seen as superior to the more obvious charms offered by nature. “Nature has had her day… [she has] exhausted the patience of refined temperaments,” muses Des Esseintes, the protagonist of J. K. Huysmans‘s 1884 novel, A Rebours, a book best read before the age of twenty-five. Yet Oscar Wilde loved it so much that he simply stole from it: “What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design.” Nature, Wilde wrote coyly, could not compete with art, and so a beautiful sunset became, in his estimation, only “a very second-rate Turner.” Wilde, who was far more playful than the French, was also more serious — although in humorous mode, he could sometimes exaggerate to such a degree that one might miss his meaning entirely: “To discern the beauty of a thing is the finest point to which we can arrive. Even a colour-sense is more important, in the development of an individual, than a sense of right and wrong.” This might seem the axiom of a bona fide decadent, but Wilde, in truth, was almost as naive in his hopes for art, believing that if people were educated aesthetically, the ills of the world would disappear.3

The point of beauty’s apex and the point of its steepest decline followed one another in rapid succession. Even the notorious 1910 and 1912 exhibitions of Post-Impressionist paintings in London, which introduced art that made undue demands on the audience, did not summarily push beauty aside. If the new art looked odd or unfamiliar, it was because, argued the curator Roger Fry, one didn’t see the rationale behind the work or the unity that informed it. One had to know how to look; otherwise a truly original painting could very well be seen as “ugly until it becomes beautiful.”

It was but a short step from Fry’s intellectualization of pleasure in art to Duchamp‘s “Fountain,” that triangular urinal presented as art. Not only was beauty dismissed; it was degraded. Disillusioned by the futility and senseless carnage of the First World War, the first generation of the avant-garde rejected whatever moral values had made such a war possible and abandoned the idea of a metaphysic underlying artistic production. Genius was necessary, and a cold eye; but beauty and goodness — no. What did such foolishness have to do with reality or aesthetics? Artists, who were the interpreters of life, saw no reason to make art enjoyable or pleasant; their charter was to make it unique and interesting. Interesting was as good as it got.

The problematic role of beauty in art is a peculiarly modern one — or, more accurately, a modernist one, since it was created by the writers and artists who came of age around the time of the war and who refused to cede intellectual rigor to aesthetic clarity. Whereas once a certain recognizable combination of style and technical skill was generally accepted (fashion permitting) to constitute successful poems, paintings, and musical compositions — something new had been added to the mix: mainly, the complex interplay between the artistic self-awareness and the difficulties involved in, and the re-invention of, the various artistic genres. This is to suggest not that art before the First World War was more simple but that the nature of the complexity had changed. The appreciation of modernist works required a whole new set of critical tools.

There is no shame in confessing that part of the pleasure we derive from modern art is the satisfaction of “understanding” it. Pleasure, of course, is a loaded term, but not one we can ignore. It is, after all, what first draws us to art. The sensible George Santayana observed that beauty begins with sensation: what we immediately, and especially what children like immediately, is the best proof of sincerity. And when “sincerity is lost, and a snobbish ambition is substituted, bad taste comes in.” But so does ambiguity. Standards of taste cannot be limited to what is immediately apparent. Hume understood this when he proposed the “disinterestedness” that comes from experience. At some point, if one makes a fetish of art, the appeal of immediacy wanes and the artworks become significant rather than beautiful.

The great aesthetic lesson of the twentieth century was that we could have art without beauty. Anyone could make something beautiful, but only a genius could make ART. A child, after all, might draw a line or put a daub of color on canvas and create beauty — but is that art? For all the dismay expressed, by people both in and outside the arts, at the prospect that art could exist without beauty, a great deal of “art” over the last eighty years has assiduously avoided the beautiful. But then, artists like Barnett Newman would not have it any other way. Toward the middle of the last century, Newman was exhorting artists “to destroy beauty” in order to elevate art into a more sublime, more self-referential realm. Although he didn’t rid the world or the art world of beauty, he did make it harder to find the latter.

To state the obvious, there are variations of beauty in art. The lovely metrical touches of Herrick cannot be confused with the lyrical ceremoniousness of Yeats; and the tone poems of Debussy will not remind anyone of the St. Matthew Passion. But any attempt to measure and compare such respective beauties is absurd. Not, for that matter, can we restrict the recognition of beauty to those best qualified to judge art. Not that I wish to appear democratic or open-minded, but the people swaying to the pedestrian lyrics and repetitive harmonics at a John Tesh concert are, by their lights, experiencing beauty. One look at their adoring faces is all the proof we need. For that matter, a man eating a hot dog on the street may be enjoying himself as much as a gourmand savoring a slice of duck breast at Taillevent. That said, one can also say that aesthetic sophistication increases one’s chances of encountering beauty; it creates the possibility or more, if not more intense, experiences of the beautiful. To be aware of the intricacies of dance, the degree of difficulty in writing poetry, the notes and tempo involved in music, is to appreciate what may not be immediately apparent — in which case, bad taste is not the inevitable result; pleasure is.

One of the reasons that any discussion of beauty soon becomes troublesome is the intrusion and interaction of memory and knowledge. For instance, do we accord the same degree of beauty to a rug painstakingly made by a person over the course of nine months as to an exact duplicate produced by a machine in nine hours? And what about the role that affection plays? Many parents think their infant children beautiful, even if they happen to resemble small fish with beaks. Last year, a poll in England disclosed that the most beautiful word in the English language was “Mother.” A nice sentiment, but a silly answer. A far better response, so a story goes, was proffered a century ago by an Italian immigrant to these shores. When asked what he thought was the most beautiful word in the English language, he replied: “cellar door.”

Psychologists and cultural materialists might argue that emotional bias is always a factor when judging something or someone beautiful. I tend to agree. But just as some people can put social prejudices behind them, others might be better able to see both art and beauty for what they are in purely aesthetic terms. The counterargument here is that aesthetics itself is culturally determined. But you know what? — it isn’t, or, at least, not entirely. Not everyone is so easily shaped by his or her environment. There are, I believe, people temperamentally predisposed to value beauty apart from the culture’s valuations of it. (Wilde even thought we had a “beauty-sense.”) Beauty is both a custom and a longing, and some people require beauty more than others; they may even feel that it’s their life’s work. The reason is simple: beauty has an existence apart from an individual’s emotional attachment to people or things. Stendhal, who wrote the book On Love, put it baldly: “It may be that men who are not susceptible to passion are those who feel the effect of beauty most.” What a cold and extraordinary notion — yet there is truth behind it. To appreciate beauty in matters of art, as well as of the heart, requires a certain detachment. To love something for itself alone, for its formal components, is the mark of the true critic. So we return, yet again, to the eighteenth-century idea of disinterestedness. Wilde also touched on this, but more gently, when he suggested that “The only beautiful things, as somebody once said, are the things that do not concern us.”

The “beauty-sense” divined by Wilde is not exactly what researchers in the field of Evolutionary Aesthetics have in mind when examining our attraction to, or repulsion from, sensory stimuli.4 Not content to regard beauty as a synthetic idea that simply differentiates between things that please or displease us, an interdisciplinary batch of thinkers have arisen who identify basic aesthetic preferences that, as a matter of Darwinian adaptability, cause us to be attracted to certain shapes and sounds as opposed to others. In sum, the argument is as follows: Whatever helped the first humans survive most must have appealed to them, and his knowledge of what was beneficial was programmed into their brains and inherited by subsequent generations. Our aesthetic preferences, therefore, are the result of evolved perceptual and cognitive abilities, and though the pleasure associated with beauty is no longer essential for survival, it continues to influence how we feel about both art and nature. Wilde may have had it backwards: beauty is precisely what concerns us because it helped us to adapt and evolve.

It’s all about how we file our responses to habitat. According to numerous studies done with infants and chimpanzees, we seem to exhibit a preference for regular and symmetrical patterns. And the fact that we tend to transform incoming information into the structure of the information already stored in our brain results in a certain satisfaction in discovering relations. In some odd Kantian sense, human beings are actually wired to seek form in whatever they encounter. And this “perceptual bias” must certainly figure into any theory of aesthetics.

Although it seems fairly evident that we favor regularity and repetition over disorder and unpredictability (the brain stores the former more easily, thereby making these properties relevant to survival), this doesn’t really explain why some people find art or beauty more important than others do. Even assuming a correlation between our response to art and our ancestors’ response to nature, psychologists and philosophers may disagree about the aesthetic experience itself. Steven Pinker, an experimental psychologist, acknowledges the existence of pleasure center in the brain, but he treats art as “pure pleasure technology” that does little more than trigger these centers in order to deliver “little jolts of enjoyment.” The pleasure that we feel is not only biologically pointless, it is merely pathological: no higher purpose is being served by it.

Joseph Carroll, however, takes issue with Pinker. Carroll, a literary critic, contends that in addition to the obvious primordial aspect of art, there is a more contemplative and analytic pleasure to be had when the mind is free to engage the work. Sensory stimulation can be enhanced by a sort of informed reverie that embraces the work in all its subtlety and complexity, thereby adding to the pleasure we feel — which naturally and predictably brings us back to the idea of disinterestedness. And so, in the end, we’re stuck with that subjectivism that does not permit me to know whether I derive less or more pleasure from eating an ice cream cone or from reading a sonnet than you do.

By now it is clear that beauty is a minefield: any observation one makes about it usually blows up in one’s face. But I have decided to offer a few thoughts anyway. “Beauty” seems suited to those experiences that stop us in our tracks. Whether it’s a painting called Broadway Boogie-Woogie or a scherzo by Paganini, the beautiful is conducive to stillness. It doesn’t excite us, or necessarily instill in us the desire to replicate it; it simply makes us exist as though we’re existing for that very experience. I don’t think I am speaking for myself alone in framing a period of time — before the critical faculties kick in — when we know that there is something beyond the usual twaddle. We know there is beauty. There is organic beauty and ornamental or decorative beauty. There is the beauty of the moment and of the moment gone (“The blackbird whistling or just after,” as Wallace Stevens wrote). There is the beauty of words, of song, of color, and of design. Hogarth identified a line of beauty, and that line was curved; and Leopold Bloom, sitting in a pub, found himself staring at an oak bar, musing: “Beauty: it curves, curves are beauty.”

In one way or another, each of us is a connoisseur of beauty. Elegance, economy of movement, particular combinations of color, sound, and substance a fusion of purpose, function, and action — all make an impression on us, though the impression may vary. To some, logic is beautiful; to others, a painting by Vermeer. O. J. Simpson eluding tacklers in the open field (sad to say) is beautiful, and so is Maria Callas singing “Ebben? Ne Andro Lotana.” Beauty is everywhere; it’s just not omnipresent. One can find it in the line of poetry, in a line of prose; it may be in the faces of people we see for an instant, and it forever in the face of Charlie Chaplin at the end of City Lights. And yet when we try to account for moments like these, words seem a poor choice for language.

Perhaps this vulnerability to beauty, as well as our inadequacy in explaining it, stems from the fact that beauty is fleeting. It is fleeting when fixed on walls, pinioned to matting, recorded on digital grooves, or printed on the page. It is fleeting even when we’re gazing at the stars or across Lake Como. None of us exists in a state of perpetual delight or wonder, and even the most exalted works of art and nature do not always affect us with the same intensity. Indeed, the paradoxical question arises: If beauty were not temporary, would it last? Beauty may, in fact, exist only because it disappears, because it offers a glimpse of redemption in a world where such redemption is just an idea. That’s why we spend so much time talking about it. (If we existed in a state of grace, talking about grace would be irrelevant.)

We talk about beauty because it matters — because whenever we stumble across it or remember how a poem or piece of music makes us feel, we think that beauty can save us. Beauty shouldsave us, damn it. Doesn’t each of us feel that “if everyone else felt about beauty the way I do” there’d be peace in the world? Because that’s what beauty does: it instills a sense of peace; it rids us of doubts and misgivings; it is, for as long as it exists, all that exists. And it gives us hope. It gives us hope until we recall, or have George Steiner recall for us, the Nazi camp Komandant who sent thousands of human beings to the gas chamber daily, and in the evening retired to his room, placed a record on the gramophone, and found himself transported by the opening chords or a Bach cantata. It’s hard to believe that beauty will not make us kind. But, then, what poem ever stopped a war, what rose ever put a lion off his leap?

The problem with language — to tweak a lyric of Noel Coward’s — is that too often the wrong people use it. Those who programmatically explain beauty or demonstrate where it has gone wrong never manage to get it right. Beauty is elusive; it has to be. The reason, of course, lies with consciousness itself, with that old bugbear “dualism” that never hibernates for very long and that, sooner or later, undermines the quest for absolute knowledge. Nonetheless, one can believe in meaning without necessarily believing that life has any. I don’t offer this as a paradox but as the limitation of a mind that hasn’t accepted the possibility of a soul. To such a mind, which resists systematic conceptions of the cosmos, a chance phrase may sometimes encapsulate a view of the world that seems if not absolutely right then the best that we can do: “Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void.” The phrase is Oscar Wilde’s, and it’s one we might easily pass over. It is not witty. It is not novel. It’s not even informative. Actually, it’s rather simplistic. What does it tell us that we don’t already know? “Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void.” Nine words. Take a moment. Say them aloud. What else is there to be said?

1 Flaubert didn’t repudiate beauty; he simply thought that chasing after it would not get us anywhere. Instead, he urged that art and science work together to improve mankind.

2 “Aesthetics” (from the Greek aisthetikos, or “perceptual”) was first used in 1750 to designate a theory of “sensuous cognition” by the German thinker Alexander Baumgarten, who proposed to establish a science of the beautiful.

3 Anyone who wants to say anything at all about art or beauty would do well to consult Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist,” which, albeit brief, contain multitudes.

4 See Evolutionary Aesthetics, edited by Eckart Voland and Karl Grammer. Springer-Verlag, 2003.

Arthur Krystal’s last review for Harper‘s Magazine, “The Pages of Sin,” appeared in the January issue.


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