What’s happened to “beauty”? Why is it so hard to talk about seriously? It’s not hard to use the term casually, to refer to a sunset or the touching play of a child as “beautiful.” We might even use the term in exclamatory approbation, speaking of an event or an accomplishment as being “beautiful!” All of those uses are remnants of what once seemed integral not only to our understanding of art, but to what (along with goodness and truth) seemed integral to our humanity. Not any more.
Today using the term seriously to talk about the quality of art sounds lofty, alien, supercilious or just plain out of touch. Since at least the turn of the 20th century, “beauty” as a descriptor or the visual companion to goodness and truth has fallen from favor not only for the abuses that have been made of it, but for our inability to say in any exact sense what we mean. We imagine that beauty is so facile and culture-bound that we even have a dismissive cliche for it, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
So here’s the dilemma: If we can’t defend beauty conceptually, is it defensible at all? Yes, I think so. And I think so because much of what we treasure about our humanity is, conceptually speaking, problematic. Such things as art itself, like goodness & truth, are conceptually ambiguous. What makes these defensible in spite of their conceptual problems is not that we can be of one mind about them but that we feel our humanity shrink in their absence. We feel their importance before we know why. It is the felt experience of beauty that matters. We are impoverished without it.
For too long beauty has been entangled, trapped, in the field of aesthetics–an entertainment for philosophers and art critics perhaps, but largely irrelevant for artists. Recall the Barnett Newman observation, “aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.” So ‘beauty’ as a function of aesthetics gets dismissed as frivolous, vain, privileged and affected…an outmoded, conservative obsession antithetical to the breadth, depth, and sophistication of thought relevant to what art should be about. But beauty is not for the birds. In fact, beauty in no small measure is why we are drawn to birds.
To dismiss the quality of beauty from art degrades our experience and reduces our capacity to see beauty anywhere…leaving us only with the crude, the vulgar, the unpolished and the confused. “Beauty” is not the same thing as “pretty,” which comes and goes with fashion. Nor is beauty what we think or believe. Beauty is an instinctual perception that precedes any reasoned judgment we make about art, just as an image precedes the word. It is the felt experience of beauty that abides. We take it to heart, cherish and wish to keep company with it. (No one deliberately purchases “ugly” for their home.) The felt experience of beauty may be as ephemeral as the cherry blossom but it is as lasting as the moment we are alive. And because we cannot say what beauty is we share it across time and place without boundary. It needs no context but the moment it is seen. This may be the most compelling quality of any art artfully done.