The Truth About Beauty

It can be downright ugly

If you've been anywhere near universities or museums during the past 20 years, you know that the concept of beauty has all but dropped out of highbrow discussion. It's become an embarrassment, something you slip in ("Sure, that painting's beautifully done") between talk of the important stuff, like a work's race/class/gender implications, its deconstruction of ideology, its social subversiveness, its ironic commentary on metacommentary, and so on.

It's strange: while we obviously still yearn for beautiful things—faces, paintings, sunsets, words, voices—we've lost a compelling vocabulary to justify the yearning. There are a lot of reasons for this, but it may boil down to the fact that the academic and curatorial Left, which more or less determines the artistic discourse these days, suspects that the craving for beauty is a reactionary impulse, socially constructed by elites for elites, which keeps art from doing its political—revolutionary—duty. For these people, beauty "makes nothing happen," to paraphrase W.H. Auden: when you experience it, it makes you feel "oooh" inside for a while, but when the feeling goes, the world is still as screwed-up as it was before.

Puritanical Leftists have used the limitless social inequalities we see around us as a kind of moral billy club to beat beauty out of discussions of art. Shame on you, they say, for wanting your trivial little "oooh" when AIDS victims are discriminated against, when black history continues to be denied, when Third World traditions are routed, etc. Fortunately, there are signs that things are changing. There's a mini-Proust renaissance going on, for instance, and Proust is all about elevating the beautiful to a primary value. The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., recently offered a show titled "Regarding Beauty," which tried to re-inject ideas of the beautiful into the supercharged political context of major museum exhibits. And a couple of the best films from the past two years, The Thin Red Line and American Beauty, have at their cores characters for whom beauty is their literal salvation.

Add to this hopeful trickle of aesthetic discourse a new book by Elaine Scarry called On Beauty and Being Just. I had high hopes for this book based on the title alone, since one of the things that's been lacking lately is a face-to-face engagement between the claims of the aesthetic and the political. Scarry is an academic (at Harvard), but her prose is, well, beautiful: she writes about complicated ideas with easeful clarity; there's a light-footed pleasure in the rhythms of her sentences as they yield their bursts of insight; and her voice gives the sense that Scarry is a sincere, probing thinker eager to engage sincere, probing readers in a common quest.

It's a civilized, civilizing book, which turns out to be a good and a bad thing: it's illuminating about how certain experiences of beauty make us feel, but it's also stubbornly evasive, refusing to acknowledge a whole movement in art (midwifed by Baudelaire and Nietzsche) and not even bothering to acknowledge the Left's arguments against beauty on its own terms.

First, some of Scarry's insights: she says experiencing beauty makes us want to replicate it. When we see a beautiful landscape, we want to paint it; when we see a beautiful face, we keep staring at it (replicating the moment of first coming upon it); when we hear great music, we want to make more of it. (Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder once said that after a good show, he doesn't want to party—he wants to write more music.) When a woman sees a beautiful man, she wants to replicate him (by bringing his child into the world). While other desires (for food or sex, for example) are temporarily exhaustible, our desire for beauty, even when satisfied, leads to more desire.

Inherent within the desire for beauty is a desire for the infinite, eternal and sacred, and so beauty connects us with those notions. Further, Scarry says, "The beautiful, almost without any effort of our own, acquaints us with the mental event of conviction, and so pleasurable a mental state is this that ever after one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction—to locate what is true." Finally, beauty leads "the perceiver to a more capacious regard for the world."

About beauty, I'm mostly with her; it's when she connects it with "being just" that the book disappoints. Scarry argues that the experience of beauty has a necessarily moral component to it. First she takes on the P.C. suspicious-of-beauty crowd but slips around their central argument that beauty is a social construction determined by ruling elites. Then she says that the experience of art has a "distributive" effect—that is, the sense of protectiveness and preciousness we feel toward a beautiful thing, she believes, is something that we then distribute to other things, so that once we see a beautiful flower or person, we have an impulse to treat other flowers or persons well, too. In other words, she thinks the "capacious regard for the world" that beauty gives us leads to an overall sense of political and social equality.

As Hemingway would say, "Isn't it pretty to think so?" For thousands of years, beauty's ability to help us enlarge our regard for the world did nothing whatsoever for notions of equality. (It may, in fact, have contributed to inequality.) Certain experiences of beauty have moral effects, but there are plenty that are distinctly amoral, or even immoral (from Scarry's humanistic point of view). I don't see how Baudelaire's poetry, or Richard Wagner's music, or Warhol's art or Godard's films are supposed to lead to a moral regard toward humanity or the world. They make you appreciate experience more voluptuously, but the moral content Scarry thinks is implicit is pure bourgeois wishful thinking.

If beauty has anything to do with justice, it's serendipitous. What beauty does for me is refresh my senses and make me want to look, listen and feel harder. It makes me feel momentarily like the Earth is my true home: it does a (temporary) end-around alienation. When I see a beautiful woman's face or body, or watch Kobe Bryant sail toward the basket, or stare at van Gogh's yellows, or hear John Lennon sing "Ah-ah-ah-ah" (in "A Day in the Life," after Paul says, "And then somebody spoke, and I went into a dream. . . ."), I feel privileged to be attending the passage of such events through my consciousness. At such moments, beauty utterly trumps reason: beauty feels like the real, like a heavenly visitation, a quick glimpse through a magical open window in a house that's otherwise all walls. It's a pause in the flow of experience that makes you concentrate on something utterly pleasurable to the mind and heart, and it makes you feel as though your normal way of perceiving things is starved and the world deserves your awe. But to think that such awe leads to justice is folly: Plato kicked the poets out of his Republic for good reason.

On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry; Princeton University Press. 134 pages. $15.95 hardcover.

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