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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Regarding Beauty

Director’s Statement: “Regarding Beauty”

"There are perhaps two kinds of academic: those who are vaguely embarrassed by the question of beauty, and those who are acutely embarrassed by that question. The methods of intellectual analysis, so well suited (one would like to think) to exploring other areas, strike many of us as just wrong—too cold, too objective, too detached—for the task of coming to terms with the beautiful. Beauty, it is thought, is not to be theorized about but experienced, apprehended, lived. Some would go further, and question whether we should even allow ourselves to talk about beauty. At the end of the day, isn’t one’s experience of beauty a fundamentally private matter? Does it not demean the experience, somehow, to try to share it with others?

And isn’t it, anyway, nothing more than a matter of mere opinion? The idea that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ has been with us for centuries, but enjoyed a particularly high degree of popularity in the twentieth century. For much of this century, the humanities and social sciences were dominated by a deep skepticism about objective values of all sorts—an attitude that left little room for the thought that beauty could constitute a real presence in the world, and thus be an appropriate subject for academic discourse and exploration (as opposed to, say, a certain sort of psychological reaction—a symptom—that needed only to be explained away).

This sort of attitude flies in the face of a long Western tradition of theorizing about beauty, one that extends from Plato through Kant and into the nineteenth century. And it contradicts, too, the sort of reverence for beauty expressed by poets through the ages (until our own beauty-phobic age, whose poets want their work to be anything but beautiful). “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” wrote Keats. “That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Far from identifying the two, few thinkers of our time would even agree to the existence of a strong relation between truth and beauty— except, perhaps, for those postmodernists and self-styled conceptual revolutionaries who would want to discard them both as elements of the same meretricious delusion. Beauty, according to this camp, is nothing more than a sop to convention, the expression of the preferences of the powers-that-be, and so in the end merely a means to political (or at any rate philosophical) oppression.

I can’t help, though, but find this view somewhat naïve. The claim that beauty and truth are illusions that can both simply be discarded is as tidy and simplistic, and thus just as unlikely to be correct, as the view that the two are not only supreme goods, but identical, so that there is thus no possibility of their conflicting. What is more worrying, again, is the very real possibility that both truth and beauty matter greatly, and yet there is no simple or straightforward relation between them—and thus, no guarantee that the two will always be in harmony. After all, some quite wonderful things (people, for instance) can be beautiful; but some quite wonderful people are not, it seems, beautiful, at least on the surface; and some absolutely awful things have been found by some to be beautiful as well. (Think of the Italian Futurist movement, or of composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s comment regarding the 9/11 attacks.)

And isn’t it true, after all, that beauty clouds the mind? That it prevents us from seeing clearly, moving us to focus on shallow surface details as opposed to deeper, less easily discernible realities? At the very least, we ought to acknowledge that the appreciation of beauty sometimes encourages, and rewards, shallowness, fuzzy thinking, and downright stupidity. The social commentator Farrah Fawcett surely has a point when she claims that “The reason the all-American boy prefers beauty over brains is that the all-American boy can see better than he can think.”

And yet . . . in the end we all care about beauty in our daily lives, in one instantiation or another. Our advertising and popular culture are of course full of it, albeit in its most sexualized and commercialized forms. Philosophers and scientists, committed to abstraction, may pretend to ignore the relentless daily onslaught of images of impossibly gorgeous faces and bodies; but they spend their days searching for beautiful ideas, beautiful equations, beautiful theories. A great many of our decisions—more, perhaps, than we would like to admit—are made on the basis of what we find pretty, aesthetically pleasing, attractive; and what are these words but euphemisms for the love of beauty, the love that, among many intellectuals, dare not speak its name? Let us not forget that Plato, for all his obsession with the vast metaphysical discrepancies between appearance and reality, nonetheless found himself unable to refuse to believe that the Beautiful was, ultimately, identical with the Good.

It is rumored that there exists a third type of academic, one who remains unembarrassed by the question of beauty, and who is willing to discuss these matters openly, seriously, creatively, and even playfully. I invite you, during the upcoming year, to aspire to that ideal, to attend the Humanities Center’s events and to take part in our ongoing conversations, during which I fully expect to hear people say many things that are beautiful, some that are good, and—let us hope—at least a couple that are true."
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