Friday, June 2, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Appreciating Beauty

Aesthetics: 1:15

“Happy is the man…”

Photo Credit: ©2017. Eli G. Greenbaum



Beauty — be not caused — It Is —
Chase it, and it ceases —
Chase it not, and it abides —

Overtake the Creases

In the Meadow — when the Wind
Runs his fingers thro’ it —
Deity will see to it
That You never do it —
Emily Dickinson [1830–1886]
Beauty — be not caused — It Is,” 1929


It is said that “beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” that beauty is subjective, that it is particular rather than universal. This might be true for our soul-mates, our spouses, our loved ones, but I disagree to this claim when it comes to generalized beauty. There are some natural scenes that everyone finds beautiful: a well-tended flower garden, a bubbling brook, a clear mountain view and a large orange sunset. A bouquet of flowers.

I add to the list a beautiful smile from a beautiful face. Seeing this can improve anyone’s bad day, better anyone’s disposition, lift anyone’s spirits.  This works for me. Much of what we find beautiful has to do with symmetry, the right proportions, the ideal order. While some argue that this is unfair, that this is a learned “social construct,” this is a wasted effort. One can hardly argue with mathematics. A beautiful woman is a beautiful woman according to everyone’s understanding and tastes. 

This has been proven countless times. See what happens when a beautiful woman enters a room, or walks down the street. 

There are valid and well-understood reasons that designers put their expensive creations on equally beautiful models; there is a relationship between the clothes and the model. The eye looks at both the model, more often then not female, and the clothes that she is wearing. There is a connection, creating a visual sense and flow of beauty. This works; if it didn’t, we would see high-fashion models that are not beautiful. I doubt that this will ever happen on a big scale.

Beauty works without much effort, giving pleasure to the brain through the windows of the eye, which take it all in: a beautiful face, a beautiful painting, a beautiful photo, a beautiful scene in general. There is a different effect when we hear a beautiful piece of music; it causes us to tear up, to cry—an emotional release to what troubles us, the beautiful acting as a counterpoint to it. It is as if our ears are telling our brains to “have hope,” that goodness still exists.


Birthday Flowers: I gave these bouquet of cut flowers to my wife for her birthday. Are they not beautiful?
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum


This explains one reason why humans remain attracted to beauty, even during the direst of circumstances, even during the bleakest of times? The simple (and beautiful) answer is because it is necessary, even if we don’t completely know or immediately appreciate its virtue. It makes us feel (however briefly) right about the world, that all is in order, or could be, if only.... This is important, and becomes more so when so much is (or appears) in disorder.

While some artists, particularly in the last 40 years, resist this assertion, and purposely make ugly art, I doubt that the majority of people appreciate it or find it appealing, since this goes against the aesthetics of beauty that have been with us forever.  While nihilism and anti-beauty ideas have an audience, and there are patrons willing to pay for their representation, its time is limited, because it offers no hope, only a continuation of the same bleakness and despair.  

While it is true that ugly gets noticed (e.g., a dilapidated building, a trash-filled park, a yard overrun with weeds, trash talk), these are noticed for revealing what is lacking; and in contrast beauty gets attention for the right reasons, chiefly for what its presence adds to its surroundings, such as a public garden in a urban square. This might explain why a colorful flower growing through the cracked asphalt of otherwise grey city streets gets noticed, its symbolism palpable. 

Besides, beauty is the easiest and quickest aesthetic to judge; it is before us.  Functional cities devoid of beauty are to a large degree despairing cities; sadly, there are too many cities in Canada and the United States that fit this description. If the will is present, it is never too late to change the way a city looks. But, for this to be considered, beauty has to be seen as more than an add-on, but as necessary for public good. This is a hard sell today, particularly the idea of “public good,” which now sounds out of place, foreign, and overly virtuous. 

Yet, virtue is precisely what is missing in today’s public discourse; virtue ethics is foundational to moral philosophy and it contains an important argument on beauty. For reasons that are both societal and biological, beauty and goodness in the mind of the beholder correlate well. Beauty. no doubt, confers an advantage to an individual. Even as this is true, if we go beyond the superficial level, we know that not all beautiful-looking individuals are necessarily good, but that they are initially perceived as “good.” 

Greater moral lesson: Goodness is always beautiful, and nothing increases an unattractive (or plain) person’s beauty than the quality of goodness. 

The opposite is also true, in that badness (in all its variations, including vulgarity) decreases beauty in an otherwise beautiful-looking individual blessed with fine physical attributes or form. A beautiful person who acts with goodness and grace is in a special category; such are rare individuals and noticed for a reason, a good reason. I think of women like Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, Ingrid Bergman and Audrey Hepburn. There are others lesser known, no doubt, but we like to raise a few to the heavens in our “perfect offering.”

I suggest that this has to do with our ideas and ideals of perfection, which are transcendent ideas, likely hard-wired into our brains. So, yes, beauty is linked with goodness which itself is linked to perfection. While we know that the ideal of perfection is unobtainable, it does not follow that we don’t find appealing the idea of perfection. It is in our language for a reason; we can say that beauty has a purpose, which is not the same as saying beauty exists solely for a practical reason.

It might be unfair that ugly is not appealing, but such is the way our brains work. It might also be unfair that some are intelligent, while many are not; that a few are blessed with athletic abilities while most are not. People are born this way, with certain abilities and physical traits. There is another idea related to physical beauty, however, that needs mentioning, that requires emphasis: beauty reminds us of what is above us; beauty reminds us of higher thoughts. Monuments to beauty have a purpose, even if we have forgotten them.

Emily Dickinson alludes to this connection in the poem above: the transcendent thought implicit to beauty and its outward expression. In the Jewish Bible, the Song of Songs (Shir ha-Shirim in Hebrew; שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים), in particular Chapter 4 where the man describes his lover’s beauty, there is a long descriptive passage on female physical beauty. It is a homage to romantic love, which, in the best poetic tradition, always lifts us upward.

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