Thoughts on Beauty

[Author's Note: I wrote the following essay for philosophy back in December 2007, which seems to be the month to beat so far. Like the previous two essays I've posted, and like countless others, I wrote it at the last minute and in a great hurry. It was due the last day of class before the winter break, and I stole away from pep rallies and empty classrooms to churn this out in the library. Looking back on it, I'm less proud of it than I remember being at the time, but there are still a few good ideas cited, and I couldn't possibly resist posting something that Mr. Pinsky expressed fondness for. Perhaps one day I'll give it the doctoring it needs to emerge stronger.]

Beauty is an ideal or concept that is so widely, diversely, and inconsistently cited that it would seem impossible in any valid sense to arrive at a core truth or set of absolute criteria. The term is applied with equal regularity to the stars at night, high-profile fashion models, and the pyramids at Giza. Is it then to be abandoned as a word whose usages have far exceeded a central, contained meaning? Even more problematic are variables in perceptions of beauty, that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring can move some listeners to tears but incited a riot at its debut. Who, then, if anyone, is the arbiter of beauty? Is beauty relative to individuals, groups, cultures—that is to say, meaningless and entirely subjective—or absolute, immutable, and universal? The answers, if they exist, lie in carefully separating beauty into its numerous and disparate connotations.

First, and perhaps at the forefront of a pedestrian conception of beauty, is physical beauty, the quality of human appearance that is inherently pleasing. Typically, we judge that physical beauty can’t be enhanced, only realized to its fullest potential—one can only be born with it, or grow into it. For example, an ugly person who wears flattering clothes may create an impression of goodness on another level—perhaps aesthetic—but the fact of his or her ugliness remains. A beautiful person who wears flattering clothes has only found the ideal social construct for highlighting a trait he or she already possesses.

Physical beauty does not correspond to sexual attractiveness. The former is a striking and pleasant appearance emulating an intuitive ideal; the latter stems from a viewer’s individual chemistry and psychology. There is undoubtedly overlap (along with, I would suggest, a third attribute of physical attractiveness, cuteness), but not by default. The beauty that is, to borrow from the saying, skin-deep seems to be generally agreed upon within a reasonable extent—allowing that not everyone is of equal capacity to judge beauty (as this evaluation requires a degree of mental faculty) and excepting varying cultural standards of beauty that function on a more aesthetic level. Across various social divides, and even from infancy, human beings react more positively to certain facial and body structures and forms, which often correlate to particular ratios. This would suggest physical beauty as a reflexive and inborn perception, an extant ideal. While not everyone will agree upon the one most beautiful person, most will agree upon a general dichotomy of beautiful versus average versus ugly.

Second is “inner beauty,” or, more appropriately, social beauty. Physical beauty and social beauty represent the two central aspects in which human beauty can be evaluated at face value. Social beauty is a reflection of merit as can be conveyed through social interaction. Intellectual brilliance is a compelling example, as is wisdom, wit, kindness, sympathy, charisma, serenity—all endearing traits of inherent value and goodness. This is the beauty of human nature on an individual, rather than cultural, basis.

Third is artistic beauty, which spans every medium in which art is created. To look at a specific example, music, helps focus ideas about how beauty may occur in art. Listeners who judge a work of music to be beautiful typically have sufficient knowledge about its composition and forms. Because of my familiarity with and study of opera, I have seen the beauty of the art form where the vast majority of my peers can’t. Conversely, because I have only recently applied myself to a fuller appreciation of jazz, I have not responded in kind to that genre. Forms to which I am ignorant are not beautiful, despite their indisputable potential to be so. Artistic beauty seems to represent divergent experience and standards enough to suggest it is not everyone’s intuitively as is physical beauty.

Once the listener has achieved the necessary degree of experience, beauty in music seems to rest largely on its humanity. Most music that I associate with beauty feels like a spark of brilliance, a wildflower confection of artistry, usually expressing profound pathos, or at least passion. This represents another profound departure from physical beauty, because artistic beauty does not reflect some existing ideal, but rather is new or at least derivative invention, in which it may be notably imperfect and still beautiful.

Just as physical beauty should be disambiguated from sexual attraction, musical beauty should be separated from the release of endorphins in the brain that accompanies music that is sensually pleasing. Because beautiful music does not necessarily have to be sensually pleasing, it may not even be pleasant to listen to. The Velvet Underground song “Heroin” is sketched out in two chords, a fluttering drumbeat, and an abrasive viola, and, because of the emotiveness running just beneath the cold surface, is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I know.

Key to artistic beauty is the recognition of excellence. Not to be confused with perfection or even near-perfection, excellence corresponds moreover to the idea of brilliance or lasting value.

Fourth is aesthetic beauty, which seems to stem from adherence to inherently pleasing notions of order, pattern, and arrangement. Many of the structural delights through which art achieves beauty fall under this heading—the acts in a play that block out segments of dramatic action, for instance. Cited examples of beauty in process, even on a fairly mechanical level, such as the mass production consumer goods, stem from the evenness and efficiency of their work. Some material that is classified as art may have a beauty that is more aesthetic along these lines. The artwork of Andy Warhol expresses an absolute void of pathos—it is the evenness and mass quantity of his works, their mechanical perfection and invariability that render his oeuvre beautiful. Evenness, as it is aesthetically beautiful, does not necessarily dictate sameness. Evenness of diversity, as long as it is an absolute and perfect diversity, is also beautiful.

Aesthetic beauty also encompasses natural beauty. Geographical and ecological forms are beautiful in their pattern and classification, sense of order and hierarchy. Snow melts in the mountains and forms streams, which join into rivers, which flow out to sea, where water is evaporated and the cycle repeats—that the world around us functions with often clear predictability and of its own accord is beautiful, or else our sense of aesthetic beauty is drawn from the world around us.

Fifth is the beauty of human civilization, stemming from the range of experience, potential, and accomplishment seen in all human societies. Language, whether it is spoken or written, has an aural or visual charm that exists independently of meaning or comprehension; Italian or Arabic may sound beautiful even to someone who has no knowledge of the language, and a similar beauty can be found in pen strokes, no matter the language or degree of legibility. As long as an understanding of human societies has been cultivated (and in extreme cases of neglect or mental retardation, it hasn’t), beauty can be perceived and understood.

As beauty of any kind that I have witnessed occurs in one of these forms, beauty itself and perceptions of beauty may be evaluated according to these five examples. Together, they would suggest that beauty is both relative and absolute, individual and shared. Beauty is perceived relative to one’s range of experience, from a lifetime’s scholarly devotion to the works of one writer, say, and the common experience of human existence. Beauty is absolute—relative to certain delineations of psychology, intellect, and experience. On the whole, perceptions of beauty are more shared than not, for, as Immanuel Kant observed, arbiters of beauty “[judge] not merely for [themselves], but for all men, and then [speak] of beauty as if it were a property of things.”

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