On beauty and being just

July 23, 2012

The immaterial is only the least common denominator in the world, not the sum of its parts. Yet art has escapist attractions for artists in the way work on it suppresses attention to the difference between the material and the transcendent. Without a striving towards beauty it can seem hard to maintain a will to live, surrounded by indifferent fears that prefer neither risk-taking nor passive resistance.

Yet that attraction and escapist charisma with which beauty as a pursuit overwhelms any other attentional bias is dangerous, too. Of all the visual tropes in The Flowers of War, the musical instrument strings a girl tries to retrieve from outside the safety of a church in a war zone are the most memorable for me, at least apart from the use of the stained glass windows. If even a more lighthearted adventure is not complete without a celebration of beauty worth fighting for, the convention only confirms in what sense there can be something frightful and imposing about an achievement in art itself.

That fear is for the audience, and not the artist purportedly consumed by his preoccupation with that work.

This makes it possible for the appearance of art as such in a drama to feel especially confrontational thanks to the work done by cameras to guide the attention of the audience through a story and its elements, a confrontation that is gendered if adventure and the idea of a damsel in distress are part of the plot.


The effect of art within a feature film can be visual without relying on the introduction of a painting within the frame of a cinema reel, such as the role of theater in Alatriste, or the beauty of graceful swashbuckling itself when staged for camera. These instances are different in effect from staging a play within a play, no matter how aesthetically imposing the feature film’s production design within which other works of art are to be found.

When such a confrontation is gendered the audience quickly becomes self-conscious about the implications its effect seems to entail for the way they live their own lives. But why are appearances so important to us when we memorize many ways of remarking that they are misleading? Eckhart Tolle begins the book A New Earth with a case for beauty as an end in itself rather than a selfish gene’s ploy to seduce a pollinator (flowers) or a mate of its own kind (peacocks, us). The author describes recognizing the beauty of a flower as a way of provoking contemplation of the divine Presence, celebrated in the origin story of Zen and in many other religious traditions.

The argument is startling for omitting and even rejecting the casual Social Darwinism underlying the conceptual structure of platitudes that even modern witticisms cannot be bothered to contest, about the importance of not being deceived by appearances in everyday life. Without ferreting out the Enlightenment naivete about biology and politics in the Social Darwinism of “cognitive bias” concepts used in self-awareness exercises to improve social cognition, this theory of aesthetics barely sounds plausible in informal language because it conflicts on too many levels with conventional wisdom.

Yet it should make sense, and corresponds closely to a long-retained Platonic tradition in literary philosophy. Even so, Platonic idealism about truth and love and beauty feels thwarted in the uses of art to glamorize an edifice of power or an image informed by ideology, that are not scarce in the visual environments of civilization. The more disturbing art commissions of such an elite are stereotypical, in ways that use imposing scale to subvert and co-opt the discomfort and cognitive dissonance when a spectator is torn between recoiling in fear from a tyrant’s way of taking audiences, and receiving art that greets the audience where their own tastes are to be found. Art can be so used, and yet achieve little in its domination of those it confronts on its own terms.


An Imperial Hall commissioned in the 18th century.

Whether or not this “was why” the Alcibiades known to Socrates and infamous locally and in the Platonic tradition struck off the noses of public statues and the tail of a dog without pretense at reasons, there is much skepticism in moral philosophy about the value of art, and the risks it takes in provoking its audience to pay attention to its arguments.

This passage is only a small part of A New Earth, and not an overriding theme of that book, but I singled it out because of how it reminded me of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just. Both texts are convincing but counterintuitive in making arguments about how our apprehension of beauty is related to our ability to conceive of social justice on a more concrete level. Their arguments conflict substantively but also seem to share some space in Venn Diagram logic, and a comparison of the two authors’ descriptions of beauty can be used to describe that space in detail. Perhaps it also describes something intuitive to both authors that is even more convincing than either argument in full.

I’ve developed a tentative way to fit the two authors’ ideas together, using categorical reasoning to compare their descriptions of aesthetic principles and notice how common elements are found. The difference between the arguments in the two books is clear, but they aren’t entirely opposed to each other. Neither one is much circulated in art criticism as a prevailing set of assumptions for scholarship on aesthetics, but there is an intuitive plausibility to each despite their differences.

Eckhart Tolle sees beauty as something that elicits great love and also elevates consciousness by tapping into our fascination with the ethereal and our desire to transcend appearances and perceive the substance of divine Presence. Elaine Scarry sees beauty as an inspiration for justice through explicit analogy between the qualities we single out for aesthetic appreciation (of art or of beauty in nature) and the conceptual components of the idea of justice.

Their arguments can be used to build two contrasting lists of beautiful qualities. The first list corresponds closely to Eckhart Tolle’s theory of what makes a white dove or a crystal beautiful, while the second uses the narrow conceptual areas of overlap between his assumptions and Elaine Scarry’s to build the first list’s conceptual polar opposite.

Typical qualities of a beautiful object (ethereal theory of beauty)

  • lightness / paleness
  • symmetry / singularity
  • stillness / transcendence
  • smoothness / transparency

Atypical qualities of a beautiful object (material theory of beauty)

  • darkness / colorfulness
  • asymmetry / diversity
  • motion / conflict
  • surface complexity / concealed depth

I can think of favorite film moments for depicting each one.

Ethereal theory: Smoke rising in arabesques from an ornate incense burner in front of a bedroom window in Kingdom of Heaven, to the beautiful score composed by Harry Gregson Williams. Though the smoke is in motion, it moves almost vertically and being undisturbed by any breeze suggests the air in the room would actually be oppressively still if it were not too early to be as hot as the desert becomes by midday.

Material theory: Viggo Mortensen’s first entrance in Alatriste, chest deep in water, arms in an asymmetrical position, in dim light. In this scene he will show a scarf that later turns out to be captivating in its own right because it is multicolored in a wonderful way, but in this light its rich colors make it look simply like a handy dark cloth, one apparently valued but not visually striking in its own right.

Ariadna Gil and Viggo Mortensen, Alatriste

Natural beauty might balance elements from both aesthetic theories, whereas ideal beauty combines elements of only one and epitomizes that idea of beauty. Interestingly, much spiritual art (such as cathedral architecture) combines elements of both, so I wouldn’t necessarily assume one is more spiritually relevant than the other. It may be that the distinction between the two possible manifestations of beauty has spiritual significance, and that this significance is easier to appreciate when we perceive both at once.

And what happens when they are joined together? The following pairings of aesthetic and virtuous qualities that seem to share a conceptual basis were inspired more closely by Elaine Scarry’s book.

Qualities of beauty that speak to the idea of justice:

  • proportion / fairness
  • likeness / equality
  • gracefulness / dignity
  • a rhythm being even / a course of action being constant

Each of the aesthetic qualities in this short list represents a point of contact between ethereal and material beauty to me.

  • Proportion can be seen in the sides of a golden rectangle, celebrated in the design of public spaces in Athens and made up of two pairs of lines, symmetrical within pairs but asymmetrical between them, with the difference in length between pairs measured in a carefully rationalized proportion.
  • Likeness is the predicate of political equality, the idea that many discrete individuals with different stations and appearances have one shared identity as human beings, some of whose rights are innate in that identity and not acquired or alienable.
  • Graceful execution of complex movements involves giving them smooth transitions, the same qualities that make public actions dignified (as opposed to panicky capitulations to abrupt shifts in the balance of power, for instance).
  • The continuity in a military band’s rhythm is an expression of controlled forward momentum bringing change but representing the uninterrupted progress of a seemingly permanent force, neither impetuous nor easily deterred, as action in a just cause should be.

I found trying to interpret and apply both theories of beauty at once interesting, but I realize the analogies that can be made here are helped by how easily we can convince ourselves of most metaphors, with a little imagination.

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