The “beauty” which is not

by Rodolfo Papa


ROME, Tuesday, 1 February, 2011 ( What is beauty? A long philosophical tradition has given much reflection to the question of beauty, seeking to explain what it is, how it is recognised and how it is enjoyed, by reaching deep into our common experience, the starting point for any worthwhile explanation.

From such reflection has come the idea that beauty, natural or artistic, is characterised by a “pleasure” that involves not only the senses, but one’s entire being, emotions and passions as well as reason and intellect. It is a pleasure experienced without considerations of personal utility; it is thus impartial and imbued with a value of its own; it becomes, rather, the unique discovery of pleasure in anything that can be known, regardless of whether this is owned by oneself or someone else, can be acquired or purchased, or serves some useful purpose.

Beauty is particularly linked to the sense of vision and to knowledge in general. St. Thomas Aquinas would declare: “Beauty is that which pleases the eyes” (Pulchrum est quod visum placet; Summa Theologica, I, q. 5, a. 4, ad 1um); and that beauty is “pleasing to knowledge” (Ibid., II-II, q. 27, a. 1, ad 3um).

Beauty, moreover, possesses characteristics which it can never do without, such as harmony and order. It was again Aquinas who spoke of “integrity, or proportion” (integritas sive proportio), of “due proportion, or consonance” (debita proportio sive consonantia) and “clarity” (claritas), or splendor in both body and spirit. Thus, the beauty of the body rests on the correct proportion of its members (debita proportio), with the appropriate luminosity given to its coloration (claritas). Similarly, spiritual beauty arises when a person’s thoughts and actions are well-proportioned (proportio) and in accordance with the light of reason (claritas) (Ibid., I, q. 39, a. 8, resp.).

This definition of beauty, which some have labelled intellectualist, is the rational formulation of general human experience; diverse psychological and anthropological studies have confirmed as much: that, from childhood and independent of cultural conditioning, human beings tend to recognise as beautiful and pleasant that which is harmonious and well-proportioned.

However, over the past ten years, a conception of beauty has been forming which is totally separated from sensory and rational knowledge, as well as completely divorced from aesthetic pleasure and our common experience. It is a concept constructed by a few theorists without any apparent connection to the reality we know. From the base of this supposition have sprung a diversity of contemporary artistic forms which share the same esoteric conception of beauty (i.e. “beauty” as the absence or negation of harmony, as something alien or bizarre in appearance…). In such “objects”, beauty cannot in any way be discerned; nevertheless, some proponents of these works are tireless in assuring us that beauty is indeed present in them.

This has led to situations so unsettling and hilarious that —it seems to me— they have already been perfectly portrayed in the fable The Emperor’s New Clothes, by Hans Christian Andersen, the well-known author who lived between 1805 and 1875. The fable recounts the trick played on an extremely vain emperor by two swindlers, who claim to possess a fabric so exquisite that stupid people cannot see it. The emperor is thus deceived into pretending he can see the non-existent cloth, admiring its beauty so as not to be thought stupid. He asks the swindlers to make him a suit of clothes from it, which the dignitaries of the court, and then the general populace, also pretend to admire, believing that they cannot see its beauty because they are incapable of perceiving it. Only one small boy has the bravery to exclaim that the emperor is in fact walking about in the nude, and it is then that the townspeople react, finally trusting their own eyes and admitting that they also see nothing.

Quite often, passing through the halls of many contemporary art museums, one observes a similar host of conceited emperors, courtiers and commoners pretending to admire a “beauty” that seems reserved exclusively for superior minds, until one of their number, with the innocence of a simple soul, finally plucks up the courage to say that there is absolutely nothing there.

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