The Place of Beauty

  1. Aesthetic Judgement and Beauty.

In the 18th century ‘beauty’ and ‘aesthetic value’ were regarded as all but synonymous. The aesthetic experience, for philosophers like Shaftesbury, Burke, Hume and Kant, who were the first to explore its nature in a systematic way, arose from beauty, and it was because we value beauty, they thought, that we pursue its exemplars, both in nature and in art. If they recognized the sublime as an object of aesthetic interest, it was partly because they believed that aesthetic pleasure could extend beyond the realm of the agreeable to embrace the awe-inspiring too. But the category of the sublime was not thought of as negative, nor was the interest in it seen as anything but an ennobling and enlivening pleasure.

        This is not how the realm of aesthetic judgement is seen today – at least, not in so far as that judgement is directed towards art. Other values are picked out and endorsed in the works of criticism, and exemplified by the artists most often celebrated as being in the vanguard of the aesthetic enterprise. The disruptive, the transgressive, the disturbing, even the ugly are all put forward as values, with beauty often downgraded as something too sweet, too escapist and too far from realities to deserve our uncritical attention. Categories that previously denoted aesthetic failure – disgusting, obscene, offensive, destructive – are now cited as marks of success; while the pursuit of beauty is regarded as a retreat from the real task of artistic creation, which is to challenge orthodoxy and to break free of conventional constraints. Of course, this ‘transgressive’ agenda has itself become a kind of orthodoxy, and therefore frequently enters into conflict with itself – as in the entirely platitudinous ‘challenges’ of Gilbert and George. However, it goes with a particular view of originality and of the role of art in a modern society, that has a large and articulate following.

        There are really two kinds of defiant art that are in issue here. First, there is the kind of art that rejects the conventions of its day, not because it wishes to offend or shock, but because it regards those conventions as in some way exhausted, or without the capacity (which once they had) to touch the hearts and minds of a living audience. Artists who think like this will also look for new conventions, new constraints, a new discipline that will enable them to recreate the connection with an audience, as this formerly existed. I am thinking here of Cézanne and cubism; of Schoenberg and atonality; of the literary modernism of Eliot and Joyce. You may find the result impenetrable, unintelligible or even ugly – as many do in the case of Schoenberg, for example. But this is certainly not the intention, and in Schoenber’s case, as in the case of Eliot. the intention was to renew the tradition, not to destroy it, and to renew it as a vehicle in which beauty would once again be the norm. (There is an argument here, spelled out by Eliot in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, which would be a salutary one for our modern critics. This sees innovation and originality as fundamental to art, but only because they are fundamental to tradition, and make sense only in terms of their continuing dialogue with the tradition.)

        Secondly, there is the kind of art that rejects conventions in order to offend or shock, and which is concerned above all to draw attention to itself as an original and world-changing gesture. Artists who think like this don’t, as a rule, devote themselves to the arduous task of formulating new conventions or obeying new stylistic constraints. Convention and constraint are both alien to their nature. Their goal is to capture the attention of an audience, while at the same time enjoying the status traditionally conferred on the artist, as a purveyor of insight and truth. I am thinking of the movement known as Young British Art and typified by Damien Hirst, and also of certain trends in contemporary music and theatre, in which wilfully offensive scenes and sounds are presented without the benefit of any redeeming aesthetic order. This kind of art raises a question that is not raised by the art of Schoenberg or Eliot, which is whether you really can hold on to the practice and the institution of aesthetic judgement, and discard beauty entirely from its list of goals. And if you can do this, what then is the point and the value of aesthetic judgement?

  1. Beauty and Desire.

Some light is cast on that last question if we turn to the other application of the concept of beauty, which I touched on in the first of these lectures: the application to the object of sexual desire. Even though desire has a goal, which is that of sexual union, this goal need be neither paramount nor even clearly envisaged by the one who desires; moreover, his description of the object of desire as beautiful is not merely an affirmation of that desire. Beautiful does not mean desirable; rather it points away from the physical performance towards the idealisation of the object. Despite all the differences between the object of desire and the object of aesthetic interest, the idea of beauty points to an important link between them, which is the focus on the presented appearance of something, and the search in that appearance for a meaning that will justify our concern. Hence sexual desire passes naturally over into erotic love, in which the object is idealized, endowed with a moral and spiritual significance that are seen as revealed in, symbolized by, the face and the form. The idealization of the erotic object is not just a special case of our disposition to idealize people whom we admire or love. It occurs in another dimension, which is the dimension of sensory perception rather than that of moral assessment. We see the beloved face as in some way lifted out of the ordinary commerce of human features, shining with a radiance of its own, in which virtues (specifically male or female virtues) achieve a kind of sensory embodiment. This experience is often evoked by Dante and other medieval poets influenced by the Platonic theories of erotic love. But it is there, in one form or another, in all the literature of love, right down to Proust and James, and it has suggested to many writers a close proximity between erotic feelings and the sense of the sacred: this face and form are for me somehow outside the polluted world of ordinary transactions, in something like the way sacred things exist apart from the world – in it, but not of it. And that which is sacred can also be desecrated. Indeed, there seems to be a temptation contained within the very experience of the sacred to desecrate its object, to commit sacrilege on it, to show its emptiness and ordinariness, and to free oneself with rough gestures from the oppressive government which such things otherwise exercise over our emotions. In the erotic sphere this is a pronounced tendency, expressing itself not only in the rapes that are the traditional accompaniment of war-fare, but also, in times of extended peace like our own, in the growth of pornography and lewdness. These practices should be understood as desecrations – as attempts to escape from the burden of erotic idealization, by ruining the ‘apartness’ of its object. It is easy to see why we should want to do this, especially if our own sexual projects have met with disappointment, jealousy or disgust. This is the easiest way to reduce sex to a mere commodity, and to free ourselves from the obligations with which it is burdened. For the porn addict the object of desire is no longer beautiful but at best desirable: and this urge to unite with it is without the idealizing fervour that turns lust into love and sex into a life-project.

        Something similar, I think, has taken place in the world of art. Here too beauty tempts us in the opposite direction. The urge to desecrate, to ‘do dirt on life’ in the familiar phrase of D.H. Lawrence, takes over. Art, because of its long-standing commitment in the opposite direction, its centuries-old attempt to lift human life to a higher sphere and to endow it with some of the attributes of holiness, becomes an instrument of sacrilege – a way of enticing people to look on the destruction and worthlessness of the human world with the same intense focusing on appearances as they once directed to the image of its redemption.

  1. Sacred and Profane.

Here it is worth stepping back for a moment to consider the tension between the sacred and the profane in our emotions. The drama here goes back a long way, and is one of the leading themes of the Jewish Bible, in which God is constantly revealing himself in mysteries that emphasize his sacred character, and in which the Jews are constantly tempted to profane him, by worshipping images and idols in his place. Why should God be profaned by idolatry? Why does Moses decree the terrible genocidal punishment of the Israelites for what (by modern standards) is the casual peccadilloe of dancing before the Golden Calf? Does God have no sense of proportion?

        Such a question points us to the peculiarity of sacred things, which is that they do not admit of substitutes: there are not degrees of profanation, but a single and unified thing that profanation is, which is putting a substitute in place of that for which there are no substitutes – the ‘I am that I am’ that is uniquely itself, and which must be worshipped for the thing that it is and not as a means to an end that could be achieved in some other way or through some rival deity. Idolatry is the paradigm profanation, since it admits into the realm of worship the idea of a currency – you can trade in idols, swop them around, try out new versions, see which one responds best to prayer, and which one strikes the best bargains. And all this is a profanation, since it involves trading that which cannot be traded without ceasing to be, which is the act of worship itself. The object of worship is to be placed apart, in the world but not of it, to be addressed as the unique thing that it is, in which all the meanings of our lives are somehow summarized and consecrated. This is what we mean by calling it sacred. It is a deep question of anthropology why there should be this need for the sacred, and a deep question of theology whether that need corresponds to any objectively existing reality. But it is important to see that the posture towards God that is advocated in the Hebrew Bible, although it is to a certain measure an innovation, is one that we understand instinctively, even if we cannot give a rationalisation of it, or explain why it has such importance in the life of a religious believer.

        Now this posture towards God is not without parallels in other areas of human experience. There are other occasions in which we try to focus on something, to appreciate it for its own sake, as the thing that it is, and in which our attitude, while not one of worship, is nevertheless threatened by the pursuit of substitutes. The most evident example is the one that I have just considered – sexual interest, in which the object is idealized, held apart, pursued not as a commodity but for the particular person he or she is. That kind of interest, which is what we mean by erotic love, is at risk – and the principal risk is the appearance, in whatever guise, of a substitute. Jealousy is painful not least because it sees the object of love, once sacred, as now desecrated. (That is how Othello sees Desdemona, and Shakespeare’s description of Othello’s desolation at her desecrated image is one of his most masterly explorations of human sexual feeling. It is incidentally no accident that the God of Israel introduces his commandments with the description of himself as a ‘jealous God’.) Now one cure for the pain of desecration is the move towards total profanation: in other words, to wipe out all vestiges of sanctity from the once sacred object, to make it merely a thing of the world, and not just a thing in the world, something that is nothing over and above the substitutes that can at any time replace it. That is what we see in the spreading addiction to pornography and casual sex – a profanation that removes the sexual bond entirely from the realm of intrinsic values. It involves wiping out one area in which the idea of the beautiful has taken root, so as to protect ourselves from the possibility of loving it and therefore losing it.

        This leads to the other such area, that of aesthetic judgement. Here too we are dealing with an attitude that tries to single out its object, to appreciate it for its own sake, to regard it as irreplaceable, without substitutes, bearing its meaning inseparably within itself – and all those features I have been trying to illustrate in these lectures. I don’t say that works of art are sacred things – though many of the works of art that we know started life in that way, including the statues and temples of the Greeks and Romans, and the altarpieces of medieval Europe. But I do say that they are, or have been, part of the continuing human attempt not just to observe the world but also to idealize and sanctify it, to make it into an object of reverence, and to present images and narratives of our humanity as a thing to live up to, and not merely a thing to live. As I suggested, the temptation towards profanation, which manifestly exists in the sexual sphere, exists too in the aesthetic – though in multifarious forms. Not only are works of art used in order to ‘do dirt on life’, in the way I mentioned above. They are themselves objects of profanation, and the more likely to be targeted, the more claims they make for their own sacred status. A particularly interesting instance of this is provided by the world of opera, and the operas of Wagner in particular.

        Wagner’s approach to opera was heavily influenced by classical philology, and the emerging attempt in the German academy to understand the Greek theatre as a religious festival a kind of ritual offering to the god. He presented his mature operas in the same spirit, as religious occasions, though without any object of worship other than our own humanity, which he hoped to idealize on the operatic stage by showing the possibilities of redemption contained within mortality itself. Not surprisingly those potent ideas, mingled with the manifest use of all the devices of the operatic stage, so as to imbue the experience with magic and awe, has produced a strong desire to desecrate among modernist producers who cannot accept the idea of sanctity in any form. Hence you will rarely see a Wagner opera performed except in a spirit of sarcastic comment on the composer’s intentions; and the desire to desecrate has spread across the entire art-form, in which a kind of ritual shockingness and profanity has replaced any obligation to abide by the text.

        Why should people want to do this? What explains the retreat from reverence and idealisation towards profanation in the arts? It is not something we observe only in the efforts of sarcastic intellectuals to ridicule or marginalize our culture. Popular culture too has been invaded by profanity – gangsta rap, horror movies, and the ubiquitous graffiti with which public space has been scribbled over, in an attempt to remove its threatening objectivity. What do we make of this? And how should teachers respond wean young people away from the desecrating habit? These are big questions, and I am by no means sure of the answer to them.

  1. Anthropological Remarks.

Culture emerges from our attempt to settle on standards, both in everyday life, and in the highest expressions of art, that will command the consent of people generally, while raising their aspirations towards the goals that make people admirable, revered and lovable to each other. Culture therefore represents an enormous investment over many generations, and imposes enormous and by no means clearly articulated obligations – in particular, the obligation to be other and better than we are, in all the ways that others might appreciate. Manners, morals, religious precepts and ordinary decencies train us in this, and they form the central core of any culture. But they are necessarily concerned with what is common and easily taught. As I have been at pains to point out, aesthetic judgement is an integral part of these elementary forms of social coordination, and aesthetic judgement leads of its own accord to other and potentially ‘higher’ and more stylised applications. It is constantly pointing away from our ordinary imperfections and fallings short, to a world of ideals and refined emotions. It therefore contains within itself two permanent causes of offence. First it is urging upon us distinctions – of taste, of refinement, of understanding – which cannot fail to remind us that people are not equally interesting, equally admirable, or equally able to understand the world in which they live. This radical offence against the democratic prejudice has led to an interesting response from Pierre Bourdieu, in his book Distinction, which is to dismiss aesthetic judgement as an ideological fabrication, part of the false consciousness of bourgeois society, in which the unfounded idea of distinction is legitimised and imposed upon the bewildered lower orders, by way of emphasizing the permanence of their subordination. This Marxist vision was been endorsed also by Terry Eagleton, and can be sensed in the underlying agenda of much French literary criticism in the years after 1968 – including that of the deconstructionists and Tel Quel. But you don’t have to be a Marxist in order to feel the resonance of the democratic objection to the ‘claims of taste’, as Kant described them. Most American students come to college with prejudices of this kind, and are appalled to discover that there are people who do not merely disagree with their tastes in music, art and literature (not to speak of clothes, language use and social relations) but actually look down on their tastes, as inferior to some putative standard. This is very hard to take, and is one cause of the widespread endorsement of cultural relativism in its many forms – since cultural relativism simply lifts aesthetic experience out of the world of judgement altogether, and therefore eliminates the distinction between good and bad taste, and neutralizes beauty as a value.

        Secondly, because the democratic attitude is invariably in conflict with itself – it being impossible to live as though there are no aesthetic values, while living a real life among real human beings – aesthetic judgement begins to be experienced as an affliction . It is imposing an unsustainable burden, something that we must live up to, a world of ideals and aspirations that is in sharp conflict with the tawdriness and imperfection of our own improvised lives. It is perched like an owl on our shoulders, while we try to hide our pet rodents in our clothes. The temptation is to turn on it and shoo it away. The desire to desecrate is a desire to turn aesthetic judgement against itself, so that it no longer seems like a judgement of us. This you see all the time in children – the delight in disgusting noises, words, allusions, which helps them to distance themselves from that adult world that judges them, and whose authority they wish to deny. That ordinary refuge of children from the burden of adult judgement, is the refuge too of adults from the burden of their culture. By using culture as an instrument of desecration they neutralize its claims: it loses all authority, and becomes a fellow conspirator in the universal plot against ideals.

  1. One Response.

Now some (but by no means all) teachers of art, music and literature are animated by a love and appreciation of the works that they are appointed to teach. How are they to communicate that love to a class of adolescents for whom gangsta rap and horror movies define the aesthetic norm? And why should they bother? The second question is easier to answer than the first. In these lectures I have been trying not merely to identify the experience of beauty, but also to indicate (in broad outline) why it has a value. Aesthetic experience is, I have suggested, an indispensable part of ordinary practical reasoning, and also a way in which we fill our world with meanings and ideals. It involves an attempt to rearrange the world, so as to find our own aspirations mirrored in it and to know them for what they are. And when we encounter beauty it is as a confirmation – an endorsement in the world of objects of our life as subjects. The world, which in the moment of beauty presents itself as intrinsically worthwhile, also confirms, in that moment, our efforts to live at peace with it and to be a part of it. There is no doubt that it is worth our while to teach young people to understand and appreciate beauty, and to grasp the way in which the works of our culture have put beauty to a moral use. Indeed, in an age of declining faith we may have no better way of communicating the ethical legacy of our civilization.

        But how? Here we should recognize the one element of truth in Bourdieu’s Marxist assault on aesthetic judgement: that it is devoted to making distinctions. Here are some of them: real life vs fantasy; genuine emotion vs sentimental faking; art vs kitsch; harmony vs discord; tragedy vs mindless horror; comedy vs vulgar slapstick; and so on. Beauty vs ugliness need never be mentioned, by the teacher who is interested in implanting the idea of distinction in the minds of the young. The goal of recognizing sentimentality, vulgarity and kitsch might be a long way off – even defining those terms is one of the hardest tasks in aesthetics. But we can insert the wedge of discrimination in other ways, and slowly prise young people free from the worst of their obsessions. The world of popular music in fact provides ample scope for this. The mistake is to move too quickly to judgement of content, and not to begin from judgement of form. The theory I gave of content implies that, in discussing such a thing, we are putting our own soul firmly in view, showing connections and allusions that might take a long process of negotiation, if we are to elicit them in the young. If I want to persuade a young U2 fan, for example, that ‘Street with no name’ is not worthy of his admiration, it would be a mistake to begin from the judgement (true though it is) that it is a piece of morbid adolescent kitsch, in which all the emotion is faked. Far better to take the bass guitar part, and show how it makes no sense, that the chords are not properly spaced, are the wrong inversions and so on. Beginning from there you can ask important questions: what does it mean about a song, that it has been so carelessly harmonized? Compare it with a Beatles song, and then with a Scott Joplin rag. After a while he might get the point, and it will be time to compare the short-breathed routine melody of the U2 song with real melodic invention (the Beatles in ‘She Loves You’, for example), and then really real melodic invention as in Gershwin’s ‘Summer Time’, and finally, if you are lucky, really genuinely real melodic invention, like Mozart’s ‘Voi che sapete’.

        Proceeding in this way you might get to the point where you can cast a critical eye over the words of the U2 song, and introduce the vital distinction between real and fake emotion. All adolescents understand this distinction since they are constantly tempted to choose the easy side of it. The distinction is one that immediately connects with real life situations that they understand. Pointing out the way in which some words and phrases lend themselves to faking it, while some bear the immediate imprint of a compelled emotion, is the best way to introduce poetry to the young. The real and compelled is what the Old Testament prophets and chroniclers present to us – their words constantly surprise us, making connections which are not routinely contained in clichés, but the records of vivid and unusual experiences.

        So now you are in a position to explain important critical concepts: cliché, both musical and verbal; sentimentality, both soft (Disney) and hard (U2); and maybe even the vital idea of kitsch.