Considering Beauty

Recently, on visiting an exhibition at the V+A Museum, I found my response to beauty in certain photographs was being muted perhaps because it was personal (the male gaze) yet also because it was deemed politically incorrect!

The Open College of the Arts had posted on this sometime previously …

According to Scarry, although rarely clearly articulated, there are two distinct political arguments against beauty within academic circles.

i. our preoccupation with beauty draws our attention away from social injustice (and making the world a better place.)
ii. The act of looking at a beautiful thing turns it into an object and thereby devalues it.

There are good grounds for these arguments (for example, the second comes out of feminist theory) but Scarry goes on to counter both, making the case that, on the contrary, appreciation of beauty increases empathy and results in more justice. Hence the title of the lecture.

Alison ???, the OCA tutor responsible for the post continues …

It’s impossible to define what is beautiful in terms of subject matter as this differs dramatically according to time and culture. Mountains were seen to be execrable and deformed aspects of nature at one time, and sublime in another. A photograph of a mountain scene now can often appears cliched. Although it’s difficult to describe, it is possible to talk about beauty with some shared agreement in terms of its qualities and the impact. We all know it when we see it (or hear it, or read it!)

Elaine Scarry talks about a beauty that is not trite, self conscious or complacent. The effect of it on us is undeniable. It takes us out of ourselves and places us “in a different relation to the world than we were a moment before. It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world.” She calls this experience “a radical decentering.” This allows us to see the world in a way we haven’t seen before. And that has got to be something worth talking about.

Another tutor, Peter Haveland, makes the following point …

The problem with beauty is that it is so slipery. This image is undoubtedly beautiful … but is it still beautiful when you know it is in Auschwitz and your uncle may well have walked on them?\Most people have debased beauty to mean some sort of super pretty and ownable in some way, a masculine (rather than male) fantasy in feminist critique and imperialist in post-colonial critique so difficult for postmodernists. Then again if beauty is truth and truth beauty and there is no fixed truth where is beauty?”

To this Alison replies …

“I think it is beautiful. What is it that makes it beautiful? I can see beauty in it even though I now know what it is. But I am sure I would not see beauty in it if it had been my uncle….. Beauty is “slippery” and problematic raises lots of questions but just because it isn’t fixed doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. There seems to be something that is undeniable, and something that changes.

Another student mentions a book by the photographer, Robert Adams, “Beauty in Photography : In defence of traditional values” a book I possess but have not read; Nigel Monckton, the student in question, writes in reference to this book that … “beauty is something that creates Form from chaos.”

Tutor Peter Haveland again chips in …

The objection to the use of ‘beauty’, however inconvenient, has much to recommend it.
A post-Modernist would have argued that beauty implies an absolute and universal quality and that nothing is absolute or universal thus, like truth and reality, it is a redundant term. Feminists and post-culturalists argue that beauty is a social construct, a product of the dominant ideology and as that ideology is colonialist/imperialist and patriarchal then the term contains these objectionable elements within it and is anti-progressive . Post-postmodernism, when it settles down, may well take a different view of beauty but what these objections do suggest is that beauty, as a term, is often a lazy term, excusing us from a more complex analysis and discussionof the subject thus described. If the objection does no more than make us think before we speak, like objections to sexist, ageist, racist etc. language then it has more than a little value.”

… and continues …

Actually I have no problem with beautiful but it is good to contemplate how words have been hijacked, gendered, devalued and how this affects the way we think. I rather hope that post-post-modenism moves away from the arch-cynicism of recent decades.

It is left to Alison to sum up …

I think this has been a great discussion. The consensus seems that there is something which can be called beautiful, although it is not possible to define what it looks like as it is interpreted differently across time and culture. And that there are good reasons for being careful about how we use the word. It’s also interesting as Peter suggests to wonder how post-postmodernism will interpret beauty!!

Enough on this subject from me at present; as usual there are no straight answers to such questions concerning the nature of beauty!

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