Beauty in the Eye?

Beauty in the Eye

Most of my students express the conviction that beauty is always and only in the eye of the beholder. In the face of differing accounts, assessments, and experiences of beauty, this position seems natural. I take the music of Bach to be beautiful while another takes it to be just so much noise. I look at the landscapes of the Hudson River School and find beauty while others look to Jackson Pollock’s work for their exemplars of beauty.

A downside to this subjectivist point of view is that we have to leave behind the intuition that there is beauty in the world. When we look at the sunset or painting, when we hear the song or watch the dance, we take ourselves to be experiencing beauty. We think that when we perceive beauty in these things we are perceiving something that is there. We might even have the experience of saying to a person, “You are beautiful” (or thinking that of ourselves). If, however, beauty is always and only in the eye of the beholder, such experiences are mistaken. There is no beautiful thing in the world. Rather, what we have are experiences of things in the world that we decide to call “beautiful.”

If beauty is always and only in the eye of the beholder we also lose another dimension of our talk about beauty. We imagine, perhaps, that one might be judged to speak truthfully one when says of a thing, “This is (or is not) beautiful.” Assessments of beauty, can, we think, at least sometimes be correct or incorrect. However if beauty is always and only in the eye of the beholder, then there is no right or wrong, unless we count lying as a form of being wrong. When asked, “Do you like these shoes?” I can respond, “Yes, they are beautiful,” whether I take them to be beautiful or not. In this case there is a gap between my assessment (“not beautiful”) and my words (“beautiful!”). When this happens it is my statement that is wrong, not my assessment. Since beauty is always and only in the eye of the beholder, my assessment (the “speaking of my eye”) cannot be right or wrong. It simply is, and is the sole arbiter of beauty.

There is another dimension of our experience of beauty that is called into question with this account. Some of us take time and effort to learn how to produce beauty. We – or, more likely, our teachers – may see that our beginning efforts in some craft fall well short of producing beauty. As we work in the craft we develop two things in parallel. We develop the capacities to discern beauty in terms of certain canons of the art at the same time (though perhaps not at the same speed) we develop capacities to produce the art. At the very beginning our capacities of discernment go no further than “I like that” or “I don’t like that.” As we train our senses, however, we learn to see, hear, and experience more than we did initially.

This notion of learning beauty is, I believe, an important pointer to why we so commonly believe that beauty is always and only in the eye of the beholder. As we have shifted from the predominance of production to consumption, we have lost the skills necessary to discern the goods internal to the practices of the arts. In fact, as nearly pure consumers, we have even mostly lost the notion that there even are goods internal to practices. Practices inhere in communities of practice. As our culture becomes more and more individualistic, we lose the notion of communities of practice in favor of the notion of lonely practitioners accountable only to themselves.

Andy Crouch wrote (and spoke) about the contrast between the experience of buying a CD and learning to play an instrument. When we buy the CD and first listen to it, our satisfaction is high. Since we own the CD we can listen to it over and over. As we listen over and over, our satisfaction tends to go down. We soon need to buy another CD to regain the level of satisfaction we had with the last CD. This pattern of consumption normally results in decreasing satisfaction over time. When we learn to play an instrument, Crouch says, our level of satisfaction follows a different pattern. While we may have initial excitement when we first begin, we quickly learn that we’re horrible. We heard beautiful violin music when we were at the concert (or listened to the CD!), but our first attempts sound to us and to our families like the wailing of a dying animal. Our satisfaction quickly becomes rather low. But as we practice, as we put in time learning the instrument, our satisfaction gradually grows. We have learned to produce beauty, not just consume it.

If Crouch is right – alas, I gave up my instrument in 7th grade – then we have an important insight into how we might recover a richer experience of beauty that can take us beyond ourselves. I know very little about painting, but I know what I like and don’t like. If I took time to study, perhaps even to learn to produce, my judgment will change. I will learn to be able to assess beauty in a more informed way, in a way that is more than just the equivalent of “I like it.” For us to regain this ability as a culture will require that we slow down and adopt the perspective of practices. This won’t be an easy shift – consuming is so easy and cheap, after all. I think it would be worth it, however.

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One Response to Beauty in the Eye?

  1. tmgre says:

    Well put! But is Crouch’s really a valid comparison? Surely – if you were to repeatedly play Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door on your guitar, you’d get sick of that, too?

    I think that developing a skill such as playing the piano is better compared to developing andor expanding a particular type of vocabulary. For example: by learning to understand not only ‘green’, but also ‘chartreuse’, ‘mantis’ or ‘harlequin’, we become better equipped to talk about… well, ‘green’. We are then able to see more green than simply green – vocabulary makes our understanding of green more profound. Or: where I see only the number 28, a mathematician may see σ(28) / 28 = (1+2+4+7+14+28) / 28 = 2.

    In other words: we don’t discover beauty – but by developing our linguistic understanding of a certain something, our eyes become open to that which previously they were blind to.

    By learning to, for example, paint, it is not your ability to perceive beauty that changes: it is simply your ability to perceive that does. You become open to the ‘vocabulary’ of painting.

    What we like and dislike may be contingent on how well we are able to linguistically apprehend this or that, but beauty itself remains, I think, contingent on chance. There just aren’t any criteria for beauty.

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