For centuries it was understood that if something was art then it was beautiful. However, in the 19th and 20th centuries many artists turned their backs on beauty. Here we could think of various works created within the romantic movement of the 1800’s that focused on the sublime, the ugly, and the uncanny. We could think of Dada art that was, according to Tristan Tzara’s Dadaist Manifesto of 1918, out to “assassinate beauty”. Or we could think about any number of post-modern works that, as Stephen Hicks has pointed out, typically focus on entrails and blood, urine and feces, and preoccupations with unusual sex. Despite the dubiousness of some of these post-modern works, there is no doubt that art is all the richer for expanding its horizons past beauty. However, there is still a lingering issue to be addressed:
Why do people want to assassinate beauty?
Obviously there are many things in the human experience besides beauty we should consider; beauty shouldn’t have a monopoly on art or life. But there is all too often a desire to desecrate the beauty that does exist. This desire can come from artists and their concerns to push the language of art forward. But it also seems to be a desire that is part of the human condition. This is very troubling and worth our attention.
In his book Beauty (Oxford, 2009), Roger Scruton argues that beauty, in allowing this idealization and sacredness to enter our world, is in a position to offend us in at least two ways: (1) it can make us realize that there are, indeed, levels of real distinction be found in the world: some things are more interesting, admirable, compelling, and unique than others—and this doesn’t always sit well with our democratic attitude; (2) beauty imposes an intolerable burden on us by imposing ideals which can show, by way of comparison, just how miserable our lives are. In this sense, beauty can be an affliction. And it is precisely this affliction which leads so many into a what Scruton calls a “flight from beauty”, that is, a flight from ideals, which, rather than live up to the ideals and face judgment in the face of them, desecrates all vestiges of the ideals so there is nothing to live up to. Hence the cult of ugliness, death, and nihilism to be found in art and modern culture in general (see 183-184 and chapter 8 in general).
This account, in many ways, brings us back to Plato’s Symposium. There Socrates tells us Diotima’s teaching on love. This teaching speaks of a mysterious initiation that entails a gradual movement of the soul away from the changing, imperfect aspects of beauty to the unchanging, perfect Form of Beauty itself. The process of approaching the Beautiful itself is as follows: love is detached from individual people and we come to see beauty can be present in many bodies; then we come to value the beauty of the soul and the virtuous laws of the state which guide it; then we come to grasp the beauty of truths found in mathematics and science—truths which are eternal and thus transcend the moving aspects of the body, the soul, and the state (210a-e). Finally, we transcend even these intellectual truths and see, with the eye of the soul, the eternal Form of Beauty that grants beauty to all the previous imitations of it. This seeing comes suddenly upon the soul after many years of preparation and is wonderful (210e-211d). It enables a new form of procreation to take place—a spiritual form. Rather than making something like children or works, the soul is able to give birth to itself as wise and therefore virtuous. This transformed soul would have wisdom capable of intelligently directing its appetites and passions towards the good. In doing so, it would be divine-like in its autonomy. Love, if we follow its guidance towards beauty all the way, may even help us become immortal: “The love of the gods belongs to anyone who has given birth to true virtue and nourished it, and if any human being could become immortal, it would be he” (212b, translation Nehamas and Woodruff).
Sounds great doesn’t it?
The problem is that this process of pursuing higher forms of beauty entails many experiences of feeling worthless. And here is the connection with Scruton’s point. Alcibiades says Socrates, whom he loves and thinks is beautiful, “makes it seem that my life isn’t worth living!” (216a). This comment reminds us of of Apollodorus’ comment in the introduction to the dialogue: “Of course, I used to think that what I was doing [before meeting Socrates and doing philosophy] was important, but in fact I was the most worthless man on earth…” (173a). Love’s pursuit of beauty guides us to value certain things at certain levels of the soul’s ascent. Indeed, without love’s guidance we feel like we are drifting “aimlessly” as Apollodorus put it (173a); we would have “no idea what to do, no purpose in life” as Alcibiades put it (219e). Love and beauty give us a sense of well-being. But since love’s pursuit of beauty is restless, since it often lives and dies in a “single day” as Diotima put it (203e), it tries to move us beyond this temporary well-being to something better; and this leads us to experience an existential crisis. Our life as we know it is judged to be inadequate, we are judged to be inadequate, and we may, in the face of all this judgment, seek our own death (216b) or seek the death of the one who we love: “I think I would be happier if he [Socrates] was dead” (216c). But this will not do since the beloved is the means to our love flourishing and thus is a means to becoming more alive. As Alcibiades puts it: “And yet I know that if he dies I’ll be even more miserable” (216c). Love of the beautiful, so it seems, can only bring us towards immortality by killing us many times.
Perhaps some people think: it is better to assassinate beauty than be assassinated in its pursuit.
For part two of this series, go here.