Artists hate the word beauty, especially German artists. If you wanted to be really hated in Germany, then you would say, “My work is beautiful.” German artists believe in ugliness and nastiness. I think beauty can be something extremely important in our lives. And it’s not true that this is naive. This is what is the most needed: inner beauty and outer beauty, which is an incredible challenge for us.
But what is beauty?
Is beauty anything on its own? Is aesthetic judgment at all legitimate? Do we express anything more than a purely personal opinion when we judge that something is beautiful or aesthetically valuable?
Here are passages from a great essay by the Greek-born American philosopher Alexander Nehamas:
Beauty is the most discredited philosophical notion—so discredited that I could not even find an entry for it in the index of the many books in the philosophy of art I consulted in order to find it discredited.
The trouble is, that it has proved impossible to establish the principles that govern the production of aesthetic pleasure. We have never found any features that explain why things that possess them create aesthetic delight. That is not simply because we disagree about beauty with one another, that you despise what I like while I find your tastes disgusting. I cannot even find such reasons for myself.
Reasons are general.
If a feature explains why something attracts me in one case, it should do so in all. Yet whenever I appeal to something to explain why I like something, I know that the same feature may hurt a different work: the obsessive observation of social detail which gives such power to Remembrance of Things Past is just boring in the diaries of the Goncourt brothers; the long-lasting sexual tension between Niles and Daphne in Frasier is the subject of some of the series’ best scenes over a number of seasons, while the sexual tension between Billy and Ally was deadly after two episodes of Ally McBeal. But if social detail or sexual tension explains why I like Proust or Frasier, how can it also explain why I hate the Goncourts and Ally McBeal?
There is not in all the world’s criticism a single descriptive statement concerning which I am willing to say in advance, “If it is true, I shall like that work so much the better.” If I know that something is yellow, ductile, malleable, and soluble in aqua regia, then I know that it is gold. But though I know that it is gold, as Socrates proved to Hippias in Plato’s dialogue, I still have no idea whether or not it is beautiful.
Kant expressed this problem by saying that aesthetic judgment does not depend on concepts.
Still, he insisted, it is a genuine judgment nonetheless. It is more than an expression of purely personal feeling, more than simply saying that I like a work of art. The aesthetic judgment is a normative claim; it says that the work should be liked.
I want to turn our common picture around.
The judgment of beauty is not the result of a mysterious inference on the basis of features of a work which we already know. It is a guess, a suspicion, a dim awareness that there is more in the work that it would be valuable to learn. To find something beautiful is to believe that making it a larger part of our life is worthwhile, that our life will be better if we spend part of it with that work. But a guess is just that: unlike a conclusion, it obeys no principles; it is not governed by concepts. It goes beyond all the evidence, which cannot therefore justify it, and points to the future. Beauty, just as Stendhal said, is a promise of happiness.
We love, as Plato saw, what we do not possess. Aesthetic pleasure is the pleasure of anticipation, and therefore of imagination, not of accomplishment. The judgment of taste is prospective, not retrospective; the beginning, the middle, but never the end of criticism. If you really feel you have exhausted a work, you are bound to be disappointed. A piece that has no more surprises left—a piece you really feel you know “inside and out”—has no more claim on you. You may still call it beautiful because it once gave you the pleasure of its promise or because you think that it may have something to give to someone else. But it will have lost its hold on you. Beauty beckons.
What you come to see as a result of such beckoning you come to see for yourself. Odysseus had to listen to the sirens’ song on his own, not through the ears of one of his sailors. I can talk to you forever—or close to it—about Socrates, Proust, The Magic Mountain, Pale Fire, Wagner’s Ring, Don Giovanni, Los Caprichos, St. Elsewhere, or Frasier, but even if you learn my account perfectly, it will never be yours unless you work it out for yourself, directly interacting with the work.
Aesthetic features are so specific that they only belong to one work.
Aesthetic power has nothing to do with citizenship and morality in any art. But must we think, therefore, that art requires that sort of isolation? Must we contrast the public and the private so starkly that we can only choose between society as a whole and the single individual?
No we must not, because – says Nehamas – those who are moved by the beautiful will respond in turn, in a never-ending conversation.
The conversation is never-ending partly because beauty, as I said, is a promise, an anticipation, a hope as yet unfulfilled. To find something beautiful is, precisely, not yet to have finished with it, to think it has something further to offer. But also because the more we come to know the beautiful thing itself, the more we come to know other things as well.
The mark of great works, in the end, may be the mark Nietzsche once attributed to great human beings: “One misunderstands [them],” he wrote, “if one views them from the miserable perspective of some public use. That one cannot put them to any use, that in itself may belong to greatness.”
Moral behavior requires perceiving the ways in which people are like one another and deserve to be treated the same. Aesthetic perception aims to discern difference, to acknowledge individuality, to recognize what has never before been accomplished, and perhaps to produce it. As the fifth of A.J. Verdelle’s Six Prayers, the one she calls “For Culture,” says, “May we never have a universal language. May the lilt and trip of sister lands and brother lexicons cause us to lean forward, to cup our ears, to strain to understand.”
It is possible that spending a life, or part of a life, in the pursuit of beauty—even if only to find it, not to produce it—gives that life a beauty of its own. For in the end the standard by which I can judge whether my choices of what to pursue were the right ones or not, is whether they turned me into an individual in my own right. That is a question of style. If there is coherence in my aesthetical choices, in the objects I like, in the groups I belong to, in my reasons for choosing as I do, then I have managed to put things together in my own manner and form. I have developed, out of the things I have loved, my own style, a new way of doing things—
and maybe even beauty …
Alexander Nehamas was born in Athens, graduated from Athens College, and attended Swarthmore College and Princeton University, where he is currently Professor in the Humanities, Philosophy, and Comparative Literature. His books include Nietzsche: Life as Literature, The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault, Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates, and Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art.
Influenced by the place of philosophy in the life of Ancient Greece and Rome as well as by Nietzsche, he questions the transformation of philosophy from a way of living into a purely academic discipline. Similarly, he holds the view that the arts constitute an indispensable part of human life and not a separate domain, of interest only to a few. He teaches courses on Plato, Nietzsche, the philosophy of art, and intention and action.