Are there objective standards of beauty? Or is beauty in the eye of the beholder?
Alexander Nehamas was an excellent guest. Thanks so much to Alexander for appearing on the show this week.
I want to respond further to one of Alexander's central claims. He says that beauty has to do with what he calls "the promise of happiness." To find something beautiful is to perceive in it a promise of happiness. He even says that when you have exhausted what a thing has to offer you in the way of happiness, you will no longer find it beautiful. This line does explain a lot about what I'll call positive beauty, for lack of a better term. I'm not sure, however, that it works for what I'll call negative beauty.
There is, I think, such a thing as beauty that haunts. This is the beauty of movies like Requiem for a Dream. Imagine a work of art dedicated to doing nothing but portraying the psychology of evil, not in such a way as to praise or condemn, not to represent it as other, alien and incomprehensible, but merely to make us see it as it is. In our episode on Evil, Peter Van Inwagen claimed that the psychology of evil is incomprehensible to us. But I don't think I agree. I wouldn't go so far as to say it lurks in us all, but I do think we overestimate our own distance from it. This is a point well made in Thomas Nagel's beautiful essay on Moral Luck. But to return to our imagined artistic portrayal of pure evil. To get what I'm after you have to imagine a work that does not represent evil as being bound to lose out, in the end, to the good -- as so many representations of evil do. I'm thinking of a work that gives no quarter to the optimism that we all so very much want to experience. Such a work might be truly haunting. If the presence of real evil in the world is a haunting reality, then a beautiful representation of that haunting reality might be at least as haunting as the reality itself.
Now you may ask, "why appeal to a hypothetical work of art?" First, I can't off-hand think of a work that has just the features I'm after -- though many come close. But more philosophically, I myself always find the space of possibilities more philosophically interesting than the space of actualities. The actualities represent some sample of the possible, often an interesting sample of the possible. It is a certainly a deep and important question to ask why, of all the possibilities, just these been actualized. But here I think the answer in many cases won't be deeply philosophically interesting or illuminating. The answer will depend on the contingencies of human history and culture and sometimes just on pure accident or the mechanisms of distribution currently at play. If we have free market capitalism we might expect this or that kind of art to get produced. If we have a high degree of state intervention and subsidy of the arts, we might expect another kind. In the case of negative beauty, I can't think of many mechanisms that would cause a lot of it to be produced. People just do not enjoy that which haunts in the same way as they do that which promises happiness. We don't seek out the haunting. Indeed, we typically seek to rid ourselves of that which haunts. That's why it can drive us to the therapist's couch.
Everyone agrees, I think that there are haunting realities. Listen to Bill Clinton speak about the genocide in Rwanda. He is still haunted by his own decision not to intervene. Probably the Lewinsky affair will haunt him too for the rest of his life. But one might wonder if one can make beauty out of haunting realities. If you accept the Nehamas line that there is beauty only where there is the promise of happiness, then perhaps not. You could of course represent that which has the potential to haunt as capable of being overcome in a beautiful work of art. But by this way of thinking the representation of it as capable of being overcome would be crucial. The monster has to be defeated, the darkness may loom, but the sun is not extinguished, even if aferwards it shines less brightly. Lord of the Rings comes close, in a way, to not giving us this kind of reprieve. Though the darkness is overcome, the effects of having confronted it never go away. Frodo never manages of his own will to destroy the Ring of Power. Only accident saves him. He will be haunted for the rest of his days by his inability to give up the Ring when it most needed to be given up. He will never be the self he once was.
I am arguing, in effect, that the connection between happiness and beauty is contingent not necessary, extrinsic, not intrinsic. Beauty may either haunt, promise happiness, or invite us to some mixture of the two. We much prefer positive beauty to negative beauty, but they are species of the same genus.
You could view my line as a friendly amendment to Alexander's own. Much of what he has to say about beauty, style and individuality can still be said. It's just that there are two sides to it. I am defined not just by that in which I find the promise of happiness, but also by that which I find haunting. We may be more disposed to seek out that which promises us happiness, but if we would be fully ourselves and know ourselves fully perhaps we would be well advised to open ourselves as much to the haunting power of negative beauty as to the happiness making power of positive beauty.