Are there objective standards of beauty? Or is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Must art be beautiful to be great art?
Since lots of beautiful things don't have skin, whoever first said that beauty is only skin deep was clearly mistaken. When I was a kid, by the way, we used to continue "...but ugliness is to the bone." Of course, the speaker was probably being metaphorical. Perhaps he or she was trying to say that beauty is the least of the virtues that a thing can have. But is it really an apt metaphor? Perhaps we can answer by applying the implied standard to the metaphor itself. A "skin deep" metaphor would, I suppose, not be beautiful at all. A beautiful metaphor would take us much deeper than merely to the skin of things.
But I digress. What I really want to talk about is the experience of beautiful things and why having such experiences matters.
Experience is in one sense something subjective. An experience is some kind of inner mental state with an inner qualitative character. In addition, experiences can also have perfectly objective contents. This makes experience a Janus face thing - one face looks to the world, one face looks inward. We make perceptual contact with something outside the mind -- the experienced object -- by having a mental something -- an experience -- occur within the mind of the experiencing subject.
It's possible to get oneself all tied up in knots thinking about experience. Take the very phrase 'the experience of beauty.' There are two different things you could mean by it. You could take 'beauty' to refer to the inner qualitative character of an experience or you could take it to refer to the thing, presumably outside of the mind, that is the content of a possible experience. Using the phrase in both ways, I suppose you could wonder whether experiences of beauty were beautiful as experiences.
But I really want to talk about the value of experiencing things that are beautiful. I hope I can do that while bracketing the question of where the beauty resides. I don't want to have to decide right now whether beauty resides in the character of our experience or in the objects themselves. There should be some things we can say without having to settle that issue.
I think it's obvious that experiencing things of great beauty is intrinsically valuable. Being in the presence of a beautiful thing is transporting. Think of the power of a truly beautiful work of art -- be it music, or poetry or painting. Of course, there is a question of whether art has to be beautiful to be great. But clearly some great art is astoundingly beautiful. And wherever else the power of a work of art comes from, beauty is one source of power.
Perhaps, though, we call a work of art beautiful just because it has the sort of power to arrest, command, and and delight that is characteristic of the best art. But I'm not sure that is right. Some think of beautiful things as sources of deep pleasure. But great art need not be pleasing. Think of the movie Requiem for a Dream. It's a very fine and powerful piece of film-making. But it is an unrelenting journey into the psychology of addiction. It takes you down into the very depths, never let's you up for air, never gives you any hope or any trace of light. Though it is in no way pleasing or pleasant, it is a very fine film indeed.
Is it a thing of beauty? If beauty entails pleasure, then it is not. I'm not denying that there is pleasure in some way associated with seeing a greatly disturbing work of art. I was pleased that I saw the movie, and admired the searing psychological reality of the movie. But I can't say that I was pleased in seeing the movie.
Here's a thought. Though many beautiful things are sources of pleasure, perhaps the real intrinsic value of experiencing beautiful things has more to do with the power of beautiful things to arrest our attention, to take over our consciousness and move us to new places in unexpected ways. Often that will be a pleasant thing. But sometimes, like with Requiem for a Dream, it will not.
Alternatively, we might want a larger category that includes the both the beautiful and various dark cousins of the beautiful -- the shocking, the horrible, the ugly. They would be differentiated by what they do with us once they have arrested us, where they take us, and how they take us there. I think this is perhaps both philosophically under-explored and artistically under-explored territory. There isn't a great market for great and powerful ugly art. But could there be?
Finally about the comparative value of the experience of beautiful things. Whoever said beauty is only skin deep was wrong in another way. Suppose you had a choice between two lives. In one life, you have all the merely useful things that you could wish for, but little in your life is beautiful. Perhaps you have great wealth and can buy anything you want. But you are so busy with getting and spending, thaT beauty is simply crowded out of your life. In another life, your life was filled with things, people, and experiences of great beauty, but you have only enough useful things to get you through the day. You are not particular wealthy, partly because you are so consumed with the pursuit of beauty. Which life would you choose? For me, it's obvious. Though I wouldn't trade health for more experiences of beauty, I would certainly trade wealth for it. And though I'd like a life filled with merely useful things, I wouldn't want more of that at the expense of beauty.