Beauty

Have you ever had the experience of anticipating a critically acclaimed artistic presentation – the unveiling of a new collection of paintings by a famous artist, or attending the premiere of a new play, a motion picture or an opera – only to be bitterly disappointed by the actual performance?   Or, what about an event which the critics panned but which you obstinately attended anyway, only to be pleasantly surprised?   Upon reflection, we understand the reason for such occurrences to lie in the nature of artistic expression itself.  Whether it be in the form of painting, sculpture, the various categories of music, the different forms of creative writing, architecture, or any other form of creative endeavor, the artist aims to create something profoundly beautiful, and an essential property of beauty itself is its very subjectivity.  Accordingly, in contrast to mathematics or the sciences, the effectiveness of an artistic creation depends upon the reaction of the individual experiencing it.  Alternatively stated, beauty is understood internally, as an emotional experience, while the external environment is susceptible to analysis through analytical methods.

Although some artistic creations are merely decorative, beautiful works that the perceptive observer finds inspirational must embody an implicit element of truth about human experience. In “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” the poet John Keats argues that not only is beauty identified with truth, but so too is the converse true, that truth calls forth the idea of beauty.   That beauty is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for truth, though, is somewhat controversial, precisely because of beauty’s subjective nature.  As a result, standards of beauty can change over time, from, say, haunting landscapes to redundant soup cans, as artistic movements in vogue at one moment may find themselves out of fashion at some later time, just as an individual’s tastes may change with maturity.  On the other hand, the content of truth itself may change over time with new scientific discoveries, creating a stochastic relationship between beauty and truth.

One scholar who contributed to our understanding of these issues was Marcel Proust.  In the fifth book of his epic masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past, entitled The Captive[1], he highlights one of the most important truths in our lives, namely the disconnect between our behavior in everyday life and our finer impulses.  Proust discusses this paradox in the context of the death of his friend Bergotte, who learns that an art museum is displaying the painting by Johannes Vermeer, “View of Delft, “ and decides to go to see it despite his poor health.  He is mesmerized by the perfection with which Vermeer had painted a little patch of yellow wall, and, comparing it to his own work (Bergotte was the author of nine books,) he admitted that his life’s work came up short.  “That’s how I ought to have written,” he thinks.  “My last books are too dry.  I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of color, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.”

Meanwhile, Bergotte collapsed on the floor of the museum and died from his illness, prompting Proust to theorize about these events.  He wrote “ Everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted for in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an artist to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be forever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer.  All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one which we leave in order to be born on this earth before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts”.

Several insights emerge from this episode:  First, human beings carry within them the potential for good behavior, which they temporarily suspend in order to avoid being placed at a disadvantage in the harsh real world.  Second, good artists apply these high standards to their work, and their efforts can provide a good example for other human beings, causing them to reflect critically on their own artistic efforts in the world.  Third, unlike other human beings, good artists perform their work in a professional manner, without expectation of wealth or fame (as it turned out, Vermeer was revered by the world after his death, but he didn’t know that would be the case when he was alive.)  And fourth, Proust offers the speculative possibility that the attraction of these otherworldly values is so strong that human beings will willingly return to them after their lives on earth are concluded.

Another important art form that encapsulates these concepts is music, and this auditory expression of beauty can manifest itself in many different genres.  The unorthodox musician Ron Johnson famously expressed his belief that music was his pathway to truth.  But perhaps the most poignant examples of stirring music can be found in the operas of Giacomo Puccini, who created a total of nine operas during his career, a number of which are standard offerings in most opera companies’ repertoires.    One of his lesser-known operas is “La Rondine” (The Swallow), and in the first act, a poet and the female lead sing the aria “Chi bel sogno di Doretta”  (Doretta’s Beautiful Dream).  An English translation of the lyrics from the Italian is as follows:

Who could know the beautiful dream of Doretta?
Why her search for happiness ended?
One day a student kissed her lips
And that kiss was a revelation!
It was passion!
Mad love!
Unimaginable happiness!
Who will ever be able again
To describe the light caress
Of a kiss so passionate?
Oh!  My life!
Who cares for wealth
If at last happiness flourishes?
Oh golden dream!
To love like that!

In this aria, Puccini introduces another element closely associated with beauty and truth, namely that of love.  When one hears a musical composition or views a painting or attends a play or reads a poem of the quality that combines truth with beauty, its effect can awaken in that person strong feelings of love for that work of art.  People debate whether some art forms are more prone to induce such intense feelings than others, but the general response, like beauty itself, seems to be of a subjective nature and varies not only from person to person, but for any particular person, it varies at different times, depending on his or her mood.

Introducing the subject of love raises the obvious question of how well these feelings about artistic creations are transferable to relationships between human beings.   Reflecting beauty’s property of subjectivity, it’s been said that beauty in another person is the quality that makes someone else love that person.  Of course, since beauty only manifests itself in the realm of appearances, the translation of the appreciation of beauty from artistic creations to human beings may be less than perfect.  But while the desire for happiness seems eminently reasonable, a right endowed in the constitution, is it really so innocent that it contains no hidden consequences?  A number of the world’s great religions warn against desire, especially for wealth and material things, as the preoccupation by which human beings can lose sight of what is important in life, and what is not.  Moreover, the desire for the possession of material objects can easily become a slippery slope in relationships between people, especially when one party is dependent financially or in other ways on the other.

Relationships between adults are obviously complex and contain many facets, each of which may take precedence at various times.  While there may always be concern for the wellbeing of the other, this feeling is often consummated within mutually acceptable periodic episodes of arousal and tranquility.  But against the backdrop of the desire to possess material objects, a relationship based upon love and mutual respect may gradually drift into one of selfishness, in which the dominant partner comes to view the dependent one as a possessed object to be consumed.  And in defense, the beautiful partner may easily adopt a dishonest and untruthful manipulative approach to the relationship, prompting relationship counseling meddlers to wonder how matters could have deteriorated so badly.

Is there a civilized approach to relationships capable of balancing beauty, truth, and love with the potentially deleterious effects of desire?  One obvious answer is that both partners should be cognizant of the potential ill effects arising from an obsession with materialism.  Beyond that, some guidance may once again emerge from the realm of music.  In 1928, a song was composed with music  by Neil Moret and lyrics by Richard A. Whiting called “He’s Funny That Way.”  Billie Holliday recorded several versions of it, beginning in 1937.  The lyrics to the 1952 version are as follows:

Once he dressed in tweeds and drapes
Owned a Rolls Royce car
Now he seems quite out of place
Like a fallen star
While I worry plan and scheme
Over what to do
I can’t help feeling it’s a dream
And too good to be true

I’m not much to look at
I’m nothing to see
I’m glad I’m living
And lucky to be

I’ve got a man
Crazy for me
He’s funny that way

I can’t save a dollar
And I ain’t worth a cent
He wouldn’t holler
He’d live in a tent
I’ve got that man
Mad about me
And he’s funny that way

Though he loves to work and slave
For me every day
He’d be so much better off
If I just went away

But why should I leave him
Why should I go
He’d be unhappy
Without me I know
I’ve got a man
He’s crazy for me
And he’s funny that way

This song provides a cogent summary of these issues.  The female narrator is frankly puzzled by her situation.  By her own admission, she is neither physically attractive nor adept in financial matters.   Nevertheless, she has attracted the attention of a male admirer who is wealthy enough to afford all the luxuries of life, but he has renounced them all to devote himself to this unpretentious woman.  Her initial response is to utilize feminine wiles to manipulate the situation to her benefit, but eventually she realizes that it is her very dearth of those manipulative skills that has brought about this change in his life, and that her demeanor of genuineness has been the cause of it.  By the end, these events have had a positive impact on her sense of self-worth:  while in his previous life, she might have represented a potential conquest to him, now, in his eyes, she is his source of joy.

Artists endeavor to expend energy to create works of beauty, which transform their intrinsic limitation of subjectivity for each individual experiencing them.  Once that work is completed, however, it remains frozen in time, as the artistic creation does not respond to the artist’s further behavior.  In contrast, although some of the same idealistic characteristics of beauty, truth, and love can also inspire everyday human beings to appreciate these properties in others, human relationships are intrinsically interactive, so that they do not remain static but can evolve over time.  Specifically, the emotion of love, which can be inspired by the recognition of beauty and truth in the beloved, can be undermined by the desire that grows out of it.  Only through the continual recognition of the greater truth underlying the daily strengths and motivations of both parties may this vulnerability be overcome.

[1] Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin and Andreas Mayor. Page 186 First Vintage Books Edition.

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