The Nature Of Beauty, the Purpose of Art--A Literary Convention Concluded

Sally's original question about literature had been waylaid by Peter's insistent digression of our discussion into the works of those who were actually present, all of whom were independent individualists, and hardly candidates for the answer to Sally's inquiry. Her question, "what are some examples of books that are worth reading, that have something of real value?" pertained to both classical and contemporary literature by authors who were not themselves overtly individualists.

After a brief break to allow Andrew, who insisted on it, to serve drinks, coffee, and the home-brewed ale we now call Roger's Ale, to anyone who wanted it, we moved on to answer Sally's question.

It was, in fact Andrew, who made the first contribution to the discussion.

"I'd like to mention some of what I've found very valuable to me, if I might. I'm restricting myself to fiction and fiction writers. I think all of these writers were good writers, technically, and what I've been able to enjoy in them, even when I was in disagreement with many of their ideas, was the creative genius that provided me with an experience only their imagination and ability could have provided.

"None of their books are unmitigated treasures by any means, and in some cases, I would find one of their works imminently enjoyable, and their next, intolerable. Every writer provided different kinds of pleasure for me, from interesting characters to intense suspense, and of course humor and satire.

"And speaking of satire, I'd begin with Mark Twain. I think his subtle, almost cynical satire is the best in English literature. I suspect Swift is the best known English satirist, but I do not personally enjoy Swift. On the other hand, I very much enjoyed Oscar Wilde's satire which is both lighter and more universal, though the poor man was plagued with his own demons which ironically ended his career and his life.

"Which reminds of one other writer capable of creating a fantastic world out of pure irony and satire, Lewis Carroll, whom I have very much enjoyed. He was, of course, the mathematician, C. L. Dodgson, which perhaps is the reason he could manipulate the unreal as though it were reality itself.

"Speaking of the unreal, the created world of Fyodor Dostoyevsky could not be more unreal and yet seems so real as to be almost palpable. There is no world with a country like Dostoyevsky's Russia, no people like the universally psychotic characters he created, and no real events he caused to happen in his created world, yet there are people, and societies, and crimes in the real world which Dostoevsky's fictional versions illustrate far better than the historical versions. I do not always like Dostoevsky, but almost always find the experience of reading him rich and rewarding.

"It is writers like Dostoevsky that have also provided me a perverse kind of pleasure on the rare occasions when I've read the commentary of academics and so-called intellectuals on such writers. The pleasure comes from the hilariously stupid things they write. They classify Dostoevsky as an existentialist, for example, a word Dostoevsky, I'm sure, never head of.

"There are existentialist writers, of course, which I generally detest, like Jean Paul Sartre and Franz Kafka, who was not really an existentialist either. Only one, Albert Camus, is an existentialist writer I've found worth reading, and have quite enjoyed.

"But I seem to be dominating our conversation, so I'll be more brief. For the sheer pleasure of reading as an experience no author is better than Victor Hugo, though I've had nearly the same experience reading Alexander Dumas. To a lesser extent, and less consistently, I've had that kind experiential pleasure reading John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, but unevenly, F. Scott Fitzgerald, W. Somerset Maugham, John O'Hara, Jack London, Joseph Conrad, Daniel Defoe, Wilkie Collins, Robert Louis Stevenson, Philip Wylie, some; ah..., Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sinclair Lewis, though I disagreed with his philosophy, Charles Dickens, some; Rudyard Kipling, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

"Other writers I've enjoyed for other reasons, like D. H. Lawrence for his almost poetic power of description, despite his horrid sense of values; George Bernard Shaw for his piercingly keen insights, in spite of his horrid social and political views; G. K. Chesterton, Guy De Maupassant, and Edgar Allan Poe, just for their ability to tell such intriguing and interesting stories.

"I do not mean this to have any significance beyond my own experience, but I generally have not found many female writers I have enjoyed. Exceptions would include Baroness Emmuska Orczy, George Eliot, (Mary Anne Evans), and Agatha Christie.

"There are other writers I've read I would have to say are good writers, undoubtedly capable of providing real enjoyment to others who read them, which I myself never really enjoyed. The Austens, for example, Jane and Mary, I was never able to enjoy, but consider that a likely shortcoming on my part.

"I do not consider myself particularly erudite, so have obviously no opinion about scores of other authors I'm sure most of you have found truly valuable, many of which I'm sure I've never read."

"I love the Austens, Andrew, especially Jane. Do you think that's because I'm a woman?"

"Perhaps that's part of it," Franz said. "But I'm not a woman, and I quite liked the Austen novels."

"Isn't it really exactly what Frank and Sarah said? It's like food, to use Sarah's example. One man's meat is another man's poison, if you'll forgive the cliche," Peter said. "And that brings up the question I asked Sarah to remind me of."

"Oh, don't forget your question, Peter," Sarah mockingly reminded him.

"Oh, thank you Sarah," he squintingly smiled. "The question is this: if different literature can be of real value to different people, and the same works of no value to others, is that value a truly objective one, or is it just a subjective market value? The same question, of course, can be asked about any kind of art."

"Yes, that is the great question, isn't it Peter," Margo said. "'What is the purpose of art?' The obvious answer is to make artists and art dealers lots of money, which in that case makes the objective value of any work of art determined entirely by how much fools can be convinced to pay for it."

"I think Margo is right in terms of the so-called Academic world of 'art and literature.' We all know that world is as phony as religion, so Peter's question is really a philosophical one: 'is there an objective purpose of art in a philosophical sense?'" Jo said.

"Yes, Jo, that is the question I had in mind, though I'm very much in agreement with Margo about what is popularly known as art."

"Even in the popular sense, there must be some idea of an objective value in art. Surely everyone who shells out hard cash for a work of art is not operating on 'the greater fool theory,'" Bill suggested. "Look at all the people who buy art with no intention of ever selling. What is it the purchaser of a work of art thinks he is buying?"

"Greater fool theory? What's that?" Joel asked.

"It's the theory of the value of collectibles. One buys a collectible item at a given price on the belief a greater fool will, in turn, pay more for it. One makes money on collectibles because there are always greater fools to resell one's collectibles to," Ruth explained.

"Thank you, Ruth," Joel said. "Sorry for the interruption."

"I didn't know what it meant either," Bill whispered confidentially to Joel.

"I thought art was a branch of aesthetics, and since aesthetics is the study of the nature of beauty, isn't art supposed to beautiful? Wouldn't the buyer of art believe he is buying something beautiful, perhaps the concretization of beauty?" Sarah asked.

"Ah yes, beauty. What could be more beautiful than a green lady with three deformed breasts holding the head of a man in her hands with the top of his head cut off, like a goblet from which she is about to drink what appears to be blood dripping onto the floor and being licked up by a grotesque lizard. Gorgeous!" Margo remarked.

"How ghastly. Who would buy such a thing?" Ruth asked.

"Don't know who," Margo said, "but it just sold for half a million at auction in London a couple of days ago."

"Apparently a greater fool, then?" Joel wanted to know.

"Most definitely a fool, but no doubt a wealthy one considered a connoisseur of art by the so-called art world," Peter said.

"Look, Peter," Sally said, "you're the philosopher here. What is your answer to the question of the objective purpose of art?"

Peter was silent for a moment as though reluctant to answer Sally's question, but was apparently trying to decide the best way to answer it.

"I'll tell you, Sally, but I think it will be a disappointment to some. It is very simple. I do not believe there is a special category of human creation called art.

What I mean by art, here, is what is often referred to as aesthetic art, and implies exactly what Sarah referred to, which is beauty. A work of art, in that sense, is any creation that is meant to appeal in a pleasing way to the human sense of beauty. Unfortunately what that sense is, or even what is meant by beauty is never defined.

"Even without a clear definition of beauty, the most casual observation of those things which are called art makes it obvious that beauty is the rarest of qualities existing in it. Spend an hour in any art museum and you will find few, if any, paintings or sculptures that you could honestly say are beautiful, and what small amount of beauty you might find is minuscule, unworthy of notice compared to the beauty one observes daily in the world's sunsets, mountains, cities, or lovely women.

"If there really were such a thing as art, what would distinguish it from other kinds of things? Is it beauty? It is obvious that architecture can be quite beautiful, whether that is the objective of the architect or not. Landscaping is usually done with the intention of making property more beautiful. Is it art?

"If I were going to attempt to differentiate what is art form everything else humans create or do, I would say the purpose of art is the enjoyment of those who use it--that is, those who read it, watch it, look at it, or listen to it--and includes only those things that were created for that purpose and no other. That excludes things people use and enjoy like tools, machines, and buildings.

"Sounds like a useful concept, but it is not. What about decorations which have no other purpose then people's enjoyment? What about a comedy performance? What about carnival rides? What about a swimming pool? The definition of anything that is ambiguous is no definition at all. The truth is, art cannot be defined because there is no metaphysical, logical, or philosophical category of such existents.

"We might also try to define art by the kind of things we believe that category of existents includes, like literature, dance, drawings, paintings, sculpture, plays, and opera, for example. That is usually what is meant by the term, 'fine arts.'

"But that kind of definition is an epistemological nightmare. It avoids the very thing every definition must include, the common qualities and attributes that make every referent a members of the same category. They are all human creations but so are toilets. They are all for human enjoyment, but but so is beer. Toilets and beer are not art.

"I know this will be a disappointment, but there is no such category of existents as art. It is a pseudo-concept and a very deceptive one. There is only literature, dance, drawing, painting, sculpture, plays, and opera, and if one wants to refer to them as, 'the arts,' to distinguish them from history, or geography, for example, there is nothing wrong with that, but to refer to them as referents of the same concept, art, is simply wrong.

"The most dangerous thing about the pseudo-concept, art, is the false idea that anything that is art is valuable, just because it is art. Since art cannot be defined, just anything can be called art, no matter how disgusting and worthless it is, and it suddenly takes on some mystical value that exempts from any possible objective evaluation."

Peter stopped talking.

"Is that it, Peter?" Franz inquired with obvious frustration in his voice.

"No Franz. I'm just waiting for the obvious question."

No one seemed to know what the question was supposed to be. It was Frank who finally realized what Peter was getting at.

"The obvious question is, 'what is beauty?' If we know what beauty is, we can define art as that which creates beauty, or attempts to."

"Yes. That is the question, Frank. Whether or not that makes it possible to define art is another question. Let's first see if we can answer the question that is never answered, 'what is beauty, and what is its nature?'"

We all needed a break, and Andrew once again insisted on waiting on us. When everyone was satiated, Peter began.

"The reason why the nature of beauty is so difficult to identify is because it is not in itself a metaphysical attribute. When the ancient Greeks attempted to define what beauty was in geometrical terms, they failed, because beauty is not an attribute like a particular shape or combination of colors. Beauty is an attribute that can only be recognized by a mind capable of concepts, but it is recognized emotionally, not conceptually.

"When we see something we call beautiful, we have a certain emotional response to it which is opposite to the emotional response we have when we see something we call ugly. What we mean by beautiful is whatever attributes a thing has that produces that emotional response when we see it, hear it, read it, or hear it spoken.

"What has made beauty so difficult to explain is discovering exactly what attributes make a thing beautiful. If they are not metaphysical attributes, how can it be defined objectively?

"Beautiful is like the concept delicious. Our taste of flavors can be objectively described in terms of the olfactory and gustatory senses and the chemicals in the food that stimulate them. What cannot be defined in those terms is what is delicious versus what is revolting. A meal is delicious when we like and enjoy all the tastes as they are combined in that meal. There is no "deliciousness" as a metaphysical attribute of any part of that meal, but the sum of the meals attributes as we experience them is what makes the meal a delicious one.

"In a similar sense, all that we perceive in a scene or a painting, for example, can be explained in metaphysical terms which describe the color of the objects and their arrangement in that scene or painting. If that scene or painting is deemed beautiful, the beauty is not a metaphysical attribute of the painting, the beauty is in the fact that the metaphysical components, as we perceive them, are pleasing, which produces the emotional feeling we call experiencing beauty.

"What metaphysical arrangements we will experience as pleasing, and which ones we will not is not determined metaphysically, but emotionally, and to understand why some arrangements will be pleasing, and others will not, we must understand something about the emotions."

There were a couple of unimportant questions at this point, which Peter answered before moving on.

"Everything about human nature, 'fits,' the kind of beings we are, and the essence of human nature is volition, which enables and requires reason and knowledge. The question is, what part of that rational/volitional nature does beauty fit?

"The emotions are our perception of the body's physiological reactions to the content of consciousness, which only means, at every moment we are conscious, there is a continuous and complex set of physiological, neurological, and chemical reactions to whatever we are currently conscious of and thinking about. It is those physiological reactions that we are directly conscious of we call our emotions, or our feelings.

"While both what we are perceiving and what we are thinking effect the emotions, it is what we think that is the most important, and in most cases, even determines what emotional reaction we will have to what we perceive. For example, if someone sees a snake, and happens to think snakes are slimy, disgusting, and dangerous, their emotional reaction will be one of fear or revulsion, but if they think snakes are interesting and sometimes beautiful in their movements and markings, there emotional reaction will be curiosity, or even pleasure.

"The physiological reactions we experience as emotions are involuntary. We can learn which thoughts produce which emotions and can learn to control our emotions indirectly by controlling what we think, but generally the emotions are automatic and involuntary. If we are healthy, our emotions correctly reflect the nature of our thoughts, values, and choices. The emotions have a very important function in human nature.

"The whole of human life is a continuous process of thinking and choosing and evaluating what one is conscious of. The one thing we cannot perceive as we perceive the physical world is consciousness itself. The one thing we cannot directly experience is that continuous process of thinking, judging, and choosing—or at least would not be able to, if it were not for the emotions.

"The emotions provide a direct perceptual experience of the content of consciousness. While we are conscious of our thoughts intellectually, the emotions provide a direct "visceral" experience corresponding to that conceptual consciousness. Making plans for something good is accompanied by feelings of enthusiasm and anticipation; thinking or contemplating doing, or having done, something we think is wrong will be accompanied by feelings of guilt or regret; thinking about someone we admire, desire, and value very highly is accompanied by feelings of love and affection; considering something evil and ugly is accompanied by feelings of anger and revulsion.

"In our actual experience, we do not usually distinguish between our thoughts and their accompanying feelings and experience them as units. The feelings and the thoughts are integrated into objects of consciousness which turn abstract thoughts into concretes which are directly perceived.

"Our emotions, as automatic reactions to our immediate consciousness, are also like a running gage or evaluation of that which one is explicitly conscious. It is the way our human consciousness enables us to directly enjoy or 'physically experience' both direct perception and our conceptual identification and evaluation of things we perceive simultaneously.

"The emotions are our nature's way of converting the abstract elements of conceptual consciousness, our concepts, values, and thoughts, into direct feelings. The emotions make our minds, as well as our bodies, sensuous.

"Oh, I really like that, Peter. It's almost poetic," Margo said.

"It is poetic, Margo, in the sense that it is that aspect of human nature that makes poetry possible," Peter continued.

"The emotions, by giving us an immediate visceral experience of all we are immediately consciousness, provides an immediate experience of what we are perceiving and thinking, and our evaluation of them and what they mean to us.

"It is obvious what purpose the emotion of fear has and what causes it. The appearance of something threatening, or even the thought of it can produce the feeling we call fear. It is obvious the feeling prepares us to defend ourselves from whatever we fear. But what is the purpose of that emotion we experience as beautiful, and what causes it?

"Since the purpose of our lives is to enjoy them, not to suffer and die, the purpose all human attributes are meant to enable us to live successfully and happily. That does not mean all the emotions are meant to be pleasurable, but even the ones that are unpleasant, like fear, are meant to enable us to evade harm and danger.

"The emotions ought to provide us joy, but it is true, that for most, the emotions are not a source of joy, but of suffering and torment. When the emotions are not a source of joy, but the very opposite, it is an indication of something very wrong. The thing that is wrong can be physiological, but more frequently the thing that is wrong is the individual's view of life, their values, their thoughts, and their choices, and the thing that is wrong with them is that they are contrary to reality and dominated by unrealistic views and desires.

"Since the sense of beauty is an emotion, and the emotions are meant to provide us joy, what specific purpose does the sense of beauty provide? It provides several, but all are related to how we evaluate the world we live in, and the things in it that affect our lives and which we use to live it.

"The sense of beauty gives us a direct visceral experience of a world appropriate for the life of man, the perfect place for the rational being, a world of infinite resources, a world that can be understood, yet a world of endless wonders and surprise, providing awe without fear and sources of endless curiosity without threat.

"There is a sense in which whatever is not ugly is beautiful. In that sense, beauty is like happiness, it is the normal state of the world and our experience of it. The beauty of life and world is so common we don't notice it. We take it for granted, and are only aware of it when something disrupts or spoils it.

"Beauty is ubiquitous, but the beauty of some things is exceptional because they are stunning examples of all that is right in life, right in its very essence. Perhaps some artists strive to produce such beauty, and some music seems to achieve it.

"Like human life there is beauty expressed as strength and beauty that is both fragile and delicate. On the one hand, there is the almost unbelievable strength and endurance of some human achievement, and yet the strongest of men can be brought to death by simple toxins or infections. The vulnerability of life is not weakness, but the fragility of complexity and requirement of perfect, which cannot be deviated from.

"We discover beauty in the majesty of mountains and the power of the sea, and we find exquisite beauty in a dew bejeweled spider web sparkling in the sunlight, or the subtle and delicate petals of a flower.

"Of course, what is beautiful to any individual will be affected by their values and beliefs, but the most sublime experiences of beauty belong to those who have the clearest grasp of reality and the nature of life and existence. For them, the experience of beauty is the affirmation of all they know, that existence and their life are worth living, and to experience them is to experience all that is worth living for. It is our capacity to experience beauty that makes that possible.

"So the ability to experience beauty is our nature's way of making our consciousness of life and existence a source of joy, a joy consistent with who and what we are," Frank said.

"That's right," Peter said. "So, Frank, do you think knowing what beauty is makes it possible to say what art is?"

"No," Frank said thoughtfully. "But you know, Peter, I agreed with what you said earlier about art. There really is no such category of existents, except in the collective sense. The whole idea of art is terribly overblown, isn't it?

"The category of existents called art exists only on this planet," Dempsey said, "if that means anything to you. There are paintings, sculpture, music, and literature throughout the universe, but they are not lumped together into a single concept called art."

"What do you call them, then?" Franz asked.

"Each is called what it is. The similarities between some of them are recognized—sculpture is three dimensional and paintings are two dimensional and may otherwise be similar in content, although on this planet there is little sculpture with color, which is a bit of a mystery," Dempsey mused.

"But there is beauty in some forms of art," Sally said. "Some music is so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes."

I mumbled something in agreement, before Peter continued.

"Oh, yes, there is beauty in some art. Some poetry is almost heart-stopping, and there are some passages of literature that provide beauty to the imagination beyond anything actually experienced. But such beauty is rare, and very little of what is called beautiful in art is beautiful at all. Most of the attraction of art is not beauty, but simply interest, because it is unique or arresting in some way, or intriguing, or, as in a good mystery story, suspenseful. The purpose of art is not beauty, but anything that provides pleasure and interest to a human being. It might be beauty in some cases, but more often than not, it is some other kind of intellectual interest and accompanying emotional response.

That was the end of Peter's impromptu dissertation on beauty, and spurred by Sally's earlier comment, the discussion turned to the subject of beauty in music. It was very interesting, and I may attempt to capture it in another article at another time.

—Mark Halpern