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Saving Beauty by Byung-Chul Han

Lillian Wilde asks: is it beauty that needs saving, or is it us?

Saving Beauty (2017) is a thrilling discussion of the concept of beauty in today’s consumer culture. Hyperbolic and discursive, it is a gripping read that doesn’t really set out to achieve what the title proposes. Rather, it leaves the reader with a sense of urgency that beauty has yet to be saved. Or is it in fact we who need saving?

Byung-Chul Han is a cultural theorist and lecturer at the University of the Arts, Berlin. Taking up many of the themes with which he has juggled in earlier publications – capitalism, digitization, consumerism, and more – here he paints a dystopian picture of our society and how it lost track of beauty. Throughout the first three chapters, he argues that beauty has lost its edge and has been turned into something merely smooth and pleasing, like the impeccable smartphone screen, the unscathed skin of an epilated woman, or the sculptures of Jeff Koons. Anything that is not positive has fallen victim to the need for a fast, unobstructed flow of information and capital (p.10). The only thing left is that which gives immediate pleasure (pp.15, 20), that which can be consumed (p.6). In Han’s terms, beauty has become subject-centred, or ‘autoerotic’ (p.20), such that “The alterity or negativity of the other and the alien is eliminated altogether” (p.5).

“Why do we today find what is smooth beautiful?” wonders Han at the beginning of this book. He traces the aesthetics of the smooth back to Edmund Burke (1729-97), who “releases beauty of any negativity” (p.18). He contrasts this with the concept of beauty held by Pseudo-Longinus and Plato, according to whom it “does not cause pleasure, but shocks” (p.16). Han paints beauty as having declined from being inextricably linked with the sublime, to the empty, self-centred notion it has now become.

Annapurna Massif
The beauty of the sublime
Annapurna Massif © Dmitry A. Mossl 2011

At the end of the third chapter, Han suggests how beauty might be saved: “Instead of opposing the sublime to the beautiful, one should return to beauty a sublimity that cannot be subjected to inwardness, a de-subjectivizing sublimity, and thus undo the separation of beauty and the sublime” (p.22). We should return to the kind of beauty that makes us gasp – standing on a snow-covered windy peak, taking in the utter vastness of the landscape to our feet, or on a beach with the seeming infinity of the sea spreading around us, momentarily forgetting ourselves, and, in Theodor Adorno’s terms, realizing our own finitude (p.24). In the following chapters, Han embarks on a kaleidoscopic elaboration on sublime beauty, compared with its lost sibling of the digital age. Throughout Saving Beauty, he refers to works on aesthetics by a wide variety of philosophers such as Adorno, Aristotle, Barthes, Bataille, Heidegger, Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, and Scarry, to name but a few.

In Chapters 5 to 7, Han focuses on negativity as an integral part of true beauty, identifying veiling, injury, and disaster as taking on a significant role: “Negativity is the invigorating force of life. It also forms the essence of beauty. Inherent to beauty is a weakness, a fragility, and a brokenness [Gebrochenheit]” (p.45). As I mentioned earlier, this negativity has been removed from modern beauty to make it consumable.

The next chapters are dedicated to higher ideals: virtue, truth, freedom, the good. Beauty, Han argues, historically expressed morality and character (p.48), truth and freedom (p.56), the good (p.60). It was ‘an end in itself’ (p.56) and the compass for a ‘politics of beauty’ (p. 60); a fair system that acknowledges the other (p.61). All of these, it turns out, have fallen victim to the insatiable hunger of modern consumerism. Ultimately, “This consumerist attitude destroys the otherness of the other” (p.62). Beauty, however, needs the difference of the other, and a ‘contemplative distance’ (p.3) that allows us to linger, to immerse ourselves, and, thereby, to lose ourselves (p.67). Pornographic theatre, discussed in Chapter 11, is another example of how these essential characteristics of beauty have been abolished in contemporary culture. In order to save beauty, Han argues, we have to reunite it with sublimity and return to it the negativity of the other. When this is successful, beauty is freed from self-centredness: “It follows that the task of art is the saving of the other. The saving of beauty is the saving of the other… Beauty as that which is wholly other suspends the violence of time. The crisis of beauty today consists precisely in the fact that beauty is reduced to its givenness, to its use or consumer value. Consumption destroys the other. The beauty of art is a form of resistance to it” (p.68). By saving beauty we are saving the other, that is, affirming peoples’ differences. And ultimately we are saving ourselves from the grip of consumerism.

One aspect of the argument continues to puzzle me. In Chapter 3 Han seems to root the decline of beauty in Edmund Burke’s 1757 treatise on the aesthetics of the smooth. At the same time he continuously blames digitization, globalization, and consumerism, which are much younger phenomena. Here Han’s engaging style takes a toll on the legibility of the argument: at times, it appears that he’s longing for the good old days of Plato and his contemporaries, while at the same time locating the issue at the heart of the culture of the digital age. The gap between the two remains largely unaddressed.

Not for those expecting a structured, sober account of beauty and its standing in today’s Western society, Saving Beauty is instead a passionate and engaging read on a notion of beauty that has lost its standing in a digitized world.

© Lillian Wilde 2019

Lillian Wilde is a postgraduate research student at the University of York. She is working on a phenomenological account of trauma.

Saving Beauty, by Byung-Chul Han, trans. Daniel Steuer, Polity, 2018, 120pp, $10.99 pb, ISBN 9781509515103

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