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On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry
Peter Benson applauds a beautiful book on beauty by Elaine Scarry.
In 1998, Elaine Scarry, a professor of aesthetics at Harvard University, was invited to give the prestigious Tanner Lectures on Human Values. (Previous lecturers have included Michel Foucault and John Rawls.) This short, incisive, intelligent book is based on her lectures.
She chose as her topic beauty, well aware that it is an unfashionable subject to discuss. “Over the last several decades,” she notes, “many people have either actively advocated a taboo on beauty or passively omitted it from their vocabulary, even when thinking and writing about beautiful objects such as paintings and poems.” These remarks apply particularly to the world of American academia in which she works, but the situation in Britain is not greatly different.
Recently, the Tate Gallery in London held an exhibition of Victorian paintings of the nude. Both the catalogue for the exhibition, and the explanatory captions in the gallery, discussed in great detail the moral views of the Victorians towards the depiction of naked figures. These comments undoubtedly provided an interesting sociological survey of Victorian attitudes towards sexuality, and towards women, but there was almost no reference to the aesthetic quality of the exhibits, which ranged from the superb (exquisite paintings by Burne-Jones) to the trivial (pornographic postcards displayed for our curiosity in glass cases). Academic discussion of art today seems reluctant to venture any opinion at all about the beauty of the works on display, even when the creation of beauty was clearly the artist’s primary intention.
As this example shows, and as Scarry is aware, much of this suspicion of beauty has resulted from feminist analyses, troubled by the social implications of the male gaze at female loveliness. These feminist theories were first developed in detail through analysing films. The representative example of the ‘male gaze’ was taken to be Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho, peering through a spy-hole at Janet Leigh in the shower, shortly before murdering her.
Elaine Scarry intervenes into this field of discussion to suggest that we attend, instead, to an equally emblematic scene: the poet Dante gazing at his beloved Beatrice, and the way he describes this experience in La Vita Nuova. The effect of her beauty is to render the poet stunned, incapacitated by love, humbled and joyful. If this gaze of his is a relation of power, then it is surely Dante who is subservient and Beatrice who is exalted.
Dante is an extreme case, but, Scarry suggests, his eloquent words are an accurate acknowledgement of the power and effect that beauty can have; not just the beauty of women, but of paintings, poems, pebbles, skies and mountains. Beauty makes us pause and catch our breath in a moment of suspended delight. It causes, in Scarry’s words, a ‘radical decentring’. We no longer feel that we ourselves are at the centre of the world, “we willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.”
When evoking these effects of beauty, whether in the natural world or in the paintings of Matisse, Scarry’s prose, always precise, is often poetic. She describes, for example, how “a willow tree, unleafed by winter, becomes electric”. It is rare to find such good writing in a book of philosophy, and yet philosophy’s need for precision is close to that attentiveness to the particularity of things which is a necessary part of literary beauty. It would certainly be impossible for the beauty of Scarry’s prose to detract from its philosophical significance.
Similarly, she argues, beauty cannot possibly lessen our awareness of philosophical and moral questions. Hence she convincingly debunks the view that “beauty, by preoccupying our attention, distracts attention from wrong social arrangements”. This political (and ‘politically correct’) view is the second source, alongside the feminist arguments, for the neglect of beauty in academic discourse today. The focus of contemporary discussion is instead on the social, historical and economic contexts of artistic production. The result of this has been a massive impoverishment of language and response. These approaches to the arts, communicated to a whole generation of students, have saddened Scarry when she reads their dispiriting effect in the essays of her own students.
In my view, she is wholly successful in her aim of absolving beauty from blame, in freeing it from the moral condemnation it has received, and restoring it to philosophical attention. In the course of this process she engages eloquently with earlier thinkers, suggesting ways their views could be modified for our own more sceptical age. Plato, for example, describes in his Symposium how the perception of physical beauty provokes a yearning for higher forms of moral beauty until, step by step, the devotee is led to an awareness of beauty in itself, freed from all contingency.
Few of us today would confidently believe in such a metaphysical entity as ‘beauty in itself’. Nevertheless, Scarry takes up the Platonic thesis that perceiving an object of beauty leads us to seek out other beautiful things and also to create new beautiful objects (by painting or writing poems about the beauty of the world). In this way beauty replicates itself, with our help, somewhat in the same fashion as Richard Dawkins’ ‘memes’. The Platonic hierarchy of levels of the Beautiful can be replaced by a network of equal, particular, instances of beauty, calling to each other, leading us from each to each.
This displacement of a hierarchical view by an emphasis on equality (the equal worth of each beautiful thing) becomes important in the second half of Scarry’s book. Here, she is not content solely to secure a moral neutrality for beauty; instead, she wishes to argue that beauty has a positive moral value and that it actually intensifies our desire to repair injustice wherever we find it. Here her arguments are much less convincing. Indeed, she is performing the same process as the writers and academics she has criticized, for she, too, is judging beauty on moral grounds, and therefore implicitly placing moral values higher than aesthetic values.
I am not suggesting that this hierarchy should be reversed and that the realm of aesthetics should be considered more important than that of morality. I’m suggesting rather that the two sets of values are strictly incomparable, and occupy separate spheres. To affirm the importance of beauty is to declare beauty to be a value in itself and not in need of further validation by reference to some other value. It should not be considered of value because it leads to justice or goodness, for such an argument would already implicitly deny its status as a value in itself.
In his Critique of Judgement (1790) Kant suggested that beauty can be regarded as a symbol of the Good. But he is careful to emphasize that this analogy between the two realms must always remain aware of the aspects in which they differ, just as much as the aspects in which they reveal similarities. Scarry also discusses the relation between beauty and justice (the relation evoked in her book’s title) as an analogy, but one which she thinks has the potential power to bring justice into the world following close on the footsteps of beauty. The notion of justice which she invokes, however, is that of a liberal academic in 21st century America, and is less universal than she imagines.
She claims, for example, that the experience of beauty inspires in people “the aspiration to political, social, and economic equality”. She might, however, have considered once again the example of Dante, whom she so rightly praised for his responsiveness to beauty. In his political treatise, De Monarchia Dante gave a carefully reasoned argument against political equality, rejecting the very idea of democracy. It is true that he does not argue this on grounds drawn from aesthetics, but even in La Vita Nuova he is led progressively away from the idea of equality. Several of the early poems in this book complain that Beatrice, by ignoring him, is treating him unfairly and hence that her actions are morally wrong. Such lover’s complaints were already a familiar theme in the poetry of his time. But Dante comes to realize that he should not write in this way. His role, as poet and lover, should be simply to praise Beatrice, and not to seek equality in their relationship. This recognition is one of the central moral turning points of his book (and of his life) and it also results in an increase in the aesthetic quality of his verse.
It is thus through his devotion to beauty that Dante is led away from any desire for equality.
Beauty is not democratic. It is distributed unequally among people. And those who can create it (in poems or paintings) are a valued minority; a favoured elite.
Scarry places emphasis on the symmetry often found in a beautiful face or piece of music, and seeks to connect this with John Rawls’ definition of justice as “a symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other”. It would be equally possible to argue, following a different set of analogies, that beauty can teach us the value of hierarchy. For not only is there an evident hierarchy among beautiful things, but the organization of material in a well-constructed painting or novel is hierarchical (central subject, subsidiary elements, framing structure).
Arguments from analogy always allow this leeway. They are dependent on the specific features chosen, the particular connections made. Over time the moral and political aspirations of society change. Our own notions of justice today differ from those of Dante. (Who today could feel complaisant satisfaction at the punishments meted out in his Inferno?)
Though his poetry does not express our beliefs, its beauty (of language and imagery) remains available to us. Beauty endures, though moral values change. Art and the practice of aesthetic appreciation allow the temporary suspension of moral judgement, and the consequent ability to give beauty its due regard. The politicization of discussions about art in recent years has made this process increasingly difficult. Standing before a painting today, students are encouraged to consider the economic conditions that allowed the patron to commission it, and the psychological conflicts which the painter may have embodied in it. Such topics are easy to assimilate to a view of teaching as the communication of facts, but the painting should also communicate something quite different: an alive responsiveness to the world, a delight in light and in the quick flicker of leaves on the trees – a cleansing of vision which allows the world outside the gallery to be seen more clearly.
Scarry hopes to revive our sense of the importance of this experience. However, by choosing to defend beauty on moral grounds she returns us to those same embroiled political arguments which have for so long distracted us from beauty’s brightness. One could easily disagree with her Rawlsian view of justice without disputing her perceptive aesthetic judgements on Matisse. There is no necessary connection between the two, or between beauty and justice. She has, however, revived a debate (with Plato, Dante, Kant and others) which has remained silent far too long. The place of beauty in our lives, and hence the future course of our civilization, will depend on the answers we collectively reach to the questions raised in this important book.
© PETER BENSON 2004
Peter Benson lives in London, where he ponders the problems of philosophy and visits the rich range of art exhibitions on view, from Titian to Tracey Emin.
• On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry (Duckworth, 2001): 134 pages, £6.99.