Beauty in Aesthetics
BEAUTY IN AESTHETICS
Beauty is a quality constituting the nonutilitarian value of a form, inhering in it as a subtle and hazardous union of the quantitative and qualitative elements, and discovered with increasing interest and adherence of the mind. Although the subtlety of its nature, the complexity and persistence of disputes regarding it, and the radical vicissitudes of the arts have led many of even the best aestheticians to abandon the word beauty, efforts to distinguish the phenomenon it denotes continue undiminished.
Distinctness from Other Values. Because beauty inheres in the organization of the elements of a beautiful object, many consider its value that of substantial rather than of accidental being. However, beauty is not the object organized, but a quality of its organization. Thus an object is not beautiful if its parts lack variety, if their interrelationships lack subtlety, etc. As value, beauty is desirable; but unlike the value that makes things useful or exchangeable, that of beauty is value as end and desirable for contemplation. Such value is said to be aesthetic. Values in the individuated object are suffused and qualify one another, but they can be abstracted by the mind and simplified for the sake of clear distinctions.
Beauty's distinctness from the good appears in the fact that whereas a thing is beautiful through the internal ordering of its parts, it is good through their external ordering. Hence the good inclines the natural appetite, the sensitive appetite, or the will toward possessing it, whereas the desirability of beauty leads not to possession but only to contemplation. Beauty differs from truth, for it depends on internal fitness of parts, whereas truth depends on conformity between what is in the mind and what exists in reality independently of the mind. Moreover, unlike beauty, truth qualifies the intellect, not the object known. Only metaphorically and hypothetically can beauty be said to be a "sensuous manifestation of the Absolute." Taken literally, this assertion would make the condition of beauty a fitness between the beautiful object and the ultimate metaphysical reality "behind" appearances, instead of a fitness of part to part within the boundaries of the object itself. By implication it would make beauty a phenomenon of the supernatural rather than of the natural order.
Although the term beauty is sometimes loosely used as a synonym for all aesthetic value, more rigorous usage discriminates between aesthetic qualities. For example, although the sublime or the graceful or both may qualify an object characterized also by beauty, these two aesthetic values are distinguishable from beauty: they both tend, though in opposite ways, toward dynamic disequilibrium, whereas beauty imposes equilibrium. Disequilibrium is inequality between actual formal expression and the intuitive expectation of it in a receiver (viewer, listener, reader). If the sublime characterizes a structure (of meaning), the unexpressed potential seems, by the natural movement of the mind, to be multiplied, while the actual (expression) seems to advance toward relative annihilation. A new potentiality accrues to the scope of meaning. On the other hand, if grace qualifies the form, the actual expression—casually and without strain—exceeds the expectation of already superior expression, and inference is drawn of potential still unactualized. This potential accrues to the agent, who is suspected of an exciting superiority. By contrast with the sublime and the graceful, the beautiful reveals equality between the actual (interrelationship discovered) and the potential. Its potential is perceived as the threat to unity provided by delicate hazards, namely, qualitative and quantitative lures so subtle and various that they are, practically speaking, inexhaustible; thus, as relation is discovered, interest mounts increasingly. Its unactualized potential accrues to the perfection of the structure.
Nature of Beauty. Beauty qualifies both nature and art, and originates ultimately in the "mind" of God. More immediately, the beauty of an art object originates by the human agency of the artist. The concept of artistic agency is contradicted by the idea that an object is invested with beauty when "touched by a ray of transcendent light." Taken metaphorically, as the familiar image of sunlight illuminating the surfaces of things and so making the world beautiful, it has validity; but this image is rather one of enormous complexity unified by a common reflection. Beauty qualifies structure, whether this organizes the relations among physical elements or among relations simply as such (incorporeal form). However, inquiry inclines usually toward the beauty of what is perceptible by the senses, particularly sight and hearing. Beauty is not imposed on matter as form is, but qualifies form itself. Multiple categorical dissimilarities naturally tend to confusion or to waste. But if in complex aspects of material and formal elements some native similarity is discoverable, the similar parts are perceived as unified, and in the recognition of this unity the mind is suffused with pleasure. The interest it awakens stimulates apprehension of further relationship, and thus heightens awareness and affectivity. The more profound and hazardous the relationships, the greater the excitement experienced. Relevancies seem privileged and original.
In a beautiful form relationships themselves are found related (proportion), by discoveries that occasion at each instant a pleasurable sense of their inevitability. Hence proportion is apprehended as "due." The affective impulse of the mind as it finds subtle proportions drives it to enjoy relationship, and creates the illusion that unity is inviolable (organic). In the totality of arrangement, as complexity is constantly explored, the surprising new appearances of fitness announce that nothing due is missing (integrity); no incompatibility remains. The unique mode of the relation that unifies relationships specifies the hierarchies in the posture of elements.
Although related surfaces, sounds, aspects, etc., are perceived through the senses, their interrelationships are actualized by the mind. The more delicate these are, the more engaged is the mind—not analytically, but in immediate, primary perception of the whole. Subtlety effects a multiple beguiling of the notice that alternates between synoptic distribution over fields of relatedness and the savoring
of individual parts of rare insistence. Beauty is both objective and subjective. It inheres in objects and, being distinguishable, can also provide an objective criterion; yet beauty depends for its appearance on the mind, since it is the mind that renders relation actual.
See Also: aesthetics.
Bibliography: aristotle, Poetics, ed. i. bywater (Oxford 1909). r. bayer, L'Esthétique de la grâce, 2 v. (Paris 1933). m. beardsley, "Beauty and Aesthetic Value," Journal of Philosophy 59 (1962) 617–28. w. a. hammond, ed., A Bibliography of Aesthetics and of the Philosophy of Fine Arts from 1900 to 1932 (rev. ed. New York 1934). t. e. jessop, "The Definition of Beauty," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, new series 33 (1932–33) 159–772. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (Detroit-Cleveland 1941–), index to v.1–20. j. laird, The Idea of Value (Cambridge, Eng. 1929). h. osborne, The Theory of Beauty (New York 1953); Aesthetics and Criticism (New York 1955) 325–34, bibliography on aesthetics. Proceedings of the 4th International Congress on Aesthetics, ed. p. a. michelis (Athens 1960) 29–36, 206–09, 458–64, 525–37. p. valÉry, Aesthetics, tr. r. manheim,v.13 of Collected Works (Bollingen Series 45; New York 1964). w. weidlÉ, "Biology of Art," Diogenes 17 (Spring 1957) 1–5.
[m. f. slattery]