Tuesday, July 3, 2018

What is beauty?

This is what one might call a little thought about a big topic.  What is beauty?  What happens when we experience something as beautiful?  One theory is that we perceive the qualities of that thing as they are.  I don't think so.  As I see it, in beauty we experience the qualities of the thing enhanced, intensified, more alive, shimmering with Being.  Although I am an atheist I cannot accept that beauty is to be seen as just a property of an object.  Nor is it just seeing a thing under imagination.  Imagination can help us to see something as beautiful, but it is not guarantee of beauty.  In my book, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary, I called the aesthetic quality "aura."  Things with beauty have aura.   It is not enough to say that they have what Sonia Sedivy calls "perceptual presence"  unless, by presence, we mean that they present themselves as more alive etc.  When we perceive something as beautiful it is as if there was a divine realm.  Beauty is heaven, or what it comes down to, for a non-believer.  I have been reading Beauty and the End of Art:  Wittgenstein, Plurality and Perception by Sonia Sedivy.  (2016)  Sedivy thinks that the puzzle of beauty may be resolved through theory of perception, especially perceptual realism.  She says beauty (and art) requires a theory of perception that shows "how perception is a mode of immediate engagement with the individuals and properties of our world that is informed and secured by our understanding" (5)   Much here is open to question.  Such a theory, with its emphasis on understanding of properties, and therefore of correct classification, fails to capture the way in which beauty seems to bring its object beyond classification.  "Secured" implies the attempt to overcome insecurity.  The individuals and properties are here lacking in life.  Sedivy speaks of a Richter abstract painting:  "whose beauty is the fully determinate layering and smearing of color that can only be pointed out demonstratively but not describes."  (5)  But what if it cannot be pointed out demonstratively even though it can be experienced, and what if it is not fully determinate but rather fully indeterminate?  Sedivy wants to retain the role of beauty "with no transcendental backing."  (8)  On the one hand, as an atheist, I am no fan of the transcendental.  And yet aren't we throwing out the baby with the bathwater here.    Are there interpretations of "transcendental" that might still be consistent with atheism?  It could be understood as a certain phenomenological intensity.  Sedivy defines beauty in this way:  "beauty is the value of the perceptible presence of the world."  I have a problem with "value" which only indicates that the object seems or is good to us in some way.  But the value of perceptible presence is that what is perceived has aura.     

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