When we see something beautiful its beauty is subjectively felt. Yet, the concept of beauty and ugliness is elusive and difficult to put into words and define. Perhaps this is because of individual differences in our appreciation of it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What one person finds beautiful, another merely sentimental. One, attractive, another repulsive.
Beauty has been said to be something to do with appreciating harmony, balance, rhythm. It captures our attention, satisfying and raising the mind.
It is not the objects depicted by art that defines whether something is beautiful or ugly. Instead it is how the object is dealt with that makes it possibly inspirational.
Spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg suggests that what arouses our feeling that a human face is beautiful is not the face itself, but the affection shining from it. It is the spiritual within the natural that stirs our affections, not the natural on its own.
“The beauty of a woman is not in a facial mode but the true beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It is the caring that she lovingly gives; the passion that she shows. The beauty of a woman grows with the passing years.” (Audrey Hepburn)
Beauty can also occur even in suffering.
“Even in some of the most painful moments I’ve witnessed as a doctor, I find a sense of beauty… That our brains are wired to register another person’s pain, to want to be moved by it and do something about it, is profoundly heartening.” (Physician-poet Rafael Campo)
Roger Scruton, philosopher, points out that between 1750 and 1930 the aim of art or music was beauty. People saw beauty as valuable as truth and goodness. Then in the 20th century it stopped being important. Then many artists aimed to disturb, shock and to break moral taboos. The earliest of these was Marcel Duchamp e.g. his installation of a urinal. It was not beauty, but originality and irony and other intellectual ideas that they focused on. This is what won the prizes no matter the moral cost.
The art world now believes that those who look for beauty in art, are just out of touch with modern realities. Since the world is disturbing, art should be disturbing too. Yet I would suggest that what is shocking first time round is uninspiring and hollow when repeated.
“If the world is so ugly, what’s the point of making it even uglier with ugly music?… I have tried to make it sound as beautiful as I can. Otherwise what’s the point… So if you want to hear how ugly the modern world is,… you can just switch on the television and listen to the news. But I think that most people go to concerts because they want to hear beautiful music. Music full of melodies that you can hum or sing. Music that speaks to the heart. Music that wants to make you want to smile or cry or dance. (Alma Deutscher, 12 year old concert violinist/pianist)
If there are still any artists creating beautiful objects of art, I suspect, like any good news in the newspapers, they are not getting the headlines.
Awakening to the spiritual
In addition to much of our contemporary art and built environment, can we also detect a grating unattractiveness – not to mention self-centeredness and offensiveness – now coming into the language and manners shown in our mass media? As though beauty has no longer any real place in our lives.