Our century has been distrustful of beauty. Our philosophy follows Kant, who found beauty only in a contemplation of nature and art which yields an ‘entirely disinterested satisfaction’, pleasure bereft of desire. In literature and the arts, Modernism prized what is difficult, discomforting and edifying. As the gap between high and low culture became ever wider, the beauty which mattered to intellectuals, when it mattered to them at all, came to seem different in kind from the beauty which mattered to the world at large, and, for that reason, irrelevant and empty: the higher the pleasure it provoked, the less like pleasure it seemed.
Beauty which inspires desire, passion and pleasure – the beauty of people, clothes, popular art – was correlated with fashion, marketing and advertising. Post-Modernist authors eventually denounced even the austere satisfactions of Modernism and accused Modernists, too, of colluding with a corrupt global market. Lingerie and landscapes, corsets and concerts, navels and novels: all have been presumed to manifest – and, by making them attractive, to reproduce – unjust and oppressive social arrangements. In all its forms, beauty came to seem morally and politically suspect as well as intellectually embarrassing. Now, however, at the turn of the millennium, beauty is suddenly back, even if, at first sight, different, and indeed conflicting objectives seem to have been gathered under its rubric, leading one to ask how we are to account for it. Why, once again, are we willing to acknowledge that beauty is worthy of love?
Elaine Scarry answers this question by uniting beauty and morality. In the tradition of 19th-century aesthetics, On Beauty and Being Just describes, evokes and manifests the loving attention that beautiful objects provoke. It also argues that this attention leads irresistibly to goodness and truth. To the extent that a moral firmament still exists, beauty is at its centre – justice made visible. With all the exuberance of Agathon in the Symposium, for whom Eros was the most beautiful god and so the most beautiful thing there is, responsible for everything that is good in the world, Scarry writes:
Sacred, lifesaving, having as precedent only those things which are themselves unprecedented, beauty ... incites deliberation ... [and] almost without any effort of our own acquaints us with the mental event of conviction, and so pleasurable a mental state is this that ever afterwards one is willing to labour, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction – to locate what is true.
Her book, like Agathon’s speech, is fresh, eccentric and uncompromising. Both leave you suspended between admiration and doubt, eager to praise and compelled to criticise.
Wherever it appears, Scarry says, beauty produces the same experience: a strong, almost physical sensation of pleasure which blends the need to stop and stare at the beautiful thing with the urge to connect it with the rest of the world: ‘Beauty causes us to gape and suspend all thought ... but simultaneously what is beautiful prompts the mind to move chronologically back into the search for precedents and parallels, to move forward into new acts of creation ... to bring things into relation.’ This mixture of memory and desire, which bears no trace of cruelty, also includes a ‘radical decentring’. When we see a beautiful thing, our own importance is diminished: ‘It is not that we cease to stand at the centre of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the centre of our own world. We willingly cede the ground to the thing that stands before us.’
Such feelings are apparently produced by things which exhibit some sort of symmetry, ‘the single most enduringly recognised attribute’ of beauty. This is not persuasive. Scarry acknowledges that the Romantics disagreed, believing that what makes things beautiful is a tension between symmetry and departures from it, but she has nothing further to say about the connection between symmetry and beauty. What beauty is remains unclear, even though we can clearly be wrong about it. ‘Errors in beauty’ are crucial to Scarry, for through them she can link beauty with truth.
These ‘errors’ are of two kinds. One occurs when we realise that something we loved no longer strikes us as beautiful; this causes pain: ‘The faithful object has remained within reach but with the subtraction of all attributes that would ignite the desire to lay hold of it ... leaving the brain bereft.’ Is that true? I’m not sure how an object’s attributes can be ‘subtracted’ from it: perhaps they’re still present but somehow robbed of their power; perhaps they were never there in the first place. In either case, if I come to feel I was wrong to take pleasure in something, seeing my error is likely to cause me not grief but delight (remember how wonderful it felt when you began to hate Hermann Hesse?). If the attributes are still there, but unable to move me, then either it was an error to enjoy them earlier or an error to be indifferent to them now. I could be wrong because I used to think that something was beautiful, when in fact it wasn’t, or wrong because I’ve come to think that something isn’t beautiful, when in fact it still is. These may be errors, but they’re not all occasions of pain.
The second kind of error concerns not the loss but the discovery of beauty, ‘the sudden recognition that something from which the attribution of beauty had been withheld deserved all along to be so denominated.’ Something to which you had been hostile or indifferent suddenly enters your world ‘as though, when you were about to walk out onto a ledge, you had contracted to carry something, and only once out on the precipice did you realise that the object weighed one hundred pounds.’ The best part of Scarry’s book is her wonderful account of coming to see the beauty of palm trees: a prolonged meditation on the tree as it appears in the world, in Homer and in the paintings of Matisse.
But Scarry stretches language too far when she says that her earlier indifference to the palm tree was an error. To make an error I must be unable to acknowledge something of which I should have been aware. But what of simple ignorance or casual indifference? To a great painter, Ruskin wrote, nothing is ‘not beautiful in one degree or another ... nothing can possibly present itself to him that is not either lovely, or tractable, and shapeable into loveliness.’ What, then, of a mere failure to notice what sometimes only a great artist can see? To find beauty where one hadn’t seen it before is to look at the world with new eyes, and that is an expansion of the self. It may or may not be an improvement, but not every improvement is the correction of an error. And not every improvement need bring us closer to the truth.
Scarry discusses error only in connection with an individual’s change of mind. She doesn’t address the intense disagreement judgments of beauty can provoke among different people. If she thinks it an error that she once failed to see the beauty of the palm, I wonder how she would describe me: I don’t care for trees and find flowers indifferent, but I love the broad horizons of the sea and deserts. Is one of us wrong? What does our disagreement signify? Can we resolve it? Do we need to? The passionate opposition aesthetic differences often provoke does not usually prevent us from getting along. That may suggest that little is really at stake and explain in part why truth, which demands universal agreement, has seemed so much more important a value than beauty.
Still, one should not overlook the value of disagreement. I doubt that beauty is merely ‘subjective’, but I can’t imagine a world where everyone agreed on what’s beautiful and what is not. Kant claimed that when we say that something is beautiful, we demand everyone’s agreement: we speak ‘with a universal voice’. I believe aesthetic judgment is part of the manifestation of personality. For that reason, beauty isn’t any less important than truth, although it doesn’t require universal agreement. I expect the judgments of those who are close to me to be similar to mine; I would like to be close to those whose judgments overlap with mine; I would like to share the judgments of people I already admire for other reasons. I can talk to some people about Proust, Cavafy, Caravaggio and Mozart; to others, about the Platters, The Lady Vanishes, St Elsewhere and Frazier. Taste can be criticised as surely as character can, but not every difference in character manifests a defect. Universal agreement on beauty would bring with it the desolation of uniformity, not the triumph of truth.
Beauty has also been attacked on the grounds that it is an instrument of oppression, and the most extraordinary aspect of Scarry’s view is her uncompromising rejection of that argument. Far from being the ally of injustice, ‘beauty ... intensifies the pressure we feel to repair existing injuries ... Beautiful things give rise to the notion of distribution, to a lifesaving reciprocity, to fairness not just in the sense of loveliness of aspect but in the sense of a symmetry of everyone’s relation to one another.’ She rejects the claim that beauty distracts our attention from the rest of the world, and makes us indifferent to social oppression by arguing that, on the contrary, attention to a beautiful thing broadens our attention to other things like it. Having noticed the delicacy of a Gallé vase, she is made to extend her attention to its everyday relatives. But why should she care for vases which lack the fragility she prizes? Being attentive to vases in order to find among them some to admire is far from feeling ‘the pressure toward distribution’ which moves us to justice – it may even induce us to care less for ordinary vases than before. Looking at the world more intensely is one thing, manifesting the impartiality of morality another.
In loving beauty, Scarry claims, we love symmetry; and in loving symmetry, we love justice, the ‘symmetry of everyone’s relation to one another’. I find it difficult to accept either of these views. Even if beauty and symmetry – whatever it turns out to be – were always found together, what counts as symmetry in aesthetics is constantly changing, even within the same medium. The symmetry manifested by Cimabue’s gigantic Madonna, or Duccio’s immense Christ-child, and the small saints who surround them, differs in kind from the symmetry expressed by Bellini’s geometrically proportioned figures. A la recherche de temps perdu closes by showing that all the divergent paths it has followed on its meandering way lead to the same place; The Man without Qualities is a great novel partly because its various paths, since none of them leads anywhere, can ever meet, because it can’t have an end. Can such a shifting feature – if we can call it symmetry – be similar to the invariant reciprocity justice requires?
History gives us no reason to believe, and many reasons to doubt, that there is a causal connection between beauty and justice. ‘No great art ever yet rose on earth, but among a nation of soldiers ... There is no great art possible to a nation but that which is based on battle,’ Ruskin wrote. He may exaggerate, but oppression and beauty have never been natural enemies, and are often allies. The hard truth is that we love beauty although it conflicts with goodness and justice: we admire the Greeks because they made beautiful art, not because their art made them good people. Until we can explain how beauty and injustice can characterise a single society, how a single individual can be both devoted to beauty and capable of evil, no abstract philosophical argument of the sort Scarry offers to connect beauty and justice can possibly succeed. Plato was willing to say that only some people – the few philosophers among us – can discern real beauty, and that only they are just. Scarry draws no such distinctions; she takes beauty at face value, and doesn’t think that only superior minds or souls can discern it. But though all of us love beauty in one form or another, most of us are far from being just. In today’s atmosphere, Scarry’s insistence that the love of beauty plays a central role in our lives is a brave gesture; but her effort to find a reason for it by transforming it into the longing for truth and equality ends in failure.
At the other extreme from Scarry, Dave Hickey, one of the most original critics writing in America today, answers the question of why we love beauty very differently: we love it simply because of the pleasure it gives us. Hickey sees Scarry’s moralism as the enemy, the very reason why beauty has become ‘a word without a language, quiet, amazing and alien ... like a Pre-Raphaelite dragon aloft on its leather wings’. Moralism is the weapon through which the ‘therapeutic institution’, a loose confederation of museums, universities, foundations, publications and endowments, has taken control of the power of beauty and art. One might call that confederation an ‘academy’
except that it upholds no standards and proposes no agenda beyond its own soothing assurance that the ‘experience of art’ under its politically correct auspices will be redemptive – an assurance founded on an even deeper faith in ‘picture-watching’ as a form of grace that, by its very ‘nature’, is good for both our spiritual health and our personal growth – regardless and in spite of the panoply of incommensurable goods and evils that individual works might recommend.
Art does not have to be valuable, although of course it can be. In ‘Frivolity and Unction’, one of the essays collected in Air Guitar, Hickey writes, both sardonically and seriously:
Why don’t all of us art-types summon up the moral courage to admit that what we do has no intrinsic value or virtue – that it has its moments and it has its functions, but otherwise, all things considered, in its ordinary state, unredeemed by courage and talent, it is a bad, silly, frivolous thing to do. We could do this, you know. And those moments and those functions would not be diminished in the least. Because the presumption of art’s essential ‘goodness’ is nothing more than a political fiction that we employ to solicit taxpayers’ money for public art education and for the public housing of works of art that we love so well their existence is inseparable from the world in which we live.
What matters is beauty alone, the sheer visual pleasure which provides ‘the image’s only reason for being looked at’. As for its effects, well: ‘bad graphics topple good governments and occlude good ideas; good graphics sustain bad ones.’
Hickey’s campaign to reclaim beauty from the academy began about twelve or so years ago, when, restless, bored and distracted during a conference, he suddenly realised someone was asking him what he thought ‘The Issue of the 1990s’ would be. Totally unprepared for the question, he answered: ‘Beauty ... the issue of the 1990s will be beauty.’ What struck him was that there was no response, not even disagreement; his comment brought the meeting to a quick and embarrassed end. No one would even look at him. That was significant:
I had discovered something; or rather, I had put out my hand and discovered nothing – this vacancy that I needed to understand. I had assumed that from the beginning of the 16th century until just last week artists had been persistently and effectively employing the rough vernacular of pleasure and beauty ... and now this was over? Evidently. At any rate, its critical vocabulary seemed to have evaporated overnight.
So Hickey made beauty his issue of the 1990s and is now part of a whole movement. Not that he represents an orthodoxy. His views are as unusual as his history. When he was a child, his family was always on the move; his father was devoted to jazz and brought him along to jam sessions all over America. He studied linguistics in graduate school, but left his dissertation unfinished, and opened a small art gallery in Austin, Texas, in the mid-1960s. He moved to New York, where he managed another gallery, edited Art in America and became a rock-and-roll critic for The Village Voice. He has written songs for a company in Nashville, art criticism for a newspaper in Fort Worth and has published a collection of short stories. He contributes a regular column to Art issues, but also, in order to get health insurance, he recently joined the faculty of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, an institution he loathes in a city he loves.
It’s not the landscape he likes, it’s the hotels. This isn’t Scarry’s world. Hickey can’t find even a second-rate Turner in Las Vegas’s glorious sunsets. His visitors prefer the sunset’s natural authenticity to the Strip’s garish artificiality; Hickey thinks instead that what is at issue here, and everywhere in art, is ‘one’s taste in duplicity. One either prefers the honest fakery of the neon or the fake honesty of the sunset – the undisguised artifice of culture or the cultural construction of “authenticity” – the genuine rhinestone, finally, or the imitation pearl.’ That sets him off on a discussion of Liberace, who, of course, was the owner of The World’s Largest Rhinestone (now on show in the Liberace Museum – in Las Vegas). Hickey interprets the undisguised fakery of Liberace’s sexuality as a gesture of theatrical transgression, an ‘Americanisation’ of the closet, which made it as ‘democratically invisible as the emperor’s new clothes, and just as revolutionary. Everybody “got it”. But nobody said it.’ It was a gesture, he concludes, as radical as Wilde’s, who used ‘effeminacy’ to express cultural disaffection instead of finding himself disaffected because, as it happened, he was an effeminate man.
Hickey’s preference for undisguised artifice is central to his criticism. He loves illusionist paintings because, like Liberace, they announce, without making an issue of it, that they are not what they seem; he dislikes Modernist art, particularly Cézanne’s, for its straightness, its effort to tell the viewer exactly what it is – just a painted object, nothing beyond itself. Hickey’s writing blurs the distinction between cultural commentary and art criticism, while his tastes span the gap between fine art and popular entertainment. Eclectic and irreverent, Hickey exploits whatever is at hand to understand, praise or excoriate whatever attracts his curiosity. His opinions are strong. He despises Clement Greenberg, flatness in general, colour-field painting in particular, and, most of all, the idea that the arts require the mediation of institutions to display their beauty and power. He distrusts high culture (although he’s happy that his LRB arrives ‘regular as clockwork’, even in Las Vegas). He adores jazz, bebop and rock-and-roll; Andy Warhol and Edward Ruscha; pop music, he writes, is ‘the dominant art form of this American century’ and without it the work of Jackson Pollock, Stan Brakhage and Warhol wouldn’t have been possible. He is always provocative. He doesn’t always convince: his account of the life and career of a ‘lady-wrestler’ endows her with unexpected dignity, but fails to redeem the spectacle of which she’s part (and, I confess, I haven’t yet given up on Cézanne).
Hickey longs for illusion and for the past and so, he believes, do we all. Characteristically, he turns from Raphael and Cézanne to the extravagant tricks of his favourite magic show in Las Vegas, Siegfried and Roy at the Mirage, and back again: ‘You never think, How was it done? You simply take pleasure in seeing the impossible appear possible and the invisible made visible. Because if these illusions were not just illusions, we should not be what we are: mortal creatures, who miss our dead friends, and thus can appreciate levitating tigers and portraits by Raphael for what they are – songs of mortality sung by the prisoners of time.’
Hickey, who refuses to equate commerce with capitalism (‘This is a matter of religion’), is a very unfashionable admirer of the art market, because, unlike the academy, it values beautiful images, which promise pleasure and excitement, and is indifferent to what they mean, like the King in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, who demands the appearance of fealty without concern for the private thoughts of his subjects, and takes revenge on their bodies when they don’t offer it, the market rewards those images which deliver the pleasure and excitement they promise and rejects the rest. By contrast, the art professionals are like Bentham’s prison reformers, whose main concern is their prisoners’ souls. They focus on the meaning of images. They are suspicious of appearance; most of all, they distrust ‘the appearance of images that, by virtue of the pleasure they give, are efficacious in their own right’, because they undermine the institution’s power to control what paintings communicate: ‘Thus has the traditional, contractual relationship between the image and its beholder (of which beauty is the signature and in which there is no presumption of received virtue) been supplanted by a hierarchical one between Art, presumed virtuous, and a beholder presumed to be in need of it.’ Modernism has turned away from beauty, which made pictures attractive in their own right, and towards ‘difficulty’, which makes art inscrutable and museums and the academy indispensable. We now stand before art not pleased but bewildered, not finding satisfaction but seeking instruction.
Institutional ‘bureaucrats’ may have less power over what images mean than Hickey attributes to them, however. They can never be sure that beholders will see only what they want them to see in the works they control. Hickey wonders ‘whether contemporary images are really enhanced by being institutionalised in their infancy, whether there might be work in the world for them to do, after all’. But the contrast between ‘the world’ and ‘the institution’ is too simple, and Hickey’s dislike of museums exaggerated. Some of the best contemporary art is designed to do its work in the museum. Only there could you feel the sheer pleasure, the exuberant sense of freedom which follows the self-conscious insecurity of your first tentative steps on Carl Andre’s floor installations: to be able to walk over the kind of thing you are commonly forbidden even to touch. The museum is ‘the world’ of this art, just as the church and the palace – both of them ‘institutions’ – were ‘the world’ of Raphael and Bellini.
Still, some contemporary art clearly has ‘work’ to do outside the museum. Hickey argues that the public exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio in the early 1990s caused such outrage not because of its content but because Mapplethorpe’s photographs were beautiful, and through their beauty they celebrated their content: ‘It was not that men were making it ... but that Robert was “making it beautiful”.’ The art-world, however, refused to acknowledge the significance of Mapplethorpe’s work and the importance of images. Huddled under ‘the tattered banner of “free expression” ’ in a Cincinnati court, Mapplethorpe’s defenders argued that the photographs’ loveliness redeemed – indeed, neutralised – whatever their content might argue. I remember one expert who claimed in all seriousness that what counts in Jim and Tom, Sausalito (one of Mapplethorpe’s most notorious pictures) is simply the formal grace of the curve which occupies its centre: she thought it completely irrelevant that the curve is made by a man’s leather-gloved hand, his penis and a stream of urine flowing into another man’s mouth. Hickey takes Mapplethorpe’s images to represent, instead, an intentional conflation of aesthetic, sexual and spiritual submission. Their beauty makes this conflation attractive; but to be attracted to the conflation of sex, art and religion produces intense anxiety. Why then did Mapplethorpe and his models submit to these activities? Why did they agree to be represented as part of these spectacles? And why do we (Hickey asks about himself) submit to the pictures, and speculate about them? Because art makes us good? Because of their formal grace? Not at all: ‘The answer ... is pleasure and control ... at the intersection of mortal suffering and spiritual ecstasy, where the rule of law meets the grace of trust.’
The Modernist picture plane does not invite our attention with the promise of pleasure, but demands our respect with the assurance of virtue. It turns us from beholders into subordinates. I am not sure that this fits with Mickey’s image of Modernist artists as magicians who explain their tricks to the audience while they perform them, but the fact remains that Hickey finds no beauty in Modernist art. He certainly finds no pleasure in it:
Our 20th-century characterisations of the work of art as this ravishing, autonomous entity that we spend our lives trying to understand, that makes demands on us while pretending we are not there, is simply a recasting of the work of art in the role of the remote and dysfunctional male parent in the tradition of the Biblical patriarch. Even art critics deserve some respite from this sort of abusive neglect.
The trouble, however, is that remote and dysfunctional fathers are often secretly begging for care and attention and, if they receive them, are eager to offer their own in return. Works which don’t look beautiful may turn out to be so once we pay closer attention to them. Hickey seems to believe that beauty is always easy to recognise and gives immediate pleasure, which is one reason he likes the popular arts. Beauty is ‘largely a quantitative concept’. The most beautiful image, therefore, is that which ‘simply enfranchises the most people’. The most ‘effective’ beautiful image, like Raphael’s Madonna della Sedia, communicates the most problematic content to the most people for the longest time. The most ‘efficient’ beautiful image, like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, communicates the most egregious content to the most powerful beholders exclusively. This is both democratic and adversarial. Hickey rejects Modernism because it is designed to appeal only to the few (until Picasso, ‘pictures were made primarily for people, not against them’) and denounces the museum because its aim is to neutralise even the most outrageous content of images ‘by hypostasising their rhetorical aspects into “formal values” ’: pictures look like ‘old friends in prison’ once they enter its halls.
Hickey takes beauty to be rhetoric, a means of making ideas – especially ‘unpalatable’ ideas – attractive. But rhetoric and its content can’t always be distinguished. The beauty of a work hinges on both: the beauty of one expressing a complicated message may be less easy to appreciate than that through which a simpler idea is transmitted. Hickey insists that ‘art ain’t rocket science, and beyond a proclivity to respond and permission to do so, there are no prerequisites for looking at it.’ He describes criticism as the written equivalent of ‘air guitar – flurries of silent sympathetic gestures with nothing at their heart but the memory of the music’. But his own writing has made me see so much I hadn’t imagined before that it is itself the best reason for thinking that prerequisites may be as unnecessary for looking at art as they are crucial to understanding its smallest part.
Beauty isn’t only a matter of how many people it pleases, but also of how long it pleases them for and for what reasons, how large a part it plays in their lives and what effects it has on the world. An obvious beauty may soon exhaust itself; another may take time to emerge. Some difficult works may just be – difficult. That does not by itself make them ugly. My suspicion is that if Hickey can find beauty both in Walt Disney and in Pontormo, if he ‘cannot imagine a reason for categorising any part of our involuntary, ordinary experience as “unaesthetic” ’, if he can hear the eighth-notes of a pop group in the pneumatic slap of a jackhammer in the middle of a New York street, then he hates the high-minded rhetoric and forbidding institutions of Modernism more than he hates Modernist art itself. He despises those who deny they love beauty more than the works they love, their reasons for loving them more than the way these works look. As he says himself, ‘Police mentalities will always strive to impose correct readings, to align intentions with outcomes, and couple imaginary causes with putative effects, but we always have a choice.’ I am sure that if he made that choice, he could even find some beauty in Cézanne – though, of course, he doesn’t have to.
Hickey’s answer to the question of why beauty invites love, ‘because it gives us pleasure’, seems worlds apart from Scarry’s ‘because it makes us just’. Yet, if you listen carefully to their dissonant voices, you will begin to hear an uncanny harmony. Scarry’s central thought, that beauty is a ‘reciprocal contract’ through which perceivers and beautiful things give each other ‘the gift of life’, survives almost intact in Hickey’s alien register: ‘The rhetoric of beauty tells the story of the beholder who, like Masoch’s victim, contracts his own submission – having established, by free consent, a reciprocal, contractual alliance with the image. The signature of this contract, of course, is beauty ... this vertiginous bond of trust between the image and the beholder is private, voluntary, a little scary.’ Since Hickey believes that the most beautiful images enfranchise and please the greatest number of people, the lesson of beauty is always a lesson in equality. And so, it finally turns out, ‘the language of pleasure and the language of justice are inextricably intertwined.’ No wonder its subtitle announces that the essays in Air Guitar address ‘art and democracy’.
Beauty was exiled in great part because people took it to be a product of prejudice and an instrument of oppression. So it’s not surprising that the most divergent paths it takes on its return meet at the crossroads of justice, in an effort to redress the balance – not surprising but also not convincing. To make the connection between beauty and justice, Hickey must argue that beauty is easy to see, although, in fact, it can be very hard to discern: unlike pornography, we don’t even know it when we see it. And although, if the most beautiful things were those which please the most people, we should all want to like what pleases everyone else, we value our own taste as deeply as we value our individuality. Hickey’s gritty populism is in the end as hard to accept as Scarry’s high-minded moralism. The value of beauty remains unjustified. And that is as it should be. Beauty is important – I would even say valuable – because its value is always in question.
Kant said that the judgment of taste is not ‘based on concepts’, by which he meant that no description, however detailed, can ever prove that something is beautiful (unless it has already smuggled in a reference to beauty): ‘There can be no rule according to which anyone is to be forced to recognise anything as beautiful.’ He was right, but not for the reasons he gave. He was right because judgment does not come at the end of our interaction with beautiful things. It is not a report on their features or the feelings they have provoked, it is a guess which might be wrong, an intimation that what stands before us is valuable in ways we don’t yet understand. We find things beautiful – in nature, people or art – when we sense we haven’t exhausted them, and our eyes, as Nietzsche wrote about artists, ‘remain fixed on what remains veiled, even after the unveiling’. The value of beauty is questionable because we never know in advance whether what still remains veiled is beautiful or ugly, worthy of our effort to find it or not. Beauty is the enemy of certainty.
If beauty, as Stendhal said, is a promise of happiness, it is a very dangerous one. We may fail to find the promised thing, and end up bitter and disappointed; worse, we may succeed, and find a happiness which might have seemed contemptible before we began to pursue it: but by then it will be too late to know. The value of beauty is as disputable as the value of each life of which it is a part, and since it is a part of every life, beauty is a constant reminder that the value of life itself is a disputable matter. That was seen as a threat to the complacency of a self-satisfied age, which wanted easy answers and reacted by sending beauty into exile. The return of the beautiful is welcome because it intimates a new willingness to acknowledge our love of uncertainty, and the uncertainty of love.