Beauty and Art

Robert Wellington has written a brief defense of the value of beauty in art. He explains: “Let me be clear. I am not saying that works of art ought to be beautiful. What I want to defend is our felt experience of beauty as way of knowing and navigating the world around us.”

He takes us through a brief exploration of the life of the aesthete, such as Oscar Wilde and Stephen Tennant. (I thought this was a fascinating direction to go in this essay!) While not believing we should all give up everything except the pursuit of beauty, Wellington thinks we could learn from them anyway. Works of art may not have to be beautiful to be important or good, but the ones that are beautiful often have an irrational power over us. We are drawn to those in ways that we may not always be able to aptly articulate.

Aesthetic judgments, he writes, plays an important role in the ‘reception’ of art. When we perceive beauty, we often find the art more compelling. But then, he seems to describe beauty as a mere feeling. It seems obvious that beauty is connected to pleasurable feelings. But he seems to reduce it to feelings, though I acknowledge that might not have been his intent. If so, then beauty is wholly subjective. And this would seem strange, if we think that others ought to find the same (or at least similar) things to be beautiful. He only implies that we think others should find similar things beautiful, but I think our general experience also suggests this belief.

While we may not be able to get a precise account of the ‘necessary’ and ‘sufficient’ conditions for beauty. We would be remiss, if we didn’t at least acknowledge that beauty appears to unite some objective qualities with our subjective experience. For example, proportion has been considered a recurring property of beautiful objects since the ancient Greek philosophers. But, as has been mentioned, beauty stirs our emotions, which brings in the subjective side.

Rather than a critique of his essay, I want to say that his essay is the starting point for our continued examination of what might constitute beauty. Albert Camus wrote: “Man cannot do without beauty, and this is what our era pretends to want to disregard.” Just like Wellington’s delightful account of the aesthete suggests, we should be more careful to consider the beauty in the world around us.

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