What is beauty, and why does it captivate us? What does our susceptibility to its charm tell us about ourselves and the world we inhabit? Is beauty inseparable from the human experience, or can we attribute its presence in our lives to chance adaptations in our evolutionary past?
What makes beauty beautiful?
These questions fall in the domain of aesthetics, a sub-discipline of philosophy investigating the phenomena of art and beauty and their relation to human nature. It’s a field as old as philosophy itself.
Ancient Greek philosophers considered aesthetics to be of crucial importance in arriving at a comprehensive view of life, and art’s privileged status in our culture, including our conviction that artworks should be treated with special respect and dignity, originates with the Greek’s high estimation of their worth.
Yet most of us today would find the Greek’s views on such matters absurdly unscientific. Take for instance Plato’s theory of beauty and art. Plato conceived of the artist’s activity as something akin to madness. Artists, he thought, were possessed by the gods, who granted them divine power to imitate eternal objects that serve as the models for all earthly entities. Ordinary things such as tables and chairs, but also concepts such as Justice and Beauty, derive their identity and value from immaterial models residing in another dimension of reality. It was these eternal paradigms, or forms, thought Plato, that serve as the measure for all imperfect instances of their kind in this world. Seized by divine inspiration, artists imitate the forms convincingly, but never perfectly, and for Plato the artist was something of a forger. His or her work could mislead impressionable persons by bearing false witness to the true sources of value and identity.
Plato saw art as potentially subversive, even dangerous. The forms that artists imitate are the basic components of reality, more fundamental and real than the objects we daily encounter. Distorting those metaphysical realities through artistic approximations could be harmful to an impressionable person’s understanding of life’s ultimate aims.
So while he viewed art and the artist with suspicion, Plato granted them considerable power. As divinely-inspired mediators, artists drew authority from a realm beyond the ordinary world and such abilities should not, Plato thought, be treated lightly. Because he acknowledged their awesome and potentially corruptive influence, Plato banished poets from his ideal republic.
Whereas we commonly think of art as a benign form of entertainment, as a pleasing but innocent diversion, Plato subjected art to the criterion of truthfulness. One could be mistaken or misled about what is beautiful, he thought, and only philosophical investigation into the nature of Beauty itself could provide knowledge of what qualifies as a genuine token of its quality in this world.
Like ethical judgments, aesthetic judgments for Plato are evaluative and objective and require identifying the transcendental source that imbues things with greater or lesser degrees of its quality. To be right about beauty and morality, Plato thought, we must comprehend the immaterial and perfect models from which they are derived. Unlike our age of aesthetic relativism, beauty for Plato was an object of knowledge.
Beauty in the age of science
This notion of beauty as an absolute quality, not merely a matter of taste, is almost totally foreign to us now. Beauty is thought to be a subjective preference, not an attribute existing apart from cultural or ethnic standards. There can be no right or wrong opinion about what qualifies as beautiful, we think, because beauty is not the sort of thing that answers to truth or falsity. It isn’t a type of knowledge at all—it is a stimulant evoking a subjective response.
We are reluctant to view beauty as knowledge because the sciences of evolutionary psychology and biology portray our aesthetic sensibilities as adaptive traits distinct from our other cognitive faculties. For naturalists and materialists, all phenomena of human life must originate with gradual transitions occurring during the evolutionary development of our species. We evolved a sensitivity to beauty, so the story goes, as a survival adaptation, and members of the species possessing the mutation outperformed their peers in the competition for finite resources. The enjoyment afforded by such stimuli enabled our species to better endure the hardships of life and improved our reproductive fitness.
On this biological account of beauty, what qualifies as beautiful and evokes the pleasure response is of secondary importance. The conditions that shaped our evolutionary development are contingent and therefore prone to change over time, so the kinds of stimuli that provoke a response may differ at various stages of our adaptive history. We have developed a fondness for certain types of artistic activities—music, fiction, painting, sculpture, photography—but we might as easily develop a fondness for entirely different sorts of stimuli, even those possessing traits that we might today call ugly, unseemly, reprehensible, disorderly and chaotic.
Aesthetic pleasure portrayed as an evolutionary trait reduces art and beauty to a neuro-chemical phenomenon, no more philosophically significant than vertigo or indigestion, and the whole question of their allure can be answered in terms seemingly unrelated to our wondrous experience of them. What we perceive as life-altering and disarming aesthetic revelations are, we are told, nothing other than routine operations of our bodies. The achievements of Michelangelo and Shakespeare, Beethoven and Proust, are not products of genius so much as novelties agitating nerve endings and deceiving our minds into believing something astonishing has happened. There can be no question of evaluating the truthfulness or relative merit of such stimuli—anything that registers as pleasurable qualifies as an authentic artistic experience, and the designation ART becomes superfluous. In a world without shadow, all is light.
What’s wrong with the view of aesthetic sensitivity advanced by evolutionary psychology? It’s a plausible enough story. Our ancestors developed random mutations that afforded them competitive advantages over their peers. Artistic appreciation is a tool supplying consolation against life’s difficulties—it entices us to endure and therefore increases the likeliness that we’ll procreate.
But can such a view truly satisfy our suspicion that during artistic encounters something of great importance happens? Can reductive analysis identify what seizes hold of our emotions, commands our attention and discloses with seemingly impossible power and clarity a world beyond our reach?
The danger posed by the biological account of beauty is that it dismisses as illusory the sense of wonder attending every artistic encounter. Nothing wondrous can happen when chemistry is responsible; all becomes explicable and mechanical. The biological story of artistic allure hollows out our experiences and dismisses the greatest aesthetic achievements as empty deceits.
To preserve the nobility of art we need a theory that accords beauty greater significance than it can possibly bear as the product of an aimless biological process. If we take our aesthetic experiences seriously, we must reconsider how such seemingly innocuous objects and arrangements of sounds can transform and enrich our lives. We must either reject beauty as the illusion science insists it is, or enshrine it as a mysterious mode of experience that overflows empirical explanation. Perhaps it’s time to resume the sort of otherworldly inquiry upon which Plato embarked over two millennia ago.