History of Beauty

by Frederick Turner

Beauty: The Great Debate

Beauty is like a tree. It has many branches but one central trunk—there are many cultural variations of taste, tradition, and idiom, but one vital human appetite for beauty and one culturally universal collection of human aesthetic aptitudes. Likewise, there are many artforms—painting, sculpture, music, poetry, storytelling, dramatic mimesis, dance, architecture, and so on—but one mysterious quality of transforming loveliness, of affecting presence, that they all share. Beauty is like a tree in another respect, too. It is something deeply rooted in the soil of our origins in the natural world, something which if cut off from its roots will die—but also something which continues to grow and put out new flowers, fruits and seeds every season. The new forms it takes, according to the cultures that cultivate it and according to the historical and technological environment of each new period, draw their sap and life from the ancient sources they tap, and are tested by time according to how well they serve the life of the whole tree.

Everywhere people are demanding a return to beauty as a basic value of culture. This renewed interest in beauty may be one of the central motifs of our new century. We believe that it is time to revive the debate on the meaning and nature of beauty. This debate must include not only aesthetic philosophers and theorists, but also artists themselves, and perhaps most important, the actual public audience for beauty. The topic has an ancient and universal appeal among human beings of all periods and parts of the world. Ancient and traditional and tribal societies have always maintained strong unifying canons of artistic excellence and appreciation of natural loveliness. In the West, there has been a distinguished history of speculation about what beauty is.

For the Greek poet Pindar, beauty was exemplified by the bodies of Greek athletes as they contended in the Olympic Games. For him, following the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, beauty was a harmony that arose out of tension perfectly balanced: the muscles of the winning athlete pulling against one another in supreme effort, the posts and beams of a fine building whose very tendency to fall and break apart was cunningly contrived to lock them strongly together, the magic of music in which a local disharmony served the greater perfection of the completed melody. As Heraclitus put it, “the tension of the bow is the same as the tension of the lyre.”

Plato felt in all earthly beauty a kind of pull or yearning toward some never-realized but glorious inner pattern, an eternal “Form” of which any material loveliness was but a copy or approximation. This insight might be described today as an intuitive understanding of the “strange attractors” that contemporary chaos theorists see as underlying complex generative processes. But Plato located the Forms—that were not only beautiful, but good and true as well—in an eternal and timeless realm, beyond the world and beyond change. Aristotle saw beauty as part of the perfection towards which all changing things strove in their growth and development, the final cause of each being’s movement, drawing it toward its own proper self. Plotinus saw beauty as a divine property, to which artists when inspired sometimes saw a secret path.

The medieval theologian Aquinas saw human artists as junior co-creators, infused by God’s grace. But Aristotle, Plotinus, and Aquinas all drew a strong line between art and nature, contending that the divine could create, nature could beget, but human art could only make, and that the artificial was the domain of the human. There were iconoclasts, dissenters and questioners, too, who wondered if human and natural beauty might not distract us into idolatry and turn us away from the deeper beauty of the divine. But all agreed that the divine was good, and that beauty too was good, though it should not compete with the beauty of God.

Renaissance artists and philosophers questioned the distinction between art and nature, and imagined that human artists might “grow into another nature. . . a golden” one, as Philip Sidney put it, making humans into even greater sharers of God’s creative work. Later, American thinkers such as Jonathan Edwards and Henry David Thoreau saw the divine beauty in nature itself. Kant and Schiller in the eighteenth century, and Huizinga in the twentieth, saw beauty as the superabundant playfulness of nature and culture, their transcendence over the deterministic force of necessity and eventual decline that the science of their day claimed must rule over the physical universe.

In other parts of the world, aesthetics as rich and subtle as those of the West emerged at the same time. Indian theories of beauty concerned the immanence of the divine in the world. Chinese theories emphasized balance in both nature and society, seeing every aspect of the world resonating with every other—when the mandate of heaven was being properly served—in an elaborate series of correspondences based on the five Chinese elements. Japanese aesthetics is epitomized in their term “wabi-sabi,” which means the loveliness of something that is rustic, worn down, slightly asymmetrical yet deeply harmonious. Touching and evocative, this quality in a Zen way reminds us of both the transience of the moment and its eternal presence in the all-consciousness of being. African aesthetics traditionally cultivated a beauty of spiritual potency, the overwhelming affecting presence of a Dogon funerary mask or Benin bronze. Native Americans saw beauty as a hollow pipe, given us by nature, through which the uncanny and transforming wind of the divine might blow.

In the twentieth century, in the West, new theories emerged that often clashed with these pan-human philosophies—all of which had postulated beauty as some kind of valuable encounter among the natural, the human, and the divine. Some modernists equated beauty with functionality: “form is function.” The word aesthetic came to replace the old “corny” word beautiful, and artists intended to shock and convert and indoctrinate rather than to charm. Postmodernists have tended to dismiss beauty altogether, as a neo-Freudian sublimation of the drive to enjoy, consume, possess and dominate, or as the ideology of a ruling power elite designed to suppress racial, economic, sexual or political inferiors. But some contemporary postmodernists have sensed the human need for beauty and have resurrected the word, placing their own spin on it as a kind of sexual frisson attendant upon the rearrangement or destruction of our expectations—like the pleasure of boys in destroying somebody’s sandcastle.

Many who talk about beauty today confine themselves to a single art-form, ignoring the connections with others. Or they limit their scope to the arts in general, neglecting the deep relevance of the arts to culture as a whole—and the profound importance of arts to the health of the culture. We consider the arts in their wider context, as of central importance in the civic, spiritual, and moral life of civilization.

We believe that it is time for the debate to be renewed, especially in the light of new scientific data about our ancient human past, out of which the arts emerged, and about the neurophysiology of the beauty experience. These results oddly seem to confirm much of the ancient wisdom about beauty.