A look at beauty denied, misunderstood, reviled, and ignored, in the modern world. Whatever happened to beauty?
By Mark D. Harris
The other day I was driving to the Mine Academy in Beckley for a strategic planning session. Nancy called and bade me to look to the southeast, where I beheld a particularly stunning sunrise. On arriving a few minutes early at the meeting, I mentioned the sunrise to several people, but only a few bothered to look out of the window. On a hike last summer, Nancy found a tiny deep purple flower amidst dying grasses. On a different occasion, she spotted a set of intricate ice crystals astride a fallen log and a pile of snow. As with the Mine Academy example, others in the area didn’t notice, or didn’t care. Life is composed of little moments of beauty such as these – to miss the beauty is to miss life itself. Why do so few people seem to notice?
We find beauty in the natural world, in music, in literature, and in a whole host of other places. Surveying most of history, however, we find that the most compelling art, and often the most beautiful art, from Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to Michelangelo’s David, is of humans. It is not a stretch to say that from the Sumerians to the modern world, mankind has considered the human form to be the most beautiful object of all.
Art has changed. From Pablo Picasso to Arnold Schoenberg in the 20th century, classical conceptions of beauty gave way to modern and postmodern dissonance, unnatural perspectives, and angst. Beauty is denied, misinterpreted, or reviled, but even more it is ignored, in our 21st century world.
Philosophers have been debating beauty since the beginning of recorded history. Classically, beauty was considered objective; beauty is what beauty is, regardless of what individuals or groups think about it. People and cultures might differ about whether a particular landscape, flower, animal, or person was beautiful, or its degree of beauty, but those opinions could be measured for their degree of accuracy. Such a standard was typically “the gods” of each culture. The corollary was the assumption that my culture was better than your culture, and that my gods were better than your gods.
In the modern world, there are a variety of spoken opinions on beauty. Many revolve around the mantra that parents and teachers have told their charges “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Arachnologists like the beauty of spider webs while floriculturists prefer the beauty of roses. Urban dwellers may desire the beauty of city lights and country folk choose that of forests, streams, and mountains. In the past 50 years, phrases like “black is beautiful” and “full figured is beautiful” reflect views of human beauty, typically female, that users of those phrases felt fell outside the mainstream opinions of beauty.
The point is that in the classical world, beauty was largely considered objective, beauty is what beauty is, while in the modern world beauty is considered largely subjective, beauty is whatever you want it to be. Beauty could be defined as “whatever someone, or anyone, thinks is appealing.” A trouble with this more recent, even postmodern view, is that if there is no standard of beauty, in what sense does beauty exist? The same could be said for love, justice, or goodness – if there is no standard, no overriding definition, in what sense does it exist?
There is another problem with the idea that beauty is completely in the eye of the beholder – nobody actually believes it, as judged by how they live. Most people care little about whether they like a mountain scene and a friend likes a desert scene, but they care a lot more if they are wearing an outfit that they love and their friend doesn’t. How often have you heard salesmen and women confess to telling shoppers that they look great in something, even if in their opinion they don’t? The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue and Victoria’s Secret feature roughly the same female body type every year. Mainstream magazines in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East do the same. While paintings and photographs of nudes of yesteryear were often heavier than those today, the depiction of the ideal human body hasn’t changed much since the Greeks carved Apollo and Aphrodite and the Hindus carved the statues at Khajuraho. If beauty were completely in the eye of the beholder, and if beauty was completely relative between cultures and epochs, we would see many different measures of beauty, both natural and human. But we do not.
Nancy and I were visiting the Eiffel Tower in the early spring of 1993 and encountered a Czech couple. The woman wore a long, burnt orange coat and an interesting pin. Nancy admired her pin, and the Czech woman promptly removed it and gave it to her.
It was a gracious gesture, conditioned by her culture. But Nancy did not actually want the pin. Conditioned by our American culture, she felt uncomfortable even receiving it. The lovely couple misinterpreted Nancy’s appreciation of the pin as a desire to possess the pin.
In America, it has become taboo for a man to complement a woman’s appearance in the workplace, or anywhere for that matter. I have heard several reasons for this:
- Some believe that the man is sending the message that appearance is all that matters.
- Some feel that the man is trying to possess the woman.
- Some assume that the man is lying.
- Some assume some ulterior, even sinister, motive.
It is possible, however, that none of the above are true, that those objecting are misinterpreting the man’s meaning and intent. Just as it is possible to admire a coat pin and not want to have it, it is possible to admire a beautiful person and not want to possess them. Not only is it possible, it is common. After all, Nancy and I have enjoyed the beauty of the Crown Jewels of England, possessed by only a few, and the beauty of a sunrise, possessed by everyone on earth. The sunrise was far more glorious. Owning something does not make it more beautiful; it might make it less.
Perhaps the man giving the complement simply wants to brighten the other person’s day with a word of encouragement. Perhaps he wants to recognize the work that she has done with her hair, clothing, and makeup. The most negative interpretation is not always, and often not at all, the right one. The comments above are equally true for men or women complementing other men or women.
Truth and beauty are intimately and conceptually related. If beauty is transcendent, if something is beautiful simply because it is, regardless of what anyone says about it, then truth must be transcendent as well. Those who hate the idea of objective truth, especially moral truth, frequently hate the idea of objective beauty as well.
Dr No, the 1962 James Bond movie, portrayed men and women, even extras at the airport, in dresses and suits. Casino Royale, a James Bond movie filmed in 2006, showed airport extras in jeans and casual shirts. Has the standard for appearance in public changed in the 44 years between the movies? Are people less interested in physical appearance now than then, are they more interested in physical appearance now but manifest it differently, or are people the same? If physical attractiveness can be ranked on a scale of 1 to 100, where 1 is rags and 100 is the most magnificent clothes in history, was the mean in America 50 in 1962 and 30 in 2006? Or is the standard 50 in 1962 and 50 in 2006, but jeans today are considered the same as dresses in yesteryear? Was 1962 a more conformist time, where everyone was expected to be around 50, and the deviation was small? Is our day less conformist, with a larger deviation?
I don’t know that anyone can answer these questions definitively, but they do raise interesting questions. Is beauty ignored in today’s world? If so, why?
Why do people recognize beauty?
In our day, beauty is denied, misinterpreted, reviled, and ignored. People who recognize beauty, especially in a human context, are sometimes punished. In the face of what can be overwhelming opposition, why do people persist in recognizing and even responding to beauty?
- Responding to beauty of any type is a natural human response. Who can hear Mozart played brilliantly and not clap? Who can see the intricacies of dew on a spider web and not wonder? Who can feel the sun as it sits low on the horizon of the Grand Canyon and not marvel? In the face of excellence, C.S. Lewis noted years ago, responding to beauty is as natural and as healthy as breathing.
- Appreciating work is also a natural human response. A ballerina spends years perfecting her craft, and her audience will reward a fine performance with a standing ovation. Beauty requires work, whether Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel or Chaucer writing the Canterbury Tales. Those who appreciate their labors will gaze, laugh, shout, dance, or cry, but to do nothing is stultifying if not impossible.
- People wish to encourage others. Life is always hard and can be brutal. Even without painful hardship, the wear and tear of years exhausts the body, confuses the mind, and deadens the heart. People who are encouragers, by nature and by nurture, often search for an opportunity to lift up the countenance of others. Usually they succeed, but occasionally they fail. The difference is in the attitude of the one who receives the intended encouragement. They can take it as meant, or in whatever way they prefer. To take it as intended is to be encouraged and build their friendship with the encourager. To take it in another way is to miscommunicate, damage the relationship, and harm the other person.
Whatever happened to beauty? There remains a widespread belief that beauty is subjective, and perhaps therefore unreal, at least theoretically. Beauty is often misinterpreted, or at least what people want from the beauty is misinterpreted. Sometimes beauty is reviled. And I would suggest that beauty is sometimes, if not often, ignored. From the Christian perspective, beauty is an inherent characteristic of God. Therefore, like truth, it is objective, regardless of what any person, or group of people, thinks about it. Followers of Christ cannot deny it, should not misinterpret it, must not revile it, and ought not ignore it. Rather, like every other good thing that our Father has given us, we must enjoy it, and glorify our Lord in it.