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In the Eye of the Beholder

BEAUTY By James Kirwan; Manchester University Press: 182 pp. $24.95

BEAUTY The Twentieth Century By Dorothy Schefer; Faux et al. Universe: 400 pp., $29.99 paper

July 08, 2001|CRISPIN SARTWELL | Crispin Sartwell is chair of humanities at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the author, most recently, of "End of Story: Toward an Annihilation of Language and History."

Beauty is peculiar stuff. It is not clear whether it appeals to our highest spiritual aspirations or to our sweatiest mammalian desires. It is not clear whether it's about pure form or raw sex. The character of Gandhi is beautiful, but then again so is the massively insured physique of Jennifer Lopez. The one moves the soul; the other the crotch. If beauty is what connects Gandhi and Lopez, angel and mammal, spirit and body, love and sex, truth and yearning, then understanding it is central to understanding what it means to be human.

James Kirwan in "Beauty" leads us into a huge if somewhat elusive metaphysical truth, as described by a great philosopher; Dorothy Schefer Faux in her "Beauty" explores the female sex object as described by typically insouciant French fashion writers. The one calls for yearning without object, the other for the extreme focus of the masturbatory fantasist. They explore the twinned aspects of the human experience of beauty: cosmic and cosmetic, Being and Beehive.

In the "Symposium," the founding document of the Western conception of beauty, Plato depicts an intellectual and spiritual ascent that starts with sexual desire for pretty boys and ends in a vision of beauty purified of animality. This established a tradition, which seemed interminable, of seeing the world as a sign of a higher realm of spirit, of seeing natural beauty as a sign of heavenly beauty and of seeing beauty itself as the source or the core of all human values.

Lopez, as viewed by Plato, is a zone of aspiration, a place where the particular gets transformed into the general, the real into the ideal, the animal into the angel, the fleeting into the permanent. (And as we look at Botticelli's Venus or a publicity still of Pola Negri--the silent film star whose pallor, surrounding eyes into which one tumbles as into an infinitely deep well, touched off a wave of male suicides--we can see that the beauty itself outlasts its body.)

This metaphysical conception of beauty in philosophy ("aesthetics") has been spectacularly out of fashion for a very long time. It died, for philosophers, about the same time as God, say, 1885. But of course beauty as a matter of personal appearance and the design of celebrities (also "aesthetics") is everywhere all the time, an absolutely central dimension of culture that deeply affects how we experience ourselves and one another. We've still got Plato's boys--Leonardo DiCaprio, N' Sync--but we no longer have his metaphysics.

In an approach that is both brave and perverse, radical and reactionary, Kirwan seeks to revive Platonic beauty and drag it kicking gracefully and screaming melodically into the third millennium. Elaine Scarry tried something of the same approach in her 1999 "On Beauty and Being Just," though in the end her treatment is much less satisfactory than Kirwan's. Kirwan's book is full of fresh ideas and wonderful writing, and it grapples implicitly but continously with what is essentially an obsolete discourse.

In that discourse, beauty is defined as the ultimate object of yearning, as what people really want when they want anything, as the reality behind all appearances that is the only possible surcease of our impossibly profuse desires. We want; we want and nothing in this world finally satisfies us or brings us lasting peace. But everything we yearn for in this life is also a sign of the transcendent. In Western aesthetics from Plato to Hegel, earthly beauty leads us to the still source of reality.

Now that kind of thing was all very well in the late middle ages or even in the early 19th century, the heyday of the speculative metaphysics. But the metaphysics of beauty as it was practiced back then has been spectacularly out of fashion for so long that it seemed beyond revival until Kirwan took it up in a different way.

That is in part because not only metaphysics but beauty itself has come to seem passe during the last 100 years, since its last apotheosis during the reign of such aesthetes as Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater. Modern art ditched or at any rate decentralized beauty as an aesthetic value: Who would assert that what makes Picasso or De Kooning valuable is the beauty of their work?

Somewhere along the line in high modernism, beauty merged with prettiness in art as a kind of bovine aesthetic value that represented vapidity and philistinism. Art, it was believed, should be disturbing, outrageous, incomprehensible, ambiguous, vicious, corrosive, and it should assuredly not be pleasant. The pleasure of beauty was deeply suspect, masking hard truths and propping up the social order.

Beauty has never wholly lost its power in art; the sculpture of Brancusi or the beeswax-and-pollen environments of Wolfgang Laib spring to mind. But beauty, as the ultimate task of the artist and as a metaphysical concept in the 20th century, seemed deader than Immanuel Kant.

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