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Art and Beauty: A Marital History

Lascaux Cave paintings

Art and beauty have a peculiar kind of relationship and have been uneasily coupled since perhaps the beginning of human history. This close relationship received its most formal expression with the 18th century aestheticians. But art and beauty have always been separable, as the 20th century demonstrated, even if the extent of their separability has been exaggerated. Art always occupies a time and space in our four-dimensional world, but beauty occupies a place somewhere in the excitement of our brains, and we as a species still crave art that excites in this way.

Art nowadays is coupled with fashion, and the ideals of beauty, we have discovered, are not so much in our culture as in our heads, innate features of the human mind that have some strict hardwiring toward health and safety but which allow for a lot of variation in our local ecologies.

Human beings have been trying to exploit features of beauty that indicate health and wellbeing since time immemorial, but perhaps it’s most helpful for us to began at a point in time when the story of art and beauty were still intimately wedded. Let’s turn to the 18th century, where we can learn a thing or two about beauty and also observe the way in which aestheticians became self-conscious about the concepts of art and beauty and their marriage. First I’ll begin with a story of manners, and later I’ll turn to the separation of art and beauty.

In the 18th century, England passed a law forbidding women to artificially adorn themselves. The edict covered all uses of “scents, paints, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high heeled shoes, or bolstered hips,” and any woman wearing these adornments to artificially enhance her beauty was considered by British law as practicing something equivalent to witchcraft. Discovery of false adornments by a husband was considered just grounds for divorce. One such Englishman petitioned the court for divorce or a more compensatory dowry, writing:

“I have a great mind to be rid of my Wife, and hope, when you consider my case, you will be of Opinion I have very just Pretensions to a Divorce…never Man was so enamored as I was of her fair forehead, Neck, and Arms as well as the bright Jet of her Hair, but to my great Astonishment I find they were all the Effects of Art: Her skin is so tarnished with this Practice, that when she first wakes in a Morning, she scarce seems young enough to the be the Mother of her whom I carried to Bed the Night before. I shall take the Liberty to part with her by the first Opportunity, unless her Father will make her Portion suitable to her real, not her assumed, Countenance.”

(Nancy Etcoff, The Survival of the Prettiest)

Note the British gentleman’s use of the word art. He uses it in reference to his wife’s ability to disguise her true beauty. As the philosopher of art Noel Carroll notes in On Criticism, up until the 18th century art was just a term that people used to refer to the way someone did something relative to some domain. An art could be a way of doing things as diverse as cobbling or karate. Or in the case of the man’s wife, the art of cosmetic subterfuge. But in the 18th century, even as the old term was being used, art was emerging as a separate domain altogether, exemplified in the Beaux Arts or Fine Arts of drama, literature, dance, music, sculpture, architecture, and painting. (Now we’d include these under the heading of art along with the graphic arts, film, and computer-generated visuals.)

The first consumers of these Fine Arts were aristocrats and other wealthy and powerful people who could afford to commission artists to create or perform art for them. Part of the enjoyment and cultivation of the arts was a display of conspicuous consumption, showing everyone else that you could afford it. And the democratization of the arts was relatively late, a 20th century phenomenon. So too was the acceptance of the idea that art could be ugly.

To be fair, it’s not as if art began only a few hundred years ago. It’s likely that we human beings have been creating art since the beginning of our species some 50 to 75 thousand years ago. At the least we know it’s been a while. The Lascaux Cave paintings, for instance, are about 17 thousand years old. But the emergence of the Fine Arts and the celebration of art as sui generis highlight some of the peculiar features of artworks, a cluster of features in fact.

For one, they display or fail to display craftsmanship, and they’re enjoyed for their own sake. They also exhibit certain styles and trends and concerns—the Lascaux Cave paintings even, for who can look at those and think our hairy ancestors didn’t care about horses and deer? Also, people enjoy judging and appraising the works in addition to appreciating them. One natural way to appraise artworks is by talking about their beauty.

18th century aestheticians often were more interested in the appreciation or creation of artworks in terms of aesthetics. Artworks are created, found, or arranged, and natural objects or phenomena lack such human creativity as a necessary criterion. Aesthetic preoccupations, like beauty and sublimity, can be applied to artworks, but of course nobody, not even these aestheticians, ever thought aesthetics was of a piece with works of art. Sure, artworks can be beautiful, like Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s statue of David, or awe-inspiring; or, as philosopher Edmund Burke wrote, artworks can “excite the ideas of pain and danger” and be “productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

But so can a typhoon, as theoreticians like Burke would admit. Artworks transcend aesthetic preoccupations if aesthetics is only about beauty and sublimity. In addition to being beautiful or sublime, artworks can also be about ideas or emotions, or be proxies for human comportment. They can be too preachy or kitschy or melodramatic, to take a few negative traits, or morally instructive, elegant, or arresting, to take some more positive qualities. Even so, the 18th century aestheticians were only interested in talking about the artworks as beautiful expressions of an artist’s emotion.

There is something to that, but the artworks need not be limited to expressions of the artists’ emotions. They could just as easily represent other forms of human creativity. And to the extent that artworks display human creativity, we sometimes talk about them as though they were people, which is what I mean when I say they can be proxies for human comportment. For instance, the other day I was sitting around with my friend, sharing some of the new music I’ve been listening to. I’m a sucker for hip-hop, pop, R&B, and lately I’ve been on a new hip-hop kick.

I let my friend listen to Killer Mike’s new album, about which he said he found it offensive and thought it perpetuated racial stereotypes. And when he brought up Kenrick Lamar, I bristled and told him I gave one of Lamar’s albums a chance but I thought it was too misogynistic. Inasmuch as an artwork expresses something, it is like a person We can think of the artwork as so intimately involved with its creation that these sorts of appraisals are possible. Artworks can be judged offensive or misogynistic, just as people can be.

To the extent that artworks can be beautiful, modernism and postmodernism in the 20th century mostly eschewed beauty for political reasons. The reasoning was as follows. The human mind/brain can only process the raw data it receives from the senses through the environment. The environment is a set of social constructions. Concepts like beauty are also from the environment and therefore also a set of social constructions. So if we change the concepts or militate against the concepts through changes in the environment we can dispense with some concepts in favor of others. But this is a false theory of perception.

As psychologist Steven Pinker writes in The Blank Slate, the mind/brain is far more complicated. The visual system, for instance,

“…comprises some fifty regions that take raw pixels and effortlessly organize them into surfaces, colors, motions, and three-dimensional objects. We can no more turn the system off and get immediate access to pure sensory experience than we can override our stomachs and tell them when to release their digestive enzymes. The visual system, moreover, does not drug us into a hallucinatory fantasy disconnected from the real world. It evolved to feed us information about the consequential things out there, like rocks, cliffs, animals, and other people and their intentions.”

And also hardwired us with a sense of beauty.

The human mind/brain’s sense of beauty operates according to a basic framework that allows for some variation, but only within the range of the framework itself. This sense of beauty coevolved with our ancestor’s ecology, but now that the hardware is there, it’s unlikely to change for a very long time. Steven Pinker writes that our sense of beauty

“…is the mechanism that drove our ancestors into suitable habitats. We innately find savannas beautiful, but we also like a landscape that is easy to explore and remember, and that we have lived in long enough to know its ins and outs.”

(How the Mind Works)

Both children and adults show preferences for landscapes with lots of nice plant life and forests but don’t care too much for deserts and rainforests, and the same has been the case probably since our species’ existence. Pinker goes on to write that this innate sense of beauty is also found in certain cross-cultural preferences for certain faces. Psychologist Nancy Etcoff corroborates. In The Survival of the Prettiest, she recounts a study showing pictures of various faces of men and woman throughout the world.

The study was done across several continents and also included Ache and Hiwi tribes in Paraguay, who have no access to Western media, where psychologists found that a tribesman “was as likely to agree with another tribesman about beauty as one American college student was with another,” suggesting that “[w]hatever process leads to consensus within a culture does not depend on dissemination of media images.” Although people in the study typically preferred faces of the same race as themselves, what they preferred universally were “female faces with small lower faces (delicate jaws and relatively small chins) and eyes that were large in relation to the length of the face.”

Our innate sense of beauty evolved in response to our ecological preferences for certain kinds of hospitable environments and healthy persons. But something the modernists and postmodernists got right was that our understanding of beauty is far more malleable than we might have thought. Nancy Etcoff and other psychologists have discovered, for instance, that the preference for certain facial features is actually closer to the kind of face you’d get if you made a composite face, putting together several people’s faces and creating an average face. Etcoff writes that

“The mechanism that stores and averages faces is innate and universal, but the composite it forms is dependent on the faces it sees. This means that in a multicultural world people’s internal averages might begin to reflect the universal face, a composite of the features of all races.”

Our innate sense of beauty for people is attuned to both universal and local features that indicate health, and in one locale features that appear healthy might appear unhealthy in others—like white skin, for example. And our preferences for certain features of nature come from our ancestor’s preference for livable environments. That’s the best hypothesis going, anyway.

Modernism and postmodernism also got it partially right on art. These movements opened people up to new possibilities in human creativity. As Steven Pinker writes, these art movements at their heights “offered invigorating intellectual workouts… and countered a sentimental romanticism that saw art as a spontaneous overflow of the artist’s personality and emotion” (The Blank Slate). At their heights, they introduced new ideas and the possibility for new ideas beyond the prevailing orthodoxies. But these movements failed in other respects.

Pinker writes that philosophies of these movements failed to “acknowledge the ways in which [art] was appealing to human pleasure. As its denial of beauty became an orthodoxy, and as its aesthetic successes were appropriated into commercial culture,” there was “nowhere for artists to go.” And perhaps it was no surprise that art became industrialized—so much so that if the 18th century erred on the side of speaking so happily of the marriage between art and beauty, the 20th century critics erred on the side of hooking art up with a newer, trendier partner: fashion.

What of art today? Art today exploits some of those innate features of beauty, but the other creative and evaluative aspects of art might be attempts to preserve chaos. Art is really in bed with fashion nowadays. Of course, it’s possible to critically engage with and about art, but the only art that survives being of the moment is the art that we have, as a species, preserved—it’s the stuff that survives critical appraisal. And it either represents the heights of human accomplishment or serves as signposts in the history of human creativity. Or we reappraise it and judge that we no longer care about it. Some artworks and artists don’t survive critical appraisal or interest.

To take a relatively recent example, I ran across this overtly mean article called the “Top 10 [Hip-Hop] Artists Nobody Cares About Anymore.” I’m not familiar with some of the names on the list, but the list included 50 Cent and Ludacris, two once much-loved hip-hop artists who are no longer talked about. No matter what, as much as we may fool ourselves, as much as art and culture critics attest that art knows no boundaries, the art that is going to get preserved is the art that optimally exploits or reacts to formal properties. It need not be merely beautiful, but if it doesn’t serve as a testament to human accomplishment or human history, it’s not going to occupy any space for us.

First published in The Partially Examined Life by Billie Pritchett