By Thomas, Letters From The Ruins
BEAUTY IS A BATTLEGROUND in the 21st Century. It’s the central figure in a whole range of debates from modern art to our own bodies. Is beauty in the eye of the beholder, or does it even exist? Or, we might imagine an absolute principle which neatly categorises the nebulous term for us.
Indeed, I find myself engaged in a search for beauty, even in the mundanities of daily life like tidying my desk and kitchen. Beauty is ever desired but fleeting. It’s a quality that we can’t seem to systematise for better or worse.
And so I wish to engage in a short journey with you. We will explore beauty as a tree. We begin at the root of a mighty oak, travel up its great trunk and finish at the tips of its branches. In doing so, we will have explored the concept as a complex, inter-related organism.
THE ROOTS: INCLUSIVE CONCEPTS
What is a concept? The answer is a boundary. Whatever we include in a boundary necessarily excludes everything outside of it. Concepts become more real when they are more specific. This is fairly intuitive but its implications are radical. It means that everything we come to understand about the world must be true, or crucially, false.
Therefore, I might draw your attention to a moment in your own life. Recall an instance of beauty. For me, there is no better example than a brisk spring morning – a roll of mist caressing the dewy ground with the sun announcing itself in a golden stupor. In this moment, I am communicating with something more primordial than could ever be imagined.
But what does that say? It says that beauty exists! I could proclaim it like a madman announcing doom unto a town square. And here is the difficulty. If we can all recall a moment of sincere beauty in our own lives, then there must be that which is not. There must be ugliness too.
Ugliness is present most readily in very human moments. Revenge, jealousy, and spite manifest themselves as a rot, tearing away the order we all experience in our lives. Ugliness is a denial of the good, like darkness which enshrouds a glimmer of bright.
Therefore, the mere existence of a thing is enough to vindicate its opposite. If anything exists at all, it cannot merely float in a vacuum, it requires a framework of context around it. This framework is what we understand as exclusivity and inclusivity.
THE HEARTWOOD: UNIVERSALISM AND IDENTITY
From the conceptual roots of our discussion, we may now arise to the trunk. The concept may take form into specifics. What are the implications of concepts being exclusive? Well, if not everything can be beautiful, then we can’t accept that beauty is infinitely available.
This is difficult in our democratic culture, in which differences in aesthetic tastes are taught to be respected above all. But how can one person’s beauty be another’s ugliness? If anything can be beautiful, then beauty means nothing.
On the other hand, if beauty must be wholly objective, there is no room for context. Is a rock beautiful? The answer is not ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but ‘it depends.’ A slab of stone certainly wouldn’t titillate our senses, but what if that very slab was enfolded into a grand architectural feat, like a gothic Cathedral? In that case, people might travel half the way across the world just to witness it.
This tells us that beauty can’t be a feature of the physical world, but it also can’t be a feature of the individual ego. We are seemingly at an impasse between two extremes of objectivity and subjectivity.
There is a solution to this. It comes in the form of identity. Identity is a kind of medium between our mind and the external world. We can never quite pinpoint identity because identity is a relationship between the two. Our own self understanding can’t take place without the context of a history and culture. Identity exists, but ephemerally. It’s a complex interplay rather than a strict category. There are principles and iterations of it in the world, but these iterations show up differently across time and space.
I wish to suggest that historical communities, epochs, and socio-culture are the driving forces behind these kinds of categories. The intricate balance between ourselves and the real world creates a climate. This is the framework we have been looking for which generates perspective. The way things reveal themselves to us changes over time. The Oak tree was a vastly different being in the age of maritime expansion to today.
THE BRANCH AND LEAF: AESTHETICS
Now I have suggested a formal framework for the understanding of identity, we can bring the conversation further. How does this help us understand beauty? There are eternal principles at work here. Beauty links the medieval cathedral, the spring morning, and the pure joy of a meaningful moment. The link is our formal relationship to the world in identity.
Like identity, beauty is a social phenomenon. It always plays a central role in society and always exists. It forms the glue that holds together an epoch. If we wish to understand the psychology of a people, we must look at the artwork they share. This could be in architecture, in galleries, or even in the way people dress. Their particular iteration of this timeless principle is the axis of their identity. It is where individuality meets the world.
Therefore, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but in the eye of an epoch. The community is the stage for identity to form. It is the forum for the conversation between timeless principles and the willingness of a people. If we wish to take part in this conversation, we must look to our past, to the great people who sincerely contributed their part. A reappraisal of their works will tell us more about ourselves than one could possibly imagine.
Thomas is an anonymous British postgraduate of Politics and Philosophy and writer of the blog ‘Letters From The Ruins.’ He can be found at lftruins.squarespace.com or on his Instagram, @Letters_from_the_ruins.