Despite the central role beauty plays in human life, beauty and all that is involved in its appreciation are not easy to define or discuss. While we are motivated by beauty in nearly everything we do, and we spend a great deal of time, energy, and money trying to cultivate it and encounter it in our everyday lives, we are unable to give a satisfactory answer to the question: what is beauty?
Some believe beauty to simply be the power to awaken or elicit agreeable or pleasurable emotions in the viewer. If one enjoys what she sees, then that which she is viewing by definition is beautiful. But such a definition is limited and distills beauty down to primitive hedonism. We all know that there can be beauty in deeply painful experiences. One need only visit the nearest museum to see an array of works that are on the one hand deeply moving and beautiful and on the other, very sad and painful monuments of human suffering. Beauty as aesthetic pleasure is not a satisfactory definition.
Others confuse beauty with morality. It is said that beauty is the “Ideal;” and by many, the Ideal is taken to mean ideal goodness. But as far as righteousness and sin are concerned, beauty is completely unrelated. So much of what is evil in life, so much of what offends against the moral law, must be regarded as beautiful as far as it plays its necessary part in the universal whole. Beauty is not morality.
When one clears away these misconceptions, then, an approximate definition might be that the essence of beauty is one of harmony. As soon as a detail is shown in its relation to the whole, then it becomes beautiful because it is expressive of the supreme unity of the whole. A discord in music is felt to be a discord only when it is isolated. When it eventually takes its fitting and inevitable place in the large unity of the symphony as a whole, it becomes full of meaning.
The hippopotamus, dozing in his tank at the zoo, is wildly grotesque and ugly. But who shall say that, seen in the fastnesses of his native rivers, he is not the beautiful and perfect fulfillment of nature’s harmony? The smoking factory, sordid and hideous, might be seen as beautiful to the person who views it in terms of what it accomplishes and the role it plays as a necessary function in the great scheme of life. Beauty is adaptation. Whatever is truly useful is truly beautiful. The steam engine and the battleship are beautiful just as truly as Titian’s Madonna, glorified and sweeping upward into the presence of God the Father. Only what is vital and serviceable is beautiful.
When the human spirit perceives a unity in things, a working together of parts, it is there that beauty exists. It resides in the synthesis of details to the end of shaping a complete whole. This perception, this synthesis, is a function of the human mind. Beauty is not inherent in the landscape, but in the mind which apprehends it. Evidence of this fundamental truth is the fact that the same landscape is more “beautiful” to one person than to another, and yet to a third, perhaps, it is not beautiful at all. It is only as the individual perceives a relation among the parts resulting in a total unity that the object becomes beautiful for him. It is in the appreciation of the solitary element set against the totality of the whole that beauty emerges and can be apprehended.
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