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Beauty and Beautification

        The history of aesthetic reflection moves from a discourse in which it is not perceived as especially relevant to efforts to distinguish natural from artistic beauty, through the recognition that there is a boundary between them, to the perception that they are separated by a more or less vast and largely unmapped territory, sharing boundaries with natural beauty on the one side and artistic beauty on the other. Beauty of what we may speak of as the Third Realm plays a far greater role in human conduct and attitude than either of the (philosophically) more familiar kinds, since most persons have little occasion to think about the fine arts, or to gaze upon natural wonders, though what Kant speaks of as the starry heavens above occasions awe and a sense of vastness in even the simplest of persons. By natural beauty it is perhaps best to think of beauty, the existence 

of which is independent of human will, like the night sky or the sunset, mighty seas or majestic peaks. So the beauty of a garden would not be natural beauty, leaving it a question ofwhether it belongs to art or to the Third Realm. No one can be unaware of Third Realm beauty in daily life, but the history of aesthetics, which has drawn examples from it, has often, perhaps typically, failed to note how different these are from either natural or artistic beauty.

beauty

 

        Kant exemplifies the first moment of this history, as his choice of examples implies: he discusses green meadows just after discussing fine palaces, dissociating aesthetic judgment from whatever interest one may have in either. "A coat, a house, or a flower is beautiful," presumably in the same way; and Kant seems anxious that from the perspective of aesthetic analysis, no distinction is to be drawn between flowers and floral decorations ("free delineations, outlines intertwined with one another.") So "Nature is beautiful because it looks like art;' while "Beautiful art must look like nature." Hence, from the perspective of beauty, the distinction between art and nature does not greatly signify.l In this Kant was very much a man of the Enlightenment, a period of cultivated taste, in which even the moderately affluent were liberated from the urgencies of immediate interest to the possibility of a disinterested contemplation of natural beauties and beautiful products ofartistic genius. And the world was safe enough for people to travel about, to see the Alps or the artistic wonders of Italy.

        Hegel defines the history's second moment, in that from the outset he finds it crucial to distinguish sharply between artistic beauty, on the one side, and "a beautiful color, a beautiful sky, a beautiful river; likewise beautiful flowers, beautiful animals, and even more of beautiful people."Artistic beauty is "higher" than natural beauty, and is "born of the spirit." Like natural beauty, artistic beauty "presents itself to sense, feeling, intuition, imagination." But it does more than gratify the senses: when "fine art is truly art" it "place[ s ] itselfin the same sphere as religion and philosophy," bringing to our awareness "the deepest interests of mankind, and the most comprehensive truths of the spirit. . . displaying even the highest [ reality ] sensuously." At a minimum, art has a content that must be grasped; it is, by contrast with skies and flowers, about something. Ofcourse, the distinction would be obliterated ifone thought of N ature as a Divine Visual Language, following Bishop Berkeley or the painters of the Hudson River School, who saw God addressing us through the medium of waterfalls or Catskill cliffs. Moreover, the idea ofcontent arises late in our understanding ofart, at that point-which Hegel identifies as the end of art-where art becomes a topic for intellectual judgment, rather than a sensuous presentation of what is taken to be a reality , which Hegel regards as arts "highest vocation." 

 

 There is in Hegel a kind of art which he mentions mainly to dismiss, as it does not qualify as a subject for "Science" -a term which has little to do with natural science, which is negligibly treated in his system. It designates, rather, "The Science of the true in its true shape," which is, after all, the way Hegel thinks of the processes through which Spirit arrives at an essential knowledge of its own nature. " Art can be used in fleeting play ;' he writes, "affording recreation and entertainment, decorating our surroundings, giving pleasantness to the externals ofour life, and making other objects stand out by artistic adornment." Art so considered is not free but "ancillary"-it is applied to ends external to itself, 

 

lipstick

whereas art as art is "free alike in its end and its means." It is only as such that it pertains, as with philosophy, to Absolute Spirit. Hegel is concerned to characterize art, which relies upon sensuous presentation, from thought. But there is a distinction to be made in regard to thought itself, which parallels entirely the distinction between fine and applied art: "Science may indeed be used as an intellectual servant for finite ends and accidental means" he concedes, and not for the high purposes of Science (with a capital S). This would have been expected from the consideration that art and thought are one, with the difference that art uses sensuous vehicles for conveying its content. In any case, Hegel has identified what I have preemptively designated a third aesthetic realm, one greatly connected with human life and happiness. It is, in fact, coextensive with most forms of human life:

 

        Beauty and art does indeed pervade all the business oflife like a friendly genius and brightly adorns all our surroundings whether inner or outer, mitigating the seriousness of our circumstances and the complexities of the actual world, extinguishing idleness in an entertaining way. . . . Art belongs rather to the indulgence and relaxation of the spirit, whereas substantial interests require its exertion. . . . Yet even though art inter-sperses with its pleasing forms everything from the war paint of the savages to the splendor of temples with all the richness ofadornment, these forms themselves nevertheless seem to fall outside the true ends and aims of life.  

        Someone who thought of art in these terms might consider it "inappropriate and pedantic to propose to treat with scientific seriousness what is not itself of a serious nature," as Hegel has set out to do in his Lectures on Aesthetics.  I am not certain Hegel disagrees with this proposition, despite his remarkably cosmopolitan personality. For he does not discuss art as applied art in the great work he devoted to the subject. Like philosophical thought, art is a modality offree spirit. So there can be no question of "the worthiness ofart' to be treated as philosophically as philosophy itself. Art is worthy of philosophical address only under the perspective of its highest vocation, which it shares with philosophy. So Hegel spends little time in exploring the territory he has uncovered, in which art is applied to the enhancement of life, even if it may, in certain periods, like the Renaissance, have been difficult to distinguish it from Art (with a capital A). When Alberti was commissioned to give a new facade to Santa Maria Novella in Florence, was it upscale decoration or was it high art? We have such a problem today with the distinction between craft and art proper.

        But the other border of what I shall designate the Third Realm is equally non-exclusionary, especially when we consider what Hegel singles out under the head of beautiful people-the kind of beauty possessed by Helen of Troy, say, which we must suppose a wonder of nature. But Helen's 

        On this view, art appears as a superfluity, even if the softening of the heart which preoccupation with beauty can produce does not altogether become deleterious as downright effeminacy. From this point of view, granted the fine arts are a luxury, it has frequently been necessary to defend them in their relationship to practical necessities in general and in particular to morality and piety, and since it is impossible to prove their harmlessness, at least to give grounds for believing this luxury of the spirit may afford a greater sum of advantages than disadvantages.

 

 

 

 

 

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