At the Sight of Beauty Desideratum for Beauty with a Capital B
Mustapha , November 21, 2022
At the sight of Beauty, the soul grows wings.
—Plato, Greek philosopher (428—348 BC)
Beauty kindles love, humility, compassion;
As a central source of joy, Beauty engenders morale.
Above all, Beauty reflects the divine.
Following those three lines, if I would continue to expand on the meaning of beauty in a treatise, you might agree with my words. But if, at the conclusion, I would show you examples of art that I deem beautiful, you might become disappointed if the images would not match your aesthetic taste. Your disappointment would affirm the tired cliche: “beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.” It’s the common understanding of our day. What you find beautiful I might find ugly or vice versa. That is possible. Yet, while everybody is different and perceives beauty differently, it’s hard to imagine someone who would not find a sunset beautiful.
Beauty is not relative. It may seem to be so because the degree to which we are able to recognize and perceive it is subjective. If we can imagine Beauty as an infinite, indestructible value existing beyond time and space, it is indeed objective. Nevertheless, we would not dare to claim an absolute knowledge of it because accessing Beauty is a transcendent experience.
It depends on our state of mind, character, sensitivity, and above all on our virtue. The level of refinement of beauty that you may be able to recognize may correlate with the volume of virtue that permeates your being at any given moment. This accounts for disagreements on what we consider beautiful.
The connection between the degree to which we recognize beauty and our virtue—between aesthetic judgment and morality—has been dismissed even before the turn of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, just because we have ignored that connection, does not mean that it is no longer meaningful.
For the sake of kindness and human conviviality, it’s important to understand and re-acknowledge that connection. Our level of innocence and open heartedness determines the depth and extent of our appreciation of Beauty.
We delight in seeing the face of a newborn baby, finding beauty in that moment, because it reminds us of that innate innocence.
As humans we need Beauty in our lives. It brings us joy, and it ennobles us. This is why, for example, it is such a tragedy that the original Penn Station in New York City, built in 1910, which was even more grand than Grand Central Station, was destroyed in 1963. The architectural historian Vincent J. Scully Jr. summed up the difference between the original and the current Penn Station best: “One entered the city like a god; one scuttled in now like a rat.” Surely, the 600,000 passengers going through the busiest transportation hub in the Western Hemisphere don’t want to feel like rats before boarding or leaving a train.
When I lamented to an acquaintance about how much I wish the original Penn Station would be rebuilt, he said that he would find it intimidating. I thought perhaps he associates Beaux Art style architecture with a class he does not belong to, and yet such architecture is designed with the intention of ennobling everyone. Maybe he associates it with unnecessary luxury, but why do so many people enjoy Grand Central Station? Beauty is neither luxury nor indulgent. Beauty is necessary.
There may be some charm in New York City’s grim, in its unpretentiousness, but you have to be feeling pretty low about yourself if the ugliness of the current Penn station or the smell of “dumpster juice” in some corners of the city doesn’t bother you. In contrast, when we are living congruently with our own values and with our authentic aspirations, it’s much easier to feel worthy of living in a beautiful environment.
We can have deeper and more experiences with Beauty in seeking to be good and true to ourselves and to others. This is why our aesthetic taste is so personal, why we feel vulnerable when we point out something we find beautiful. We might feel embarrassed if someone we admire doesn’t agree with our aesthetic judgment.
Whereas Beauty reveals itself to us in degrees, depending on our state, our receptivity to it can change over time. On a day when you might be feeling melancholic or horrific you might find dark, muddy-looking paintings (e.g., Francisco de Goya’s 14 Black Paintings, 1819–1823) especially appealing. Conversely, on a day when you’re feeling grateful, you might find that a painting by Raphael speaks to you. Or on a day when you are in a serene, detached mood you may find a landscape painting by George Inness (1825–1894) opens a door to a deeper sense of communion with the beauty of nature.
Unfortunately, some highly skilled mid-career artists have felt the pressure to follow the contemporary art trends of today—with its call for irony, snarky content, verging on the pornographic—to sell their works. In this sense they are going along with the current, mirroring the low morale of the general mainstream contemporary art scene, instead of having the courage to be sincere, to heed the call of Beauty, and lead the way for others to find her. On another extreme, some artists pride themselves too much on displaying high skill for its own sake without any thought to what they actually want to communicate. The form of their work might look ‘perfect’ but it lacks ‘soul.’ Sheer technical mastery does not guarantee that a work of art is beautiful.
As the late Sir Roger Scruton pointed out in his book, Beauty, “There’s a great difference between the artistic treatment of a subject-matter and the mere cultivation of effect.” Beautiful art is skillfully made and its inner bearing and message is as profound as the technique used to create it. The classical Chinese dance of Shen Yun Performing Arts is a good example of such ideal balance and grace.
“Our favorite works of art seem to guide us to the truth of the human condition and, by presenting completed instances of human actions and passions, freed from the contingencies of everyday life, to show the worthwhileness of being human.” — Sir Roger Scruton
Beauty is Infinite and Indestructible
With only nine words—capturing a potent part of Socrates’ dialogue with Phaedrus more than 1661 years ago—Plato encapsulates the meaning of beauty with a capital B:
“At the sight of Beauty, the soul grows wings.”
Now, you might be someone who does not believe in having a soul, even less so in winged human figures among us, but let me ask you this: Have you ever felt as if time stopped when you saw something beautiful? Or have you ever seen someone in person so beautiful that they took your breath away? At that moment, did you feel paralyzed or consoled? Did you feel heavier or lighter? Nuances and differences in such experiences could be endless.
Beauty is incredibly difficult to define. We can share experiences of when we have been touched by Beauty with a capital B, but it’s nearly impossible to give a definitive answer. It’s like how difficult it is to define Truth with a capital T because truth and beauty are so closely entwined that they might seem to be the same, as Keats would have it:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all. Ye know on earth, and all ye need know.” —John Keats (1795–1821).
It’s easy to conflate beauty with truth because Beauty reveals itself only in authenticity. Someone may fit every description of the standards of beauty of the day, with perfect proportions and symmetrical features, etc., but, for example, as soon as you realize they are a pathological liar, they lose all powers of admiration or persuasion. Beauty leaves them fast; their physical appearance becomes superficial, hollowed out (of any depth of character). Or an uncomfortable, confusing dissonance is created in your mind in having a difficulty in reconciling the physical beauty with the ugly character. Conversely, we love art that seems to emanate beauty from within, like a Rembrandt portrait. We love knowing someone who is both “beautiful inside and out” as we say.
“Beauty is how you feel inside, and it reflects in your eyes. It is not something physical.” —Sophia Loren.
When we recognize something that is truly beautiful—including and beyond superficial appearances—and we give it our fully focused attention, it’s as if we are presented with a bread crumb trail to the divine. In other words, our souls begin to “grow wings.” Perhaps for just a few seconds, we transcend the mundane world and get a little glimpse of the truth a truth of the universe. We get a little bit closer to understanding who we truly are and why we exist.
“Some things can be approached only with great reverence, for it is only then that they disclose themselves to us as they truly are. One of these is beauty.” — Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics (vol 1)
I remember a friend† of mine who once struggled to describe a woman he had trouble working with in his office. He refused to describe her physical attributes at all. He simply said, “She is so beautiful, it hurts!” His remark intrigued me for years until I read Plato’s nine words (in the Phaedrus). Beyond the physical attraction he felt towards her, he later explained, it was painful for him to look at her because her beauty revealed to him his shortcomings. In other words, her beauty helped him recognize what he needed to improve in his own character. He had the strength to look inside himself and recognize how he could improve. Instead of letting her beauty pain him because he could not possess it, ideally her beauty could inspire him to become a better version of himself. It could ennoble him.
At the sight of beauty, we become contemplative. We don’t think about the past or the future. We become present. When Beauty meets us, we expand with enthusiasm.
Some years ago, I decided to learn how to make a cast drawing, a very methodical academic drawing practice, so that I could better understand the creative process of traditionally trained artists. Before deciding on what cast to draw for my portrait cast drawing, a friend gave me the good advice of making sure that I would pick a cast that I found beautiful so that it would keep me inspired and motivated to complete the drawing. I chose a mask of a Michelangelo sculpture of Giuliano de’ Medici (1479-1516), which has been spurring me to continue drawing it for more than a year.
Beauty is usually present when we feel inspired. It’s the ideal state for an artist to be in while creating. The best artists don’t wait for inspiration. They show up in their studios with an open heart, with good will, patiently trusting their process, and maybe Beauty shows up to guide their hand. Beauty rejoices in seeing their willingness to look inside, to improve themselves, overcome their doubts, their shortcomings, and strive to do better, to create beautiful art.
Beautiful art is indeed skillfully done, but it is beautiful because it was inspired by Beauty with a capital B.
Artists in general are usually more sensitive and receptive to Beauty. Often, their vocation feels inevitable, as Beauty haunts them until they pay heed to the call to draw, paint, carve, or sculpt, sing, dance, film, etc. the Beauty they perceive. In this sense artists become the ambassadors of Beauty. With every beautiful drawing, painting, sculpture, etc. that they make, they create a unique ‘bread crumb’ in the bread crumb tail to the divine. “Your mind and your imagination and your spirit is hopefully charged in the making of an object,” the artist, Jacob Collins said, the first time I interviewed him. In that way, the viewer of the painting can experience that beauty.
When artists are sincere while working, they set in motion a virtuous cycle, at best between divine inspiration, beauty, and the viewer of the work of art created. The viewer in turn can increase their appreciation of art, through curiosity and open heartedness.
Another very successful artist I interviewed, Mario Robinson said that he cannot paint when he’s upset. He only paints when he’s feeling good and in a light mood. He does not paint someone unless he can have a meaningful relationship with that person. This is what makes art worthy—meaningful experience, infused with beauty in material form, preferably for many people to contemplate and enjoy.
There’s simplicity in Beauty in its transparency, in its sheer authenticity, as in a moment of surrender.
I named my cat Plato so as to remind me that there are forms of ideal beauty that we cannot easily access—forms which reside beyond our everyday perception. It’s only when we look within to improve our own character that we can elevate in , being true to ourselves and to others, that we are visited by Beauty and get a glimpse into the divine.
†The late Mike Stone, Former Senior Adviser to the Representative on Freedom of the Media at OSCE — The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Vienna, Austria.
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