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Photographs by Stu Rosner

[ Also see Rainbows in Nanospace ]

In American universities, beauty has been in exile. Despite its centrality in human experience, the concept of beauty has virtually disappeared from scholarly discourse. Oddly enough, the banishment has been most complete in the humanities, home of literature, music, and art. Criticized as an elitist concept, an ethnocentric creation of white European males, beauty has been stigmatized as sexist, racist, and unfair. Attention to beauty, some say, may distract us from the world's injustices, and rapt enchantment with beautiful objects or persons may even harm that which we gaze upon. Current analytic approaches such as semiotics, deconstruction, and cultural studies have eclipsed the study of beauty, and not only at elite institutions like Harvard. "If I were to say, in any of my upper-division literature courses, that I found a particular poem beautiful or emotionally moving, I would be met with rolling eyes and unchecked laughter," a student at Southern Utah University complained on the Internet. "Those are things we don't say in academe."

Books Mentioned in this Issue
Throats, however, are being cleared. Aesthetics is returning to the academy. Beauty is rearing its beautiful head. "I woke up about a year and a half ago to the fact that a sea change was coming," says Emory Elliott, professor of English and director of the Center for Ideas and Society at the University of California at Riverside, who organized a conference there on "Aesthetics and Difference" a year ago. "My students have been asking me to talk more about the formal properties of literature," he says. "They want to hear about more than race and politics." The pendulum of a common literary distinction--between text and context--may be swinging back toward text, toward examination of the structure, language, and rhythms of literary works themselves, rather than their surrounding social, historical, and economic circumstances and meanings. More conferences on beauty and aesthetics are popping up. A forthcoming book of essays, Revenge of the Aesthetic (University of California Press), brings together several scholars seeking to refocus on studying the formal qualities--and beauty--of literature.
Literary scholar Elaine Scarry: "It's not that the humanities have been emptied of beauty--beautiful objects are always with us. But we stopped talking about it."

Cabot professor of aesthetics and the general theory of value Elaine Scarry has taught a Harvard graduate seminar titled "On Beauty" three times since 1991. The course considers some of the great classical statements on beauty, exposes students to dazzling objects of beauty--along with the prejudices and concerns they have aroused--and debates the most common arguments raised against beauty. "The students absorb it," she says. "It's like a hunger. It's not that the humanities have been emptied of beauty--beautiful objects are always with us. But we stopped talking about it."

This fall, Scarry expounds on the subject in print when Princeton University Press publishes her book On Beauty and Being Just. "The banishing of beauty from the humanities in the last two decades has been carried out by a set of political complaints against it," she writes, adding that the process has been gradual, almost covert. "It just seems that the shoreline gets changed," she says. "If we'd stood up and had a debate about it, there wouldn't have been the blackout of concern with beauty that there has been. It's a terrible loss. I once thought the problem was a temporary confusion, that it would go away on its own after a few years. But it won't, because there's been no debate about it."

The Beauty Blackout

Depending on your perspective, the demise of beauty is either a fairly recent phenomenon or something nearly a century old. "No one thing led to the decline," says Harvard president Neil L. Rudenstine, who is also professor of English and American literature and language and has helped teach poetry courses during his presidency. "One factor was the reaction to late-nineteenth-century 'art for art's sake,' which was seen as too precious and class-associated: it seemed to leave out too much of the world. In art history there was a reaction against the concept of connoisseurship, which was identified with certain kinds of refinement--you were either a sensitive Pateresque or Berensonian spirit, or you were not. That, too, had class dimensions. One version of that connoisseurship tradition taught you to train your eye to view art objects outside of any cultural context. Bernard Berenson, for example, had no patience with iconographic studies, quite apart from interpreting art from a political or economic point of view. I myself admire Berenson's achievement enormously, but it was very special, focused, and rarefied.

"Ultimately, the 'aesthetic' targets were so oversimplified that it was not difficult to shoot them down," Rudenstine continues. "Marx, Freud, anthropological studies, various forms of cultural studies, new theories of gender-related or ethnicity-related analysis: all of these stress very different aspects of works of art. Aesthetics isn't high on the list."

Porter University Professor Helen Vendler, a prominent literary scholar specializing in poetry, says, "In a democracy, the idea of beauty is seen to exclude people who don't agree to the standard of taste being proposed by one group or another. Beauty is said to represent standards set by an elite. This is what caused all the trouble at the National Endowment for the Arts: photographs by Andres Serrano or Robert Mapplethorpe did not strike others as beautiful, but as disgusting, repulsive, or vulgar. If you are Catholic, the Piss Christ [a Serrano work that shows a crucifix immersed in a vial of urine] may not strike you as beautiful. The problem with this is that you come to deny any objective standards of what is beautiful, and decide that it is all relative to your cultural perspective. But that doesn't explain the coherence of judgment over time. Certain artists, like Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Shakespeare, have been approved for centuries. After you get past the topical excitement of the moment, people are in a better state to decide, a hundred years later, whether something is beautiful.

"'The Charge of the Light Brigade' had appeal when it was written about a famous event in the Crimean War, but there is still much in the poem that appeals to us more than a century later," Vendler continues. "Or take Walt Whitman's 'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd,' on Lincoln's assassination. There were hundreds of elegies written about Lincoln, but the others were full of pious abstractions and sentimentalities--they had nothing original about them. They were by people who wrote from outside the circumstances, rather than those who made them part of their emotional and aesthetic life, internalized the event, as Whitman did."
Mathematician Barry Mazur: "Mathematics is intensely beautiful, but still the connection between mathematics and beauty baffles me. Mathematicians pursue understanding, not beauty."

Also taking the long view is Camille Paglia, professor of humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, whose 1990 book Sexual Personae articulated her "art for art's sake" philosophy. "Every culture in the history of the world has valued beauty," she says. "It's not a conspiracy by white heterosexual males to keep women and minorities down. For 25 years, people have gotten very guilty about invoking a standard. The Norton anthologies keep getting bigger and bigger as they add writers to fill quotas--women writers, black writers, ethnic writers. There were supposedly great artists who had been suppressed--hidden female Michelangelos, black Michelangelos. That claim has failed. They've looked for years, and there are no women Michelangelos. There are no black Michelangelos. The great women writers were already known--Jane Austen, the Bröntes, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson. Not one other major figure has been found. We're raising a younger generation who know nothing about art since they've been fed such low-level stuff."

Paglia links the eclipse of beauty to the ascent of "French theory"--including philosophers, deconstructionists, and psychoanalysts like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan--in American humanities faculties, beginning in the early 1970s. "I was a Yale graduate student then; I saw it happen and felt the switch begin--away from the contemplation of art and objects of beauty themselves, to this mandarin theorizing," she says. "If you go abroad they cannot fathom it. In Europe the common person respects art. The Italian peasant in the field feels that grand opera is part of his heritage. Here, we are philistines, subordinating art to a moralistic crusade. It's part of the Puritan tradition."

According to Stanley Cavell, Cabot professor of aesthetics and the general theory of value emeritus, French theory "imported into American pedagogy tracts of writing that students were poorly prepared for. On the whole, dominant British and American analytical philosophers shunned and scorned these challenges to established readings. Yet you couldn't participate creatively in discussions of these issues without mastering philosophical texts, and there were few to help transmit to students some tradition of those texts--including Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, and the full Freudian corpus. So you are asked to deconstruct something the construction of which you are unable to describe. You had to believe what you were told, or reject it, with no productive way of questioning it. (Of course, there have been brilliant exceptions.) The bewildering and rapid domination of the humanities had and has many causes. The cause that continues to press me perhaps hardest is the persistent mutual shunning of the study of philosophy and the study of literature in our culture. I blame us both."

Evolving the Body Beautiful

If we move from art to the beauty of living tissue, the matter becomes even more emotionally complex and contentious. A beautiful human being is generally admired, a source of both visual and visceral pleasure. A radical aesthete like Oscar Wilde could go so far as to claim that the beautiful person is justified in committing any act. Yet deep ambivalence surrounds such enchanting power. Those who esteem human physical beauty are accused of validating a genetic elite, or exalting the most superficial aspects of a person. Some feminist critiques disparage the "cult of beauty" and industries like cosmetics and fashion as controlling institutions that both confine women to the status of sex objects and distract them from more meaningful pursuits. Some would eradicate the very concept of beauty: in her 1991 book, The Beauty Myth, writer Naomi Wolf asserts that human beauty, as an objective, universal standard, does not exist.
Psychologist Nancy Etcoff: "Beauty is very important in motivating behavior and in forming our impressions of people, yet there's virtually no psychological research, and very little talk about it. Researching beauty is considered politically incorrect."

"If there is no universal standard of beauty, then there is no way to judge it," says instructor in psychology Nancy Etcoff, Ed.M. '78, author of the current book Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. "Some people say, 'Everyone is beautiful,' and resent the fact that beautiful people, through no good deeds or works of their own, end up having all these advantages in society." During her research, Etcoff ran into a barrage of hostile reactions. "I'd hear, 'Why study this? Is this an important issue?'" she recalls. "Others complained that beauty is unfair--which, of course, it is. Some people accuse evolutionary psychology of being a sexist science. Still others asked, 'Are you trying to take away the romance of beauty? Are there grants to study this?'"

Unlike Wolf's polemic, Survival of the Prettiest draws on a wide range of scholarly research in the social sciences. It argues that cross-cultural studies affirm that universal standards of human attractiveness do indeed exist, and are evident even to infants, who prefer gazing at faces deemed attractive by adults. Etcoff, who calls herself an evolutionary psychologist, explains that human beauty serves Darwinian ends--for example, by making it more likely that healthy, fertile, and genetically sound individuals will reproduce themselves.

"My book is bringing up something people don't want to know--they don't want you to let the cat out of the bag," she says. "Physical beauty is, in part, a genetic lottery. I'm not saying that it's right, but I am describing what is, not what ought to be." Mocking Wolf's title, she writes, "The idea that beauty is unimportant or a cultural construct is the real beauty myth. We have to understand beauty, or we will always be enslaved by it."

Psychological and sociological research took scant notice of beauty before the late 1970s, when studies began to appear on how physical appearance affects things like jury decisions and hiring practices. "It was a totally neglected area," Etcoff says. "Beauty is very important in motivating behavior and in forming our impressions of people, yet there's virtually no psychological research, and very little talk about it. Researching beauty is considered politically incorrect.

"In psychology, what has been studied in this century is thought, intellect. Even emotion has been neglected," she continues. "The guiding social-science model has been a culturally relative model. In psychology, stimulus-response behaviorism gave us the idea that everything is learned. More recently we've begun to see genetic or Darwinian explanations for behavior; we are putting the biological part back in there."

Some scholars from other fields question the methods and model of evolutionary psychology, saying, for example, that it identifies the traits selected for sexual reproduction and then assumes these are aesthetic qualities. Others assert that the evolutionary psychologists are too quick to generalize from animal behavior to human choices, or from the limited sector of humanity accessible to their sampling to the entire species.

Is research on beauty itself an obstacle to women's progress? "The basic criticism is that women have been too prized for their looks," Etcoff replies. "The real problem is that women haven't had the opportunity to cultivate their other assets, not that they do cultivate beauty."

Tracking the Comet of Beauty

For some, beauty is at war with justice, distracting us from injustice or causing harm to the objects of attention. Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just considers both these arguments and comes down on the side of beauty, vindicating it on grounds of both pleasure and morality.

Noting that the word fair can mean both beautiful and just, she claims that "beautiful things increase our level of alertness to the world," and that this heightened attention eventually spreads to all objects of experience. "The principle of symmetry is given physical form in beauty, and that same principle of symmetry or equality parallels what we learn in the realm of ethics or justice," Scarry says. "[Philosopher] John Rawls defines fairness as a symmetry of everyone's relations to one another. Certain features of beauty actually coax us toward justice."

Furthermore, she observes that Plato and Dante both believed the person looking at the beautiful object is the vulnerable one, the one at risk. Consider these lines from Dante's La Vita Nuova:

With your companions you make fun of me,
Not thinking, Lady, what the reason is
I cut so strange a figure in your eyes
When, raising mine, your loveliness I see.

Here the speaker is thrown off his stride, made awkward by the power of human beauty. "Simone Weil wrote that seeing something beautiful 'de-centers' you--it makes you give up your position as the imaginative center of the world," says Scarry. "Similarly, Iris Murdoch writes that beauty creates a type of 'un-selfing'--the sight of a bird, or a bank of sweet peas, or a lovely cloud formation, breaks us out of our narrow egos. Anything that creates un-selfing, she thought, is conducive to goodness and ethics. And the best example is beauty."

For Plato, beauty was a "greeting," for Marcilio Ficino, the Renaissance philosopher and theologian, it was "a call, the flower that leads," Scarry notes. Ficino called beauty a lure--as in "allure"--motivating quests for higher things. "The willingness to continually revise one's own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education," Scarry writes. "One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky."

One branch of philosophy attempts to track the orbits of some of those comets. In the eighteenth century, a philosopher named Alexander Baumgarten coined the term aesthetics. "He was interested in the physiology and psychology of sensory perception--how you take in information from the senses, as opposed to the mind," says Boardman professor of fine arts Irene Winter. "Aesthetic theory developed during the German and Scottish Enlightenment--Addison, Shaftesbury, Kant. As an artist in dialogue with such thinkers, Hogarth didn't feel you needed beauty to have an aesthetic experience--it could simply be a powerful sensory experience, like awe or wonder--but beauty and aesthetics were conflated early on. Part of my work is to separate them out again."

Trained in archaeology, anthropology, and art history, Winter specializes in the study of ancient Near Eastern art and has been working for the last five years on a book about Mesopotamian aesthetics. "There is no single word in Sumerian or Akkadian for beauty," she says. "There are several words for the attributes of an object--well-built, shining--and there are words to describe affect--awed, overwhelmed, wondrous. They'd often pair attributes or qualities--like well-made/auspicious, or vital/sexually appealing. The sum total resembles what we call 'beauty.'"

For the past two years Winter has taught a popular seminar on cross-cultural aesthetics; each year she had to screen 30 applicants for 12 places in the class. Students pursued a startling heterogeneity of projects: notions of design among Native Americans of the Northwest coast; how modern and postmodern architects value a seventeenth-century Japanese palace; aesthetic aspects of religious performance in traditions as diverse as Jainism and Latino Catholicism in Texas. Winter is well versed in the ways different cultures have interpreted their aesthetic responses. "Sanskrit aesthetics is based on a metaphor of taste," she says. "The word rasa means 'juice,' the taste you get from a good dish at a meal, and from this they build a theory of drama and aesthetics that describes eight major emotional states conveyed by theater or dance."

The varied traditions and perceptions of cultures make it risky to generalize about what is beautiful, she says: "If white is the color of death in Japan, and what brides wear in our culture, and the color of cowboy hats worn by 'good guys'--while in Africa what is beautiful is black and lustrous--then you can't generalize and say that what is light and bright is beautiful.

"When you say, 'I think that's beautiful,' or 'I think that's horrible,' that assumes an embedded scale of values you aren't articulating," she continues. "You need to ask, 'What are you looking to do with this object?' If you want social criticism, Garry Trudeau may be better than Rubens. If you put Rubens up next to Titian, you may ask, Who draws better? Which one is more effective as a religious painter? We need a more nuanced vocabulary to distinguish a property of the work that is external to the self from a personal value judgment."

In Anglo-American or "analytic" philosophy, aesthetics has never played a major role, explains professor of philosophy Richard Moran, who currently offers the only aesthetics course in Harvard's philosophy department. "It has much greater prominence in Continental thought, especially in Germany and France, where sometimes the philosophers themselves--like Sartre--were literary artists. Contemporary literary theory is largely adapted from French and German philosophy: Heidegger, Derrida, Nietzsche, Hegel. In general, aesthetics has never been a central field within philosophy like metaphysics, ethics, or theory of knowledge. But that's okay--lots of important philosophy is not part of its foundation. In truth, aesthetics does not lend itself very well to theory-building."

Neil Rudenstine suggests that "philosophical inquiries into the field of aesthetics during this century have ended pretty drearily and with very little to show. To the extent that philosophy is an inquiry that tends to seek general truths, it is almost bound to run into trouble when it wanders into the field of art, with its vast variety of unique individual objects. Aesthetics--almost invariably--ends up talking about art at a level that is so abstract as to be rarely helpful when we are trying to make the connection with any particular work and its power. In addition, the leaps and disjunctions--from artist to artist, form to form--have been larger in the twentieth century. Knowing a lot about Jasper Johns will not get you very far in thinking about Francis Bacon, Juan Gris, Mary Miss, or Ellsworth Kelly. Even in conventional fields, aesthetics ran out of intellectual energy some time ago. Now it's hard to translate even from one artist to another, or one culture to another."

The Future of the Beautiful

A renaissance of beauty in academia may be underway; before long, professors and students could be speaking frankly about their vulnerability to beauty's enchantments, and the meanings that beauty holds in their experience. Although theories about the beautiful can be divisive, beauty itself tends to connect people. It can be a shortcut to common ground, the most accessible route to consensus on what is positive and valuable in life.

Beauty also enlivens. In Moran's aesthetics course, students bring their passions to the classroom. "They come with real convictions and experiences of their own that are important to them," he says. "In a moral philosophy course, undergraduates tend to be more self-conscious. They weigh their words and think twice before they say anything; often they don't get really genuine. But when we discuss the aesthetic properties of movies and books they know, their convictions are closer to the surface and ready for expression. It makes intellectual contact with them more immediate."

A different approach to pedagogy may also appear--or reappear. "People have gotten sick and tired of Marxist rhetoric and armchair leftism," says Camille Paglia. "I feel sorry for the poor students, whose parents are paying $30,000 a year at Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, Brown, so they can study under this class of elite professors telling them to be suspicious of all the ways power preys on your mind, instead of pursuing the humble mission of presenting art to students and allowing them to have their own responses."

Rudenstine believes the consideration of beauty "is coming back because it has always been there. Today we need a more complex connoisseurship. We can't go back. We want art critics to be informed historically, to know something about semiotics and cultural studies. It's a matter of reclaiming beauty without discarding everything else we know."

To Stanley Cavell, "Philosophy, in its austerity, is a wonderful haven against various culture wars; you have the illusion of rising above them. Philosophy regards anything destructive of reason as destructive of philosophy, and sometimes people can use beauty to destroy reason. The quarrel between philosophy and beauty is a very old one. If beauty returns, it's going to have a lot of things to answer for, and it will have to prove itself. It always has."

Craig A. Lambert '69, Ph.D.'78, is deputy editor of this magazine.

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