Adam Kirsch in The New Republic:
One of the running jokes in On Beauty, Zadie Smith’s third novel, is that its main character is philosophically opposed to beauty. Howard Belsey is a professor of art history at Wellington College, and like all middle-aged professors in campus novels, he is a ludicrous figure–unfaithful to his wife, disrespected by his children, and, of course, unable to finish the book he has been talking about for years. In Howard’s case, the book is meant to be a demolition of Rembrandt, whose canvases he sees as key sites for the production of the Western ideology of beauty.
“What we’re trying to … interrogate here,” Howard drones in a lecture on Rembrandt’s Seated Nude, “is the mytheme of artist as autonomous individual with privileged insight into the human…. What are we signing up for when we speak of the ‘beauty’ of this ‘light’?” Throughout this rather stereotypical classroom vaudeville, Smith cements the reader’s antagonism to Howard and his cheap aesthetic nihilism by having us view it through the eyes of his most naïve student, Katie Armstrong, a sixteen-year-old from the Midwest who is uncomplicatedly in love with art. “She used to dream about one day attending a college class about Rembrandt with other intelligent people who loved Rembrandt and weren’t ashamed to express this love,” Smith writes, and she makes us indignant at Howard on Katie’s behalf. Indignation turns to scorn when it turns out that Howard Belsey is just as enthralled by beauty as anyone–specifically, by the beauty of another young student, Victoria Kipps, with whom he has a disastrous affair.
Howard’s downfall–he loses his wife and his career–is the revenge of beauty, and in the novel’s last scene Smith forces Howard to admit defeat.