Beauty is Not Skin Deep

by Dwight Furrow

Turner the fighting temeraire

Turner's The Fighting Temeraire

Beauty is not solely in the eye of the beholder so I argued last month. This month I can't resist taking on the other platitude that harms our understanding of beauty—that beauty is only skin deep.

The word "beauty" has fallen on hard times in the art world despite occasional signs of a revival. Yet, in everyday conversation the word "beauty" is so ubiquitous it has fallen into cliché. Perhaps these two phenomena are related. It is routine to say a flower is beautiful; and almost all flowers would seem to qualify regardless of how ordinary. But that just reduces the concept of "beauty" to meaninglessness. I want to rescue the term by arguing that to grasp the nature of beauty we need an aesthetics of depth, not of surfaces, which is to say that beauty is not skin deep.

There is, it would seem, an obvious counter example to my thesis. I suspect the word "beauty" is most often applied to women largely because throughout history most people who publicly wrote about or depicted beauty were men. And this seems to apply to physical features especially in the way the beauty industry uses the term. But this is not because beauty is superficial; it is because beauty is an object of longing, especially the kind of "ideal", unattainable beauty portrayed by the beauty industry. It's the depth of something out of reach, illusive, a consummate idealization, of satisfaction infinitely deferred that is at work in this form of allure. The whole process of cosmetics is to make something desirable and is thus no longer only about appearances but rather something more subterranean.

The idea that beauty is about superficial qualities readily apparent in our experience is an assumption adopted by much of modern aesthetics since Kant and Hume. Aesthetic experience is made possible by a bundle of qualities and if the qualities are alluring enough we call the object beautiful. Yet to report that a painting is red, rectangular, depicting figures of a certain shape, and suitable for hanging tells us nothing about its aesthetic appeal.

Even if we expand our list of qualities to distinctly aesthetic qualities, supposing the painting to be graceful, elegant, balanced, and dynamic, we would still fail to capture the essence of beauty, as even Kant would have granted. This is because beautiful objects whether artifacts or natural are singular. There is no formula for beauty and no two beautiful objects have identical features or are beautiful in exactly the same way. Whatever the experience of beauty is, it is not the recognition of precisely-ordered, repeatable qualities that can be captured in a rule or principle.

The 19th Century novelist Stendhal, in a formulation more recently taken up and elaborated by philosopher Alexander Nehamas, gives us a more useful clue about genuine beauty. Beauty he writes is "nothing other than the promise of happiness" asserting that beauty looks to the future and invokes something not immediately present, not actual but promised, and contingent on how things work out. Stendhal's comment suggests that in aesthetic experience we are alive to the ways an object is more than the way we immediately comprehend it, alive to an allusive quality in the object. In fact, I would argue that part of the phenomenology of aesthetic experience is this active search for allusion, intimation, and connotation, an active interest in the not immediately apparent. This is, in part, what Kant was after in describing aesthetic experience in terms of the faculties of imagination and understanding at play, with the mind imaginatively relating various aspects of the object, pushing back the boundaries of the intelligible against the resistance of our settled concepts.

In the experience of beauty, it is not a stable delineated object that attracts but something not yet fully present, a shifting play of presence and absence that points to something just beyond our ability to track it, a swelling and contracting tide of meaning where foreground and background continually shift, and the feeling of something just beyond the horizon is palpable. This is why beautiful objects do not simply capture our attention but sustain it—they seduce, coerce, provoke, arouse, and even intimidate but always from a time beyond the present.

Although beautiful objects have a mystery about them, our capacity to experience such mystery is not itself mysterious. Aesthetic perception is continuous with ordinary perception in that ordinary perception is also oriented toward the future, toward the not-quite-present. Everyday perception attends to what is salient with regard to our need to safely and productively move about in the world. Thus, it is infused with implicit normative judgments that are related to expectations. I don't simply see the bus hurtling down the street, but judge its trajectory as benign or threatening, as normal or abnormal. In fact, at every moment in every situation, we assume a background normalcy or not, a satisfaction with things as they are or a motivation to change. These are implicit value judgments that seem as closely tied to perception as the perception of a color or shape.

As Andy Clark writes in a summary of his recent book on perception:

According to this emerging class of models, biological brains are constantly active, trying to predict the streams of sensory stimulation before they arrive. Systems like that are most strongly impacted by sensed deviations from their predicted states. It is these deviations from predicted states (‘prediction errors') that here bear much of the explanatory and information-processing burden, informing us of what is salient and newsworthy in the current sensory array. When you walk back into your office and see that steaming coffee-cup on the desk in front of you, your perceptual experience (the theory claims) reflects the multi-level neural guess that best reduces prediction errors. To visually perceive the scene, your brain attempts to predict the scene, allowing the ensuing error (mismatch) signals to refine its guessing until a kind of equilibrium is achieved.

Skillful coping is the telos of sensibility and assessing the potential of newly-encountered patterns to conform or flout expectations is an essential part of it.

What sort of patterns must we recognize in order to make these implicit value judgments? I call them telic norms. We see objects and situations as having dispositions or causal powers—a tendency to change in one direction or another according to their nature and depending on context. A ball is disposed to roll down hill even when lying in the grass; a glass is disposed to break even when sitting comfortably on the shelf. These dispositional properties are often hidden; the bowl's disposition to break only begins to reveal itself if the bowl is balanced precariously on the edge of the shelf.

These patterns we recognize are incomplete, partial patterns that are filled in by expectation. In the language of early 20th Century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who anticipated some of this research in perception, objects "proposition" us, proposing a potentiality; they tell "tales that might be told about particular actualities". [Process and Reality, 256] Whitehead seems to mean that in all perception there is the potential for difference, the potential for current experience to differ from the past while being constrained by the actuality of the past. Our capacity to represent the future is supported by feelings of continuity or discontinuity. To put the point hyperbolically, the "promise of happiness" is the foundation of all perception.

Aesthetic perception, including the experience of beauty, differs from ordinary perception in that in aesthetic experience the ordinary references of practical life are suspended and, as Kant helpfully explained, the play of understanding and imagination is engaged. In ordinary perception the potential for deviation is there but constrained; in aesthetic experience the constraints are relaxed and potentialities only vaguely insinuated become salient. Aesthetic experience involves appreciating an object for its own sake, directing our attention away from features of an object that can be used for some purpose or fully conceptualized. The aesthetic object withdraws from the network of associations that surround its practical purposes and lures us to a place where our will seeks a broader remit and the object shines forth in its own truth. To view an object aesthetically is to see it as something novel, irreducible to a common way of speaking about it or some background of agreed upon commitments. All perception is selective, but aesthetic experience is exceptionally so seeking to focus on those properties that make a promise via their allure.

What are these inchoate aspects of a painting, landscape, or person that we call beautiful? As I argued last month, objects are not passive bundles of qualities but are made up of dispositions, distributions of causal power that exist as latent potential to be unleashed under the appropriate conditions. Things come to our awareness already infused with dispositional structure. And although we can analyze that structure into fixed stable properties, that is an abstraction from what's going on in aesthetic experience which is shot through with the allure of potentiality. The more referential and singular these dispositions are when captured in a quasi-manifestation event the more depth the object will appear to have. I say "quasi-manifestation" event because the qualities that make something beauty are not fully determinate. Aesthetic experience opens that field of potentiality—vague, haunting qualities that never rise to the clarity of discernible, clearly identifiable features but instead give us the experience of depth, of something withheld, uncanny and mysterious yet redolent with possibility that motivates our involvement.

When this fecund, inchoate, novelty intensifies into patterns of contrast and begins to acquire coherent form we experience it is beautiful. It's the quality of mystery trending towards coherence that draws us in and makes us want to follow. This depth is what links Turner's The Fighting Temeraire, Monet's Waterlilies, Pollock's Lavender Mist, and Rothko's #6 , with Barber's Adagio, Kauai's Na Pali Coast, and a worn and weathered tea cup from a Japanese tea ceremony. All have a quality of otherness that lends depth and can be returned to time and again as if experienced anew.

Beauty is not skin deep because surfaces are just the opening of a passage to the future redolent with possibility.

For commentary on the beauty of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution