What Does Beauty Demand of Us?

by Dwight Furrow

Beauty has long been associated with moments in life that cannot easily be spoken of—what is often called “the ineffable”. When astonished or transfixed by nature, a work or art, or a bottle of wine, words even when finely voiced seem inadequate. Are words destined to fail? Can we not share anything of the experience of beauty? On the one hand, the experience of beauty is private; it is after all my experience not someone else’s. But, on the other hand, we seem to have a great need to share our experiences. Words fail but that doesn’t get us to shut up.

Perhaps communication about beauty is not hopeless; we do after all share some responses to beauty. Most everyone agrees the Mona Lisa is beautiful (if you can actually get close enough to enjoy the diminutive painting amidst the hordes at the Louvre). Most everyone agrees that Domaine de la Romanée-Conti makes lovely wine if you can afford a taste. Who would argue with the spectacular coastline view of Cinque Terre from Monterosso?

However, in matters of beauty, disagreements are just as common. As Alexander Nehamas argues, beauty forms communities of like-minded lovers who share an affection for certain works of art and who do find it possible to communicate their obsession. Something escapes the dark tunnels of subjectivity to survive in a clearing where others mingle. But this process excludes people who don’t get it. We are often bored to tears by something that fascinates others. Across that barrier of incomprehension words may well fail. Beauty forms communities of rivals as the scandal surrounding the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring exemplifies. The contretemps between conventional and natural wine is the latest to divide the wine world. May it not be the last because these conflicts matter and are a symptom of the fundamentally normative response which beauty demands of us.

This idea of rival communities highlights one of the stranger notions that has persisted throughout modern philosophical discussions of beauty. It was Kant who defended it most stridently—beauty, despite being grounded in subjective feelings of pleasure, invokes universal claims of validity, he argued. When I judge an object beautiful based on my own feelings of pleasure, not only does the object merit such a response from me, it merits such a response from anyone. Beauty demands universal agreement. This is not to say everyone will agree; Kant was well aware of trenchant disagreements about beauty. He is claiming everyone ought to agree. It is a normative claim. Thus, when we fail to agree someone is mistaken. Someone is failing to conform to the demands the object makes on us. This is the main difference between what is beautiful and what is merely pleasant or preferable, according to Kant. We do not demand that others share our preferences for chocolate ice cream. But we think someone who finds Cezanne or Sebelius boring is coarse and lacking in taste.

Kant’s view was that we approach pleasure differently when the object is beautiful as opposed to just agreeable. We take a disinterested attitude towards a beautiful object, an attitude whereby our personal desires and idiosyncratic attitudes are bracketed, and we enjoy the object itself, independently of any antecedent desire or personal interest one might have. I will not belabor the tortuous logic that gets Kant to this conclusion. But the thumbnail sketch is that Kant wants to show that our judgments are rational and free. He thought that if we are pushed around by yucky personal things like desires and emotions our actions will not be our own. It is better, more free, to be governed by principles that any rational being must assent to, since as a rational being I must by necessity assent to them. (Yes. I know. It’s peculiar. You are most free when forced by logic to draw a conclusion.) Once we free ourselves from interests and emotions and achieve disinterested attention, the possibility of universal assent to judgments of beauty is possible. Rival beauties are created by personal interests that we should strive to overcome, according to Kant.

Since I think actions not motivated by desires or emotions are incoherent and presuppose a seriously mistaken view of human action, I think the concept of disinterestedness makes no sense, especially in aesthetics. Why would I seek to experience beauty if I had no interest or desire in doing so? Far from being disinterested, we fall in love with great works of art, beautiful men and women, and lovely bottles of wine. Without that love, appreciation is a feeble and limited gesture, like my preference for chocolate ice cream. But thankfully no one is obligated to love what I love. (My wife doesn’t think she’s that lovable) Universal validity in matters of love is nonsense, and the experience of beauty is a matter of love. When we find an object beautiful, we experience the need to converse with it, submit to it and make it part of our lives just as we do with the people with whom we fall in love. We tend to find beautiful the things we love and fall in love with what we find beautiful.

However, that does mean that Kant was right that beauty is normative, although he was mistaken about the content of that normativity. Things we love surely make normative demands on us, and beauty is no exception. It makes demands on us to which we can respond adequately or not. What is the nature of this demand that a beautiful object imposes on us? Beautiful objects do not demand a ritual response or explicit praise and the demand has nothing to do with evoking strong emotions or paroxysms of pleasure. The demand can be quite subtle and hard to fathom. Rather there is a sense of requirement that ordinary objects like ice cream do not exhibit. A beautiful object is something to which we must conform or be instructed by. We must be adequate to the event that is the beautiful object and we can fail to respond appropriately because we are not up to the task of tracking its full measure. Importantly, this is a standard set by the object. To approach the full measure of an object, we must set aside our personal preferences and pursue the object where it leads, not as disinterested observers but as committed lovers.

Kant’s scruples aside, this call and response is dependent on one’s needs. We all need love and we need to love some of what we make part of our lives. I have a variety of antecedent interests in a beautiful object since it is a candidate for satisfying those needs. However, desires are not all of a piece. Some things I pursue simply because I desire them. Desires motivate without obligating. It makes little sense to say I’m obligated to find pleasure in this or that object. Other things I pursue because I must. Beautiful objects are in this latter camp. Part of the pleasure I experience with beautiful objects is that of the object demanding my attention even if it is difficult or discomforting. Some things are worthy of love and some are not and part of what I sense in a beautiful object is that value. But how do we mark that distinction? In the absence of something like Kant’s attitude of disinterestedness, how do I know, when I’m drawn to an object, whether it’s a non-obligating desire or an object of consummate worth exerting its command? Sometimes the difference can be felt within the pleasure itself—a sense of being inadequate in the face of the object, a failure of recognition. However, not every beautiful object is so opaque.

In order to answer this question, we need to distinguish ordinary desire from a more rarified species of motivational state. Most desires are episodic. They come and go and when they are absent or in their fallow state, they exert little influence. But some desires are not episodic. They are standing desires that I am always ready to act on, circumstances permitting. My attention is disposed to be drawn by the object about which I care and is invariably accompanied by motivations to discover, preserve, enhance, respect, or celebrate its value. In other words, I am committed to discovering, securing, and preserving the “interests”, so to speak, of the object. Thus, the needs and characteristics of the object set the standard that governs my treatment of it and the kind of attention I give it. I call such desires of commitment “cares”. Having cares is fundamental to what it means to be a person, and to fail to respond adequately to an object of care may involve a loss of self if the care is an identity-conferring commitment.

This notion of care has obvious application to the people we love. But in what sense does a beautiful painting or bottle of wine have “interests” for which I must care? The “interests” of valued objects are, of course, conferred on them by the people who use or admire them. One of the main functions of aesthetic communities is to sustain and nurture the value of the aesthetic objects that are the focus of their attention. Thus, it is in the “interest” of art or wines created with care to be appreciated with care because that is how the value of art or wine is preserved and nurtured. In this sense, we have obligations to the aesthetic communities to which we belong to participate in the activities that preserve the value of beautiful objects. Yet, that can be accomplished only by caring for the beauties we love personally. Our obligation is to give each beautiful object its due, but that need not involve assenting to whatever alleged universally valid intersubjective norms are currently being promoted. Love is a personal matter. If you do not find beautiful what I find beautiful you are not mistaken, just indifferent.

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