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Mull on that | Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder

I recently watched “Dead Poets Society,” one of my favorite movies, in honor of Robin Williams. His character, Mr. Keating, famously asked the boys to rip out J. Evans Pritchard’s introduction in their textbook on how to read poetry. The Pritchard scale considered the true greatness of a poem based on its level of importance through content and its difficulty in meter and rhyme.

Mr. Keating introduces the reader-response theory to the boys and asks them to not only think about the poet’s intent, but also to consider their own views and thoughts on the poem as equally significant. In Art — yes, with a capital “A” — many philosophers have tried, and mostly failed, to conclude with theories and measurements the true greatness or exceptional beauty that Art can convey.

When we say “Art,” most of us think of the Renaissance painters — Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Michelangelo, Raphael (some of us try to remember famous names by thinking of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), etc. Certainly, a Tolstoyan analysis of their paintings would render them the greatest and most beautiful art objects; however, what happens when we consider Cubist paintings, like those of Paul Cezanne, Georges Braque and early Pablo Picasso?

Or Impressionist paintings like those of Claude Monet, Futurist paintings like Umberto Boccioni’s, or a Dadaist’s like Marcel Duchamp’s? Some of these artists even branched into other Art movements as time went by, so how do we measure beauty when you can buy a shovel at a hardware store and then display it at a museum? Has Art become Art for the art critic as opposed to the general public?

There are a lot of questions and very few answers, and as Socrates claimed, we only know the extent of our own ignorance. One big question is, “Does Art have to be beautiful to be Art?” What then is beauty? Some of the greats, like Plato and Aristotle, argued that art objects needed harmony and symmetry that contain order and inspire.

Indian artists used symbolism to represent true beauty — one that is associated with gods and their own infinite beauty. Similarly, and for a long while, the Dark Ages were rife with Christian-influenced art through architecture (e.g., the Gothic and romanesque styles), illuminated manuscripts, doorways and mosaics. Anything related to the story of Jesus and his disciples were considered beautiful for a time — despite not having the Baroque aesthetic until the late 1500s, which was considered the greatest representation for art objects up until the 1800s.

Leo Tolstoy had a great deal to say about this type of art, and many people still follow his theory: “(1) The function of art is the transmission of feeling, (2) the criterion for judging the form of art, or art as art, is infectiousness, and (3) the criterion of art is the quality of feelings transmitted.”

Yet, Tolstoy can be criticized not only for his insertion of religious views in his criterion for art, but he can also be rebuked for his measurement of infectiousness — in that how does one get the same feeling as the artist from a painting, and how is that same exact feeling transmitted to others? In a way, Tolstoy shoots himself in the foot, since some art does not necessarily transmit feelings.

As you can see, when it comes to theories on beauty in art, we get to a subject, object dichotomy, which Martin Heidegger famously points out through his dismissal of the aestheticization of art. What is that relationship and how does it affect our perspective of Art? Subjectivity has long been a part of aesthetics, and us trying to come to a conclusion on universal subjectivity is almost impossible.
What Heidegger argues (after pages and pages of dense text), is that true art takes us past subjectivity in our experience of it to a postmodern understanding of what it means for “an entity to be.” That is at least one of the ways he looks at true art, and his complicated theory actually proves to be an intriguing way to look at modern and contemporary art objects.

If you’d like more information on aesthetics, check out plato.stanford.edu! It’s a fantastic way to spend a Saturday night with a box of Oreos. Until next time, happy philosophizing!

Benjamin Sylvester is the president of the Drexel Animal Welfare Group. He can be contacted at op-ed@thetriangle.org.
“Mull On That” publishes biweekly.