Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; we don’t really believe in this. People have different tastes, but the mere ability of categorizing beautiful things from ugly things reveals to us that there are some things we cannot help but be attracted or repulsed by.
This ability of sensing beauty is a mysterious one. It is perhaps instinctual and animal. Birds are attracted to particular displays of plumage and songs. When you hear and are moved by a piece of music, your hairs rise, a shiver goes down your spine, and pleasure floods your head and chest. But this sense is also intellectual and taught. A portrait of Jesus Christ may be more attractive to a Christian given his or her mental beliefs about Christ.
What about ugliness? The sense of ugliness is not a shadow of light; it is not a negative trait but a positive one. It is as instinctual or intellectual as beauty is. Primitive feelings of disgust and revulsion can be aroused through mental beliefs about a piece of art; the Christian who looks at a painting of Jesus Christ, but knows that it has been painted with animal feces, will probably be disgusted, offended, and even hate the painting.
The ability art has to evoke and provoke intense emotional responses to us suggest a deeper connection between humans and aesthetics that might be a moral one, as well as having animal and intellectual links. But what is moral? Are there such things as good and wicked art?
In an ever-increasing democratic world, it’s controversial and even frowned upon to categorize art this way. Any claims of moral authority over artwork appear to be challenges to the freedom of expression and thought. Calling a piece of art immoral can justify censorship. Moreover calling a piece of art immoral echoes the destruction and confiscation of artworks by dictators and parents who burned their children’s rock and roll albums.
People have been scared of art’s power to influence people to perform evil. Marilyn Manson is an example of a musician who was accused for motivating and encouraging violence to his listeners. His black lipstick, long hair, and involvement with Satanism facilitated the misconceptions of how his music inspires evil when really it is just rock and roll. Parents have blamed him for school shootings and general moral decay in society given the popularity and spread of his music.
But they’re just rock songs. And secondly, despite the popularity of Manson’s and similar ‘immoral’ music, the world is, historically, in the most peaceful times since the start of civilization. There are fewer wars with fewer casualties. Diseases are, for the most part, under control. Violence itself, as inevitable as it is, is on the decline. Most people will live a life where they would not have killed a person, and pessimists about human nature have to appreciate this fact.
Morality might be viewed in a different way. Rather than in a sense of good and evil or right and wrong, morality can be seen as a struggle between virtues and vices. What’s the different between good and evil versus virtues and vices? Virtues and vices can be taken to be as more human-centric values. Good and evil are seen as universal, even cosmic or metaphysical values. If you’re good, the cosmos rewards you via karma or heaven. If you’re bad, the cosmos punishes you via karma or hell. This fits with many religions but does not bode well with secular dispositions. Virtues can be seen as practices that improve both individual and society and vices can be seen as the opposite, or practices that harm the individual and society. So things like environmental friendliness and peaceful attitudes can be virtues while pollution and violent temperament can be vices.
The question now, that we won’t answer but only contemplate today, is what exactly constitutes as virtues and vices? What actions fall under those two categories?
As virtues and vices are concerned with human beings, let’s consider human nature. You can’t say that humans are good or bad inherently, especially if you don’t believe that there are absolute goodness or badness. The sign of any innate sense of morality in human beings is ambiguous at best, and non-existent at worst. Cultures have conducted wars, slavery, and genocides with their false sense of moral superiority. The frightening -and it is frightening – thing about it is that because of their claim to moral authority, they think that their atrocities are right or good. If a tyrant thinks a particular ethnic group is harmful to society, she would consider it a moral duty to eliminate that ethnic group. This is hardly hyperbole. As beauty is up to the eye of the beholder, should morality be up to the conscience of the beholder?
So human nature has either ambiguous or no innate sense of morality. Moral beliefs are intellectual and taught through experience. But they might be derived on primal intuition. Even though art appreciation is intellectual and sometimes requires prerequisite knowledge, – a portrait of Jesus Christ will be fully effective only if the viewer knew who Jesus Christ is – humans have biological as well as mental responses to aesthetic. A study about aesthetic experiences shows correlation between bodily responses, like rising of the hairs and an increased heartbeat, and mental attitudes, like a sensation of profoundness and melancholy. Reading a story about self-sacrifice and tragedy will provoke strong bodily responses more so than reading a story about mundane life no matter the deftness of the author.
The rising of body hair and increased in heartbeat can be traced back to conditioned responses to natural predators our ancestors had to deal with millennia and millennia ago. How that has translated, or evolved, into aesthetic experiences is enigmatic.
Art can be seen as an interpretation of the environment. But what do we make of this art-emotion; or the complex, sometimes ineffable, emotion provoked when we experience art? It might be derived from primal instincts that had functions for survival in the wilderness, but art is really useless. It serves no function for survival. In fact, a notion of art is that people are engaged with it in a disinterested way. Although people are attracted to art, there is a disinterested character in the audience. They stare at the canvas. They contemplate. They don’t try to figure out the function of the painting but rather the meaning behind it. If myths are not simply fairy tales but rather “the elaboration of a secret,” as professor of philosophy Roger Scruton mentioned, then perhaps the same can be said about art. Except that the secret is in front of us, naked, waiting to be understood.
People can recognize patterns, shapes, or anything aesthetically appeasing. This isn’t exclusive to art but also to nature. Art is an interpretation of nature. Though viewing a sunset sink under a vast horizon can take your breath away, it gives many people a feeling of awe, inspiration, nostalgia, or some other profound emotion. Art, unlike nature, has that intention of evoking a particular emotion within the audience.
People if anything are meant to feel. You’re meant to think and contemplate. You have emotional and intellectual needs that need to be fulfilled daily. It isn’t a coincidence that being immersed and moved by a piece of art is called an emotional release, a release accompanied, or maybe caused, by pleasure.
No matter what our tastes are, or how useless it is, we need beauty. Beauty embodies the virtues and freedom of our minds and any constraints on our desire and expression for and of beauty is in itself a vice. Violence is one constraint. Excess, arguably, is another. The nature of society’s and individual’s virtues and vices could be reduced to institutional attempts to promote creativity and aesthetic experiences. Apartment blocks shouldn’t be gray cubes that look like blank gravestones, but should be designed with the same care and passion as churches and opera houses.
Modern art might benefit with a return to the quest for the sublime rather than sticking with writing initials on urinals or embedding diamonds on a skull. If we are at all interested in bettering ourselves, society needs to cater to our intellectual and emotional needs as well as our basic ones. If beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, then we must look into the eyes of another and, hopefully, see ourselves in its reflection.
Written by He Shuen Hsiao
Hair Kiri Yoshiki Using ORIBE
Mode Magdalena Langrova @NEXT Management.
Creative Direction & Production Artistic Cube Inc.