Monday, May 23, 2005

"On Beauty and Being Fair"

The second and longer essay in Elaine Scarry's book, On Beauty and Being Just, is about alleged "political complaints against beauty": that it "distracts attention from wrong social arrangements" and that the aesthetic gaze "is destructive to the object".

The second of these is puzzling. Scarry takes it to be expressed when we speak of "reification" – which I read as a stylistic variant of the more familiar "objectification" (a word Scarry does not use). According to Scarry, "the argument that perceiving beauty brings harm is, at most, applicable to persons and cannot be generalized to gods, gardens, poems" – since gods cannot be harmed, and gardens and poems "exist for the sake of being beautiful and for the sake of having that beauty [perceived]". What is more, "the argument does not stand up even with respect to persons since, if anything, the perceiver is as vulnerable as, or more vulnerable than, the person looked at."

Who would have thought that a Professor of Aesthetics would be so literal-minded? "Objectification" is meant to be bad the way contempt is bad, or misuse; it's not a fist to the guts, or a dousing of herbicide. It is a mistake to speak of it as "harm". Still, there is something wrong with the person who treats Rothko like wallpaper. What needs to be argued is that she is not perceiving its beauty. – This isn't obvious. And it would be even harder to show that appreciating as surface the beauty that is skin-deep, or treating people as decoration, is either morally harmless or a matter of misapprehension. Perhaps it can be done; Scarry does not see the need for it.

Her principal argument is about the first "political complaint", to which she replies that beauty is the friend of justice, since "the very symmetry of beauty [...] leads us to, or [...] assists us in discovering, the symmetry that eventually comes into place in the realm of justice". Beauty is proportion and equality. It therefore points us to fairness as the "symmetry of everyone's relation to one another": "it presses us to bring its counterpart into existence [and so] acts as a lever in the direction of justice."

Are these claims true? Like some of what is said in the earlier chapter, they have the flavour of armchair psychology. But they may admit, in part, of a more austere and metaphysical reading: justice as fairness is an instance of beauty, and so a general love of beauty would be a love of justice, too. (This is stronger, but no less plausible, than the claim of analogy to which Scarry is drawn.)

Even if we grant the premise of this argument, however – and, like Hume in the Treatise, we may struggle to find beauty in the justice of returning the miser's hoard, while others starve – the difficulty is to convince ourselves that love of beauty is inherently general. Here I think of Utz, the connoisseur of Meissen porcelain ambiguously described in Bruce Chatwin's novel. His obsession is not only narrow but morally indifferent:
'Wars, pogroms, and revolutions,' he used to say, 'offer excellent opportunities for the collector.'
Where is the Form of Beauty when you need it?


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