Hunger for beauty

Christian's World. Andrew Wyeth, 1948The great literary artist Dostoevsky once wrote that beauty would save the world. That may be truer than ever today, says philosophy professor Alice Ramos, because, while many people have given up on truth and goodness, they remain fascinated by beauty, even if it is only the cosmetic attractiveness of movie stars. This means, she told an audience in Rome, “that beauty may be a privileged route to both the true and the good, and thus that art could be of singular importance in helping the modern world”. In this interview with MercatorNet, Professor Ramos explains how art lost its classical relationship with the true and the good, and how important it is for artists to make those connections again.


MercatorNet: You are a philosopher with a deep interest in aesthetics. Forgive me for sounding like a philistine, but aesthetics is one of those rarified fields which puts my head in a spin. What is it all about?

Alice Ramos: The word aesthetics comes from the Greek aisthesis which means sensation, perception. Aesthetics as a philosophy refers to sensible knowledge and the perception of the beautiful. It has as its object the study of beauty and especially the study of art. In classical and medieval thought aesthetics was not an independent discipline but rather formed part of metaphysics, the philosophy that deals with all of reality, with being.
Philosophers were interested in beauty as an aspect or property of reality; they were also interested in art, especially the production of art. This is clear for example in Aristotle’s Poetics, which is undoubtedly the most influential work on art. Both Aristotle and Plato recognized the influence of the arts on a person’s moral character.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn thought that in our time beauty would be called to soar to the place once occupied by truth and goodness and thereby 'complete the work of all three'.

Aesthetics as an autonomous philosophical discipline is actually a product of modern thought. The German philosopher Baumgarten in his work entitled Aesthetics, which dates from 1750, is the first one to use the term aesthetics to refer to a specific body of knowledge which attempts to give an account of the perception of the beautiful. There are also other German philosophers whose influence has been remarkable in the field of aesthetics: Kant’s work on the aesthetic judgment, and Hegel’s lectures on philosophy of art. In postmodern times we have almost witnessed the demise of aesthetics, the death of art and of beauty, but at present there is a renewed interest in aesthetics. Beginning in the early 1970s the humanities in particular were being studied under the lens of deconstructionist, psychoanalytical, and political theories and were as a result being emptied of beauty.

Judging from the number of conferences and publications on beauty and aesthetics in the last ten years, I think we’re witnessing a renaissance of beauty in academic circles. Perhaps the waning interest in truth propositions and in moral rules has given rise to the hunger for beauty. Perhaps, too, through aesthetics and a reflection on the beautiful we may find a new route toward the recovery of truth and morality. Alexander Solzhenitsyn thought that in our time beauty would be called to soar to the place once occupied by truth and goodness and thereby “complete the work of all three.”

MercatorNet: I can see the need for truth and for morality. But we can live without beauty and art, can't we? Plenty of people seem happy with a diet of American Idol and reruns of The Simpsons.

Alice Ramos: I would say that we really can’t live without beauty, that just as the human person by nature desires to know, to attain truth, the human person also desires the beautiful. A perennial thinker such as Thomas Aquinas speaks of beauty as principally pertaining to the life of the mind, to understanding or contemplative activity. Just as knowing the truth brings us joy, so do we take delight in the contemplation of the beautiful. Who has not experienced more than just a sensible delight in seeing the Sistine Chapel of Michelangelo, or the magnificent sculptures of Rodin, or in hearing Andrea Bocelli sing sacred arias? True art speaks not only to the senses but also to the mind; it elevates us in such a way that we transcend corporeal existence, or that through the sensible–the exquisiteness of the colors or the sounds–an intelligible or spiritual realm is unveiled to us such that we acquire a new access to the truth of things and of our very selves.

Unfortunately, in our culture we seem to be fixated on a superficial beauty, on sensible beauty, on cosmetic beauty.

Although it is difficult to explain, there is a relationship between beauty and the mind; one of the features of the beautiful is clarity, light, or luminosity, and of course the mind seeks light, it seeks clarity, and when the mind reaches that clarity it experiences the joy of understanding. That’s why, I think, when we go to certain museums or concert halls we experience a kind of “high,” in the sense that we seem to be living at an optimal state, a state in harmony with our nature as intellectual beings. True art, the beauty it manifests, creates within us a kind of equilibrium whereby we are, so to speak, renewed. Hence, the importance of beauty and the arts for work–they energize and inspire us.

Unfortunately, in our culture we seem to be fixated on a superficial beauty, on sensible beauty, on cosmetic beauty. There is a veritable cult of beauty as evidenced by “extreme makeover” shows in the United States, by the recourse to cosmetic surgery both among the young and the not so young. And yet, as we all know, such beauty is fleeting, ephemeral; perhaps our taste for this type of beauty is an indication of the nihilistic philosophy which pervades so much of our culture. By saying this I don’t mean to suggest that sensible, external beauty is not important, that we shouldn’t care about our looks; self-image is important and we should want to present a pleasing appearance to others, but out of respect for them and not out of vanity or sheer egotism.

I think the cult of beauty that I’m speaking of encloses the person in him or herself and therefore does not allow the person to experience other dimensions of beauty such as the beauty of self-sacrifice, the intrinsic beauty of persons that radiates from their virtuous living, from their dedication to an ideal greater than themselves. Examples of such beauty abound in history, but one has only to think of the recent figures of Mother Teresa or John Paul II. Because beauty in its many forms does delight us, I think it’s important for us to examine what type of beauty we’re attracted to, what types of things delight us. Thomas Aquinas in his wisdom saw clearly that the human person cannot do without delight and that when the person is deprived of spiritual joys then carnal delight will take their place. Perhaps this is the reason for the contemporary cult of beauty that I’ve spoken of, and also the reason for much of the sadness and despair that has invaded human life. If this is so, and I do think it is, then we are in dire need of recovering the spiritual dimension of beauty.

MercatorNet: Perhaps we could ask, as a website which promotes human dignity, can art in its many forms promote and increase human dignity -- as opposed to just reflecting it?

Alice Ramos: Art can, indeed, promote and increase human dignity. The arts enable us to reflect on the human condition and on ourselves. When, for example, we read a novel or see a movie, we seem to live the life of the protagonists; we identify ourselves with them in some way. By experiencing what the protagonists are going through, we learn not only about them and their lives, but we also learn about ourselves. There are certain types of movies–but this is true as well for other art forms–which because of their subject matter enable us to question ourselves and our very behavior, and can thus bring about a change in the way we see things and in our actions.

Life Is BeautifulWhen this happens, I think we can say that there has been a change in moral attitudes, perhaps even a conversion, not necessarily religious, but an inner transformation which, if it is profound, will have external manifestations as well in what we say and do. Just to take a couple of contemporary examples: the protagonists of movies such as Gandhi or Life Is Beautiful emotionally and intellectually touch us; we are moved by the plight against injustice, or by the serene joy and self-sacrificial love in the midst of suffering. Messages such as these, their expression in the immediacy of artistic media, can be transformative for spectators and can do much in promoting individual and social goodness.

MercatorNet: Let me give an example of a contemporary aesthetic controversy. An Italian gallery is exhibiting a crucified frog named "Feet First". For any Christian, it's quite offensive, but are there any other objections to it? The museum curators have declared that it is a self-portrait of the artist "in a state of profound crisis".

Alice Ramos: Let me begin by saying that for a Christian, "Feet First" is offensive because the cross is a symbol of the Christian faith, a visible and material sign that we belong to Christ, and so the crucifixion of a frog robs the cross of its deepest meaning and mystery and trivializes what is sacred. In addition, we normally object to taking concepts, events, what people do and say, out of context, precisely because we rely on contexts to make concepts or events fully intelligible. In this example of contemporary art, the cross is taken totally out of context: that Christ, perfect God and perfect man, voluntarily accepts death on the cross–death which is not the last word since Christ rises from the dead–in order to save men and women from their sins. The idea of crucifying a frog doesn’t make sense since frogs like other irrational animals are incapable of moral action and do not therefore undergo punishment. Only persons are punished for wrong doing; only a God that is loving and forgiving would permit the crucifixion of his only Son.

Artistic expression needs to be curtailed when it shows
disrespect for the beliefs and the traditions of other people. In other
words, I think freedom of expression needs limits.

Even if museum curators condone the exhibition of such artwork on the basis of its portraying or expressing the artist in a state of crisis, I think that artistic expression needs to be curtailed when it shows disrespect for the beliefs and the traditions of other people. In other words, I think freedom of expression needs limits. An artist is not only an artist who is responsible to his work but he is also a human person inserted in a community and as such he has a responsibility for the good of all, for the common good. I know that it’s not fashionable to speak about the common good; in fact, the contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has shown how in our individualistic culture the notion of a common good has been lost. However, for the artist who recognizes both his responsibility to his work and to the community I think there should be no conflict between the individual good and the common good.

MercatorNet: Can art which is overtly blasphemous or obscene really succeed as art?

Alice Ramos: I would say no, but I think that the answer to this question hinges on the meaning that one gives to the word “success.” If the latter is measured in terms of consumption or sales, then it is possible for blasphemous or obscene art to succeed. It’s evident that when a culture becomes materialistic, hedonistic, and inimical to God such art may seem to triumph, although in reality I consider art of this type one more indication of a decadent culture. If culture doesn’t help us to be more, but simply to have more and to objectify the human person as though the person were expendable, then that culture is on its way toward extinction, or at the very least in crisis.

It’s important here to emphasize that art is, as Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and others have pointed out, a virtue of the practical intellect which enables the artist to create works of art. It is a skill aimed principally at the good of the artwork rather than at the perfection of the artist himself, which is what the moral virtues are aimed at. But because the artist is also a man, a moral agent, he needs to practice the moral virtues as well. I think that it can be said that an artist who produces blasphemous art does not possess the virtue of religion, which is part of the virtue of justice, and that the artist who produces obscene art is in need of the virtue of temperance.

Moral attitudes, or the lack thereof, intervene in both theoretical and practical knowledge; therefore, I think the lack of certain moral virtues will be reflected in the artist’s work. Moreover, if a work of art is blasphemous, it does not reflect, but rather contradicts, the very nature of man, since by nature he is a religious being, that is, really related to God. We might say then that the work of art is not in accordance with his nature; likewise with an artwork that is obscene. If an activity and its product are not in harmony with our nature, then ultimately it is not perfective of the person, and in this sense I would say that it does not succeed.

MercatorNet: We live in an age of relativism, of scepticism about truth and morality. Does this hamper artists, do you think, when they set to work?

There are, however, 'creative minorities' gaining ground in all fields of human endeavor, including the arts, and so it is to be hoped that relativism will not have the last word.

Alice Ramos: Yes, relativism does hamper artists and I think that this is very often reflected in their art. If the creative imagination should have a grounding in reality, then artists need to be able to tap into a constant set of truths, a common moral order. When the latter are no longer available to the artist, then the artwork will no longer reflect the real but rather an inadequate view of reality and of the human person, a view which no longer enables the artist or the spectators to recognize who they really are, beings who are not only material but also spiritual and as such have a transcendent dimension.

Much of contemporary art is subjective and in bad taste; it offers little more than instant emotional or sensual gratification. The cognitive, ethical, cultural, and religious relativism which permeates so much of society today infiltrates almost every sector of human activity. There are, however, “creative minorities” gaining ground in all fields of human endeavor, including the arts–artists whose work captures truth, moral values, and an inexhaustible beauty and thus speak, as it were, to the whole person. The American sculptor Reed Armstrong, the Russian painter Igor Babailov, the German musical composer Nikolaus Schapfl are, in my opinion, examples of a renewal within the arts. And so, given such renewal–even if in the hands of a few–, it is to be hoped that relativism will not have the last word.

MercatorNet: Your recent paper blames the Enlightenment for the decline of art into subjectivism and the cult of the genius or the auteur. Could you briefly sketch what happened?

Alice Ramos: During the Enlightenment there was much speculation regarding beauty and taste. Because of the tendency toward secularization, thinkers at that particular time in history generally sought to ground science, morality, and art on foundations other than tradition, authority, and rules. Foremost among Enlightenment philosophers is Immanuel Kant, whose Critique of Judgment has often been considered the sourcebook for what was later to be called “Art for Art’s Sake.” Whereas traditionally–and this is clear in reading what Plato and Aristotle have to say about the arts–there was a relationship between art and truth and morality, the advent of modern aesthetics initiates the separation of art from truth and morality. According to Kant, the aesthetic judgment refers to the pleasure or emotion that a subject experiences in the form of an object. This judgment is not bound to a concept, and so our cognitive powers–the imagination and the understanding–are as Kant puts it, “in free play.” Although the aesthetic judgment is subjective in the sense that it refers to the subjective pleasure in a given form, Kant maintains that it is universally communicable. The aesthetic judgment is grounded on a common sense; in other words, Kant maintains that when we judge an object to be beautiful we do so not on the basis of a private feeling but rather on the basis of a common feeling. Given that we all have a similar cognitive makeup, when one person judges for example a rose to be beautiful, others should find it beautiful as well. For Kant taste is ultimately a kind of common sense, which is relegated to the aesthetic realm.

Foremost among Enlightenment philosophers is Immanuel Kant, whose
Critique of Judgment has often been considered the sourcebook for what
was later to be called 'Art for Art’s Sake'.

Such a consideration of taste and of the common sense is very different from that of the classical-humanist tradition, as the contemporary philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer has pointed out. The education of taste through the arts plays an important role for Plato and Aristotle in the formation of moral character and in the cultivation of reason; the arts can serve to cultivate the natural inclinations in the human person toward the true, the good, and the beautiful. Within this tradition taste and common sense are also related to the judgment of prudence in the area of morality. For Kant, however, the cultivation of taste and of the natural inclinations has no role in his morality; his ethical construction is not grounded in human nature and its inclinations but rather in the autonomy of rational beings who utter moral commands to themselves. The reduction of taste and of common sense to the aesthetic realm is decisive not only for Kant’s aesthetics but also for his morality.

To sum up then, because the aesthetic judgment for Kant rests on feeling–even if a common feeling or a common sense– and not on any concept since no conceptual knowledge is involved in the judgment of the beautiful, it can be said that Kant’s aesthetics provides the basis for the independence of the beautiful from the true and ultimately from the good.

In addition, in his aesthetics Kant points to the originality of beautiful objects that are produced by a genius; it is the genius who in his work goes beyond rules and also has the power to create rules in bringing about something new. For Kant the work of art is referred to the experiences of the free creator that is the genius and not to the spectator’s self-discovery and instruction as Aristotle maintained. The notion of the genius will eventually give birth in society to a cult of the genius, to an exaltation of human freedom whereby unimpeded by rules, authority, and tradition man makes himself or stylizes his life.

MercatorNet: You suggest that The Portrait of Dorian Grey, by Oscar Wilde, is a touchstone for modern views of art. What is the message you draw from it?

Alice Ramos: Once the emphasis in aesthetics is placed on feeling and pleasure vis-à-vis the form of an object, instead of on what we can learn from art, then the conditions are, as it were, ripe for the development of “Art for Art’s Sake,” where form is more important than propositional content, and where in the end aesthetics seems to overthrow ethics. This is the case for Oscar Wilde who claimed that beauty matters more than morality. Wilde was influenced by Walter Pater who is generally associated with late-Victorian aestheticism. Pater reduced art to the private realm of pleasurable sensations and declared that truth was of no interest to the art critic. His stance toward art as well as toward life was hedonistic.

In his pursuit of beauty, which is described as a 'form of genius',
Dorian becomes fixated on physical beauty to the detriment of his soul.

Following in Pater’s footsteps, Wilde places the sense of beauty above reason, even above the sense of right and wrong. In the preface to The Portrait of Dorian Gray Wilde adopts an amoral stance toward literature, and yet his novel seems to tell us just the opposite. Dorian comes to the realization that a book whose hero he had tried to emulate had in effect poisoned his life. Life for Dorian had become an art; he attempted to live the life of aesthetic pleasures, of extraordinary sensations, ridding himself of any subjection to norms or rules, liberating his personality. In his pursuit of beauty which is described as a “form of genius,” Dorian becomes fixated on physical beauty to the detriment of his soul. In some ways, Dorian typifies the contemporary cult of beauty with the emphasis on the external man.

The story of Dorian is well-known, and I think that the “Art for Art’s Sake” philosophy can be destructive of art and of the human person (as is clear in the novel). Art does have an influence on us, for good or for ill; art is not amoral; there are artworks that awaken, as it were, our conscience, or harden it. Art can help us to deepen our knowledge of reality and of ourselves, and therefore art does have a relationship to truth. To sever art from the true, the good, and the beautiful in its transcendent dimension is to bring about the demise of art. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why people find some modern and contemporary artworks to be unintelligible and offensive.

MercatorNet: How important are the arts in the education of young people? What should we be paying more attention to today?

Alice Ramos: The arts are very important in the education of the young, and it’s unfortunate that in today’s society whenever there are budget cuts in the schools the first things to be eliminated are the arts. We need to be especially attentive of the images that are presented to young people. Our age has been labeled a “civilization of the image,” and as we all know there is in our culture a proliferation of images of sex and violence which do not enable persons, especially the young, to recognize that they are called to more than a life of the senses. At times the images may have the appearance of the beautiful, but it is a deceptive and false beauty which simply arouses the desire for possession and closes the person in on him or herself. The constant bombardment of such images silences the voice of conscience, such that persons are no longer able to detect the divine and moral element in themselves; they thus become forgetful of their true identity. Given this real situation in our society, we need to nourish the imagination of the young with images that radiate the beauty of truth and also the truth of the beautiful. Truth is not only grasped analytically by the mind, but first under the aspect of its goodness, nobility, and beauty. It is for this reason that great works of art have a strong impact on us, pulling us toward them with the totality of our mind, heart, and senses, taking possession of us, as it were.

Young people are in need of images that present human functioning at
its best; they need models that they can emulate other than movie stars
and entertainers.

An American professor recounts his experience teaching a course to high school boys, which consisted in reading ancient classical authors–Homer’s Iliad was one of the books read–and then early Christian writers, ending the course with St. Augustine’s On the Trinity. With each noble figure studied in the course and finally with Christ himself, the students were being led to truth, and were affectively disposed to the grandeur of the Trinity even before they could grasp any part of its meaning. This example is not unlike the case of a teenage girl who in the atheistic Soviet Union came across a copy of the Gospel of St. Luke, read it, and was fascinated by the message having encountered therein the beauty of its truth, and declared: “I fell in love with Him” (see Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty, San Francisco, 1999). I am not suggesting here that the Gospel of St. Luke is a fictional story, a literary work of art; what I want to underline here is that young people are in need of images that present human functioning at its best; they need models that they can emulate other than movie stars and entertainers. Of course, both of the examples I have given here enable us to see, I think, that the beauty of truth is convincing especially for people who are receptive and have good will, and this is, I think, generally the case with many young people.

Another area that deserves the attention of parents and of educators would be that of music and whether the music young people listen to orders and calms their emotions rather than disorder them, whether it has the power of suggesting virtue and love rather than vice and hatred. In the Republic Plato praises education in music as a way of fostering the good in the soul and of inculcating virtue in the young. He also maintains that training in good music enables the young to recognize the difference between good and evil, between beauty and ugliness, and that it thus serves as a preparation for reason.

I think that present-day educators would do well to read Plato and Aristotle on the importance of the arts; for both of these great minds the arts are not for mere amusement or play but rather for moral education and for intellectual enjoyment, what Aristotle calls the pleasure of learning. There is no doubt that we have much to learn from the wisdom of these ancient philosophers.

Alice Ramos is Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, where she has taught since 1987. She is the author of a book on semiotics and metaphysics and the editor of two collections for the American Maritain Association: Beauty, Art and the Polis (2000) and Faith, Scholarship, and Culture in the 21st Century (2002). The above interview is based on her paper, “Art, Truth, and Morality: Aesthetic Self-forgetfulness vs. Recognition,” presented at a conference on Aristotle’s Poetics at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome last year.


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