One of the first really thorough examinations of beauty was written by George Santayana at the very end of the 1800s. Santayana had recognised something intriguing about the subject of beauty itself: he noted that cultures not only esteemed artists almost as much as they did their political and military heroes but that an inordinate amount of time was spent on designing the look and appeal of even the most vulgar of things. What’s more people made all sorts of choices based on aesthetic considerations – such as their wives, husbands, dwellings and so on. The facts of human-being indicate that perceptions of, and the desire for, beauty are central to our lives. Far from being the icing on the cake of life they are part and parcel of the very cake itself. However, beauty as a subject of intellectual study, had been overlooked. It was subordinate to, for example, studies of nature or religion, economics and politics. Santayana argued that at least a part of the reason for the relative absence of good theorising about beauty was that it, beauty, was regarded as rather subjective. It was the objective world (and/or so-called religious and spiritual truths) that had tended, since the time of Plato, to occupy the minds of the sages and philosophers. Now though, new fields of inquiry were emerging and at the end of the 1800s, the sciences of psychology, sociology and anthropology (along with the emergence of an academic class that had the time and resources to ‘inquire’ ) were beginning to define the contours and dynamics of the human mind and its characteristics. Among these were the facts of emotion and the powers of the imagination. These latter were obviously intimately connected with the phenomena and experiences of beauty.
In his book, Santayana set out to provide a definition of beauty. He rejected any glib dictionary precis because he thought that a full definition of beauty would require an exploration of:
‘the origin, place and elements of beauty as an object of human experience’. He thought that we must learn ‘why, when and how beauty appears’ , ‘what conditions an object must fulfil to be beautiful’, and ‘what elements of our nature make us sensible of beauty’.
Santayana also thought that any theory of beauty that might emerge from a sustained thoughtful engagement with the facts would also help us a) because the insights emerging would have a good and purifying influence upon our own tastes and preferences and b) would show us the futility of imposing our views and tastes upon another person who had neither the constitution nor the experience to appreciate the various expressions of beauty. Most pointedly though, (in our age of a certain anti-aesthetic) Santayana thinks that the deep study of beauty would ‘relieve us of any undue diffidence or excessive tolerance towards aberrations of taste…’ In other words, if we take the study of beauty seriously we will find ourselves in a better position to resist, expose and even condemn bad taste.
The text requires the reader to follow his painstaking analysis of beauty. His style is scholarly and remarkably thorough; it also underlines a way of thinking that grapples with both the objective aspects of beauty as well as its psychological character. Beauty, he points out, is a value – the sense or feeling that it is something of worth. When, for example, we see a sunset we ‘feel it and enjoy it’. It has value both in our immediate appreciative perception but also because we do not want to be denied the experience. (If someone interrupts our view of the golden, then orange, then dusky red sky we feel that something of value has been lost.) Beauty matters: it helps us along the road of life.
Well, if one is lucky enough to have the time to read through the whole of Santayana’s work it is almost impossible not to be introduced to a much deeper appreciation of this ‘thing’ beauty. We are also likely to end up despairing at the crude aberrations of taste: the kitsch and the base; the expedient and the casual; the corrupted and the vulgar and the ugly. His writings also serve to arrest the tendency (I think it is a contemporary tendency) to lurch into subjectivism and the kind of relativism in which ‘anything goes.’
All this has got me thinking about the town in which I live, the town of Farnham in Surrey. Why? Well, it’s losing much of its beauty. It’s becoming vulgar, degraded and ugly. For example, the town is becoming ‘bannerised.’ Round and about there are various types of railings, railings to prevent people falling off pavements and into roads, or just railings that define boundaries. And now a practice has developed for advertising this, that, or the other by affixing large colourful reinforced-plastic banners to these railings. They look awful. More generally, the centre of Farnham just looks scruffy. Pavements crumble, buildings corrode. And the scruffiness applies to the people scurrying around looking for bargains. The place is a shambles. An artistic disgrace.
There’s something going on in Farnham that is emblematic of the UK. There are lots of poor people but at the same time there is an exclusive rich class that displays its wealth and ‘distance’ through the medium of its luxury cars and the escape routes out-of-town. (To mansion-land, to somewhere with the cherished label of ‘location…’) And sometimes the cars are not really cars at all; they are supercars: a fabulous Maserati touches the pock-marked rotting litter-strewn pavement …
Yes, Beauty is receding.
Farnham is getting pretty ugly.
It’s really sad.
Footnote: The photo shows a detail from an excellent painting exhibited at the James Hockey gallery.