A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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2/ The mystery of the concept and experience of beauty

Since the concept of the "beautiful" is empty, its use to describe the phenomenon of aesthetic experience (the vivid impression a piece of art makes on a viewer) rendered that experience profoundly mysterious.

When an aesthete found a work of art to be beautiful, it could be thought that he had spotted a mysterious quality in the painting - "beauty" - and the question was raised as to what such a quality might consist of. Above all, when there was disagreement with another aesthete, who did not find the work beautiful, we wondered how to know who was right, how two persons (equally educated, by the way) could disagree, how one could fail to see what the other saw (and even obviously did see): beauty. The conclusion was that "beauty is subjective", an expression that we suspect is meaningless.

For me, the so-called mystery of both aesthetic experience and aesthetic disagreement is merely a symptom of the fact that we are using an empty concept to explain it. Let us explain them by the concept of value, and nothing is magical, miraculous or astonishing anymore. The experience of the work of art loses nothing by the disappearance of its mystery, unless we base the value of art on a notion explicitly recognised as empty.

So let us use the concept of value. Here is the problem: two aesthetes disagree about the Mona Lisa. One feels aesthetic pleasure in contemplating it, the other does not. Where does this disagreement come from, and how do we know who is right?

When contemplating a work of art, what really happens is that the viewer is presented with a large number of "contents of meaning". In the Mona Lisa, for example, there is a smile, a conception of the painting as an imitation, some of Leonardo's painting techniques (sfumato, etc.), very specific colours (yellow, pink, etc.), a certain period, the Renaissance (the period in which the painting was painted, which is reflected in it)... the list could go on and on.

We can see that these "contents of meaning" all have a different ontological reality: between a smile, an era, the colour yellow, a technique, imitation, we are dealing here with realities that do not have the same mode of being: some are material, others abstract, some are objective realities, others human decisions or conventions, and so on...

Proposition: in the experience of the work, the spectator abstracts from the ontological status of the contents of meaning that he contemplates. His only aim is to grasp this meaning and be moved by it, without looking to see if this meaning refers to a concrete or abstract reality, etc...
The only thing he looks at in the meaning he discovers is whether or not that meaning is of great value to him. If it is the case, he will take great pleasure in contemplating the work that presents him with that meaning; if not, he will not.

Let us take a simple, even simplistic example. We often talk about the mysterious smile of the Mona Lisa. If, for one of our two aesthetes, joy or mystery are things of great value, then he will enjoy contemplating the Mona Lisa. If the other one attributes value to melancholy, or even darkness and cruelty, then no pleasure will be forthcoming.
So, from this perspective, it is the axiological disagreement between us about what is valuable, and not the aesthetic disagreement about what is beautiful, that is at the root of the critics' conflicts.

Now we have to admit that this example is simplistic and to show how it can be made more complex without losing its relevance.
What makes it more complex is that, as there are a myriad of meanings in a work of art, we never know at first which ones will be spotted by the viewer and used to make a value judgement.
For example, in the case of the Mona Lisa, the fact that it is a world icon may be enough to eliminate all pleasure for the aesthete, if for him what has a value is the solitary discovery of works that are revealed only to him.
On the other hand, the work may contain a myriad of meanings, some of which the aesthete recognises as having no value, others as having great value; in which case the aesthete will either react to the work in a dubious way, not wanting to say anything, or will be 'embarrassed' by the work, or have other reactions...

Moreover, as our value judgements evolve over time, it may be (a very common experience) that we like a work of art at one time, but not at all a few years later. This is not because some mysterious quality, the beauty of the work, has been mysteriously revealed to us and then mysteriously hidden, but because of the banal phenomenon of the evolution of our value judgements.

This theory does not therefore seem to oversimplify the experience of a work of art, but recognises that an infinite number of contents of meaning can be chosen and set against each other by the spectator. This struggle within the psyche between the contents of meaning to determine the final reaction of pleasure and displeasure goes beyond the limits of our understanding. We cannot therefore calculate mathematically whether we will like a work or not. However, it remains that this complexity does not call into question the fact that it is the value, and not the beauty, of the contents of meaning that determines whether or not there is pleasure.

This rejection of the concept of beauty as an empty concept merely echoes the main studies in the philosophy of art. Indeed, it seems that philosophers of art have never ceased to fill the concept of beauty with other determinations of meaning, as if it contained none.
For example, they have said beauty is symmetry (or the fact that an object has a certain mathematical proportion); beauty is that which is one; beauty is that which is perfect, i.e. corresponds to its abstract concept; beauty is utility... Now if we say that beauty is symmetry, this means that the pleasure taken from the object is not pleasure taken from its beauty, but pleasure taken from its symmetry (or its unity, its perfection, its utility).
Beauty is merely an empty word that we fill with concepts that are themselves endowed with meaning. So we are simply formulating an idea that has been around since the earliest times.