A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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2/ The mystery of the concept and experience of beauty

The concept of beauty being empty, the aesthetic experience (e.g. the deep impression made by a painting on a viewer) seems to be mysterious, as long as this concept is used to explain it.

When an esthete finds a painting beautiful, we can think that he sees a mysterious quality (the ‘beauty’) in it, and searches in what this quality consists. But when there is a disagreement with another esthete, who does not find this art work beautiful, we wonder who is right, and how it is possible that two men, equally cultivated, can disagree. How can one stay blind to what the other sees: beauty? We conclude then that “beauty is subjective”, an expression which is probably meaningless.

The so-called mystery of both aesthetical experience and aesthetical disagreement is, I think, nothing but the symptom of the fact that we use a meaningless notion for their explanation. Let us explain them by the concept of value, and nothing is magic, miraculous, or surprising anymore. The experience of the work of art loses nothing from the end of its mystery, unless we found the value of art on a notion explicitly recognized as empty.

So let us employ the concept of value. Consider the example of two esthetes, in disagreement as to the beauty of Mona Lisa. The one feels an aesthetic pleasure from its contemplation, the other does not. Why such a disagreement? How to know who is right?

During the contemplation of the painting, what really happens is this: a vast number of 'contents of meaning' appear to the spectator. Thus in Mona Lisa we can mention: a smile, a conception of the painting as an imitation, some painting techniques of Leonard (sfumato, etc.), specific colors (yellow, rose, etc.), a certain epoch (Renaissance)… The list goes on.

We see that these “contents of meaning” have all of them a distinct ontological status: a smile, an epoch, the color yellow, a technique (imitation), we deal here with realities that have not the same mode of being: some are material, others abstract; some are objective realities, others decisions or human conventions, etc.

My idea is that in the experience of the painting, the spectator must not take account of the ontological status of each content of meaning that he contemplates. He only aims to be moved by this meaning, without wondering whether this meaning refers to a concrete or abstract reality, etc.
The only thing he wonders is whether the meaning in question has for him a great value. If so, he feels great pleasure when he contemplates the art work that expresses this meaning; if not, not.

Let us take a simple, if not simplistic, example. One often speaks of the mysterious smile of Mona Lisa. If one of the esthetes considers that joy or mystery have a great value, then he will feel pleasure in contemplating this painting. If the other, on the contrary, considers that what has a value is melancholy, or even darkness, cruelty, then he will feel nothing, remaining indifferent.
In this respect, it appears that it is the axiological disagreement about what has a value, and not the aesthetic disagreement about what is beautiful, which is at the origin of this kind of conflicts.

Now it must be admitted that this example is simplistic. In reality, there is a myriad of contents of meaning in a work of art, so we never know which ones are isolated by the spectator and appreciated in a judgment of value. A significant element alone may suffice to annoy the spectator: for instance, an esthete may have no pleasure in front of Mona Lisa, due simply to its position as a world-famous icon of painting, if he only enjoys the pleasure of discovering little-known paintings, and of being one of the very few who know these.
Conversely, it may occur that a myriad of contents of meaning, certain of them being considered as valueless by the esthete, others as valuable, are present in the piece of art; in which case, he is likely to remain skeptical in front of it, keeping silent, or to feel discomfort, or other reactions…

On the other hand, as our judgments of value change over time, it may be that we like some piece of art at one time, but some years later, we dislike it. This is not because a mysterious quality, the beauty of the art work, has been mysteriously revealed to us, then mysteriously hidden, but because of the mere evolution of our judgments of value.

So my proposition does not over-simplify the experience of the art work: I recognize that an infinity of contents of meaning may be chosen, and opposed to each other by the spectator. There is a conflict inside the psyche between the contents of meaning for the determination of the final reaction of pleasure or displeasure. But we cannot accurately calculate the result of this conflict, so we cannot know a priori if an art work will please us, or not. Nevertheless, this does not disprove that it is the value, and not the beauty of the contents of meaning which determines whether there is pleasure, or not.

This rejection of beauty, as being an empty concept, does nothing but summarize findings of the main studies of the philosophy of art. Indeed, it seems that the philosophers of art have constantly tried to fill the concept of beauty with other meanings, as though it has none by itself.
For example, they have said: the beauty in a given object is its symmetry (or a certain mathematical proportion in it); beauty is that which is one; beauty is perfection, viz. what corresponds to its own abstract concept; beauty is usefulness… But if we say that an object is beautiful because it is symmetric, that means that the pleasure that it gives us comes from its symmetry (or its unity, perfection, or usefulness).
Consequently, beauty appears as an empty word filled with concepts which, for their part, have a real meaning. So I do nothing but return to an old idea, expressed by the ancient Greeks.