Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just

Every age has its ways of despising art-which also are ways of taking it seriously, for you don't smash idols you don't fear. Art can be despised with thumbscrews, bonfires, or money. It can be smothered in Glad Wrap: feel-good art meant to lie about how happy the proletariat is, say, or how cute the world is. The rage against art-- from Plato to Mao Tse-tung-has been no respecter of geography or politics. And it has been no respecter of pro fessions: Artists can be good at it, too. Short of despising, there is dismissing-art can be condemned not only as deception but also as distraction from duty.

In the 1960s, radicals who liked to quote poetry favored Bertolt Brecht's "To Posterity," which includes these lines (as translated by H.R. Hays):

Ah, what an age it is

When to speak of trees is

  almost a crime

For it is a kind of silence

  about injustice.

Almost a crime-a nice touch, a saving grace. The many serious writers who have commended this poem, including Nadine Gordimer and Athol Fugard, would probably not have accepted the corollary that art is a misdemeanor. Still, many passionate moralists have shared Brecht's impulse to beware diversions on the rocky road toward social progress, as they have also felt the self-exculpatory pathos of his final lines:

Alas, we

Who wished to lay the

  foundations of kindness

Could not ourselves be kind.

But you, when at last it

  comes to pass

That man can help

  his fellow man,

Do not judge us too harshly.

Brecht was not bothered by silence about Stalinism, of course, a silence he made a long career keeping-though toward the end of his life, resident in the most privileged setting East Berlin had to offer, he did chide the Ulbricht regime in his famous poem "The Solution" ("dissolve the people and elect another one"). But one has to grant that Brecht kept his anti-aesthetic faith. He may have written less about trees than any other major twentieth-century writer, and when he wrote about books, it was in the didac-tic spirit of lines like "Reach for the book: it is a weapon!" from which one could conclude that if the weapon misfires, it might as well be burned.

These lines of Brecht's point to a perennial tension between politics and beauty. Eric Hobsbawm has argued that all revolutions-including the failed and the fatuous-generate a Puritanical streak that cannot abide unruly sex. He might just as well have added unruly beauty. Totalist politics tend to be greedy for the soul. Lenin is said to have deplored Beethoven's baleful influence, which made him want to stroke the heads of his enemies. In a lighter vein, there were New Left activists circa 1970 who earnestly debated the burning question of whether watching the sunset was counterrevolutionary. An interest in beauty has frequently been said to be bourgeois-one of the great conversation stoppers of all time-or to enshrine the standards of a privileged group, which often enough, of course, is one thing it does. In the wake of feminism, there emerged a kindred line of argument to the effect that the per ception of many forms of beauty was objectification and that objectification was tantamount, or prelude, to coloni zation. To see, in a certain sense, was to own, and to serve as an object of seeing was to be owned. "The male gaze," as Laura Mulvey first termed it, was a search and seizure, a virtual rape. Control was in the eye of the beholder. It was generally not conceded that the female who could command the male gaze had in one sense seized control of him.

Our age is still Brecht's in the gruesomeness of its sufferings and the alibis brandished by political figures of all stripes who are offended by art's perplexing insult to their utilitarianism of choice. Everywhere we hear the assumption that art cannot be left to speak for itself but is a translucent (if not transparent) mask for ideological projects. Which passionate advocate of political values is immune to the impulse to encase aesthetic judgments in assessments of ideological import? Who has not suspected, in a society so much of whose treasure is taken up with diversion, that the collection of beautiful things accomplishes ideological work, serving to puff up the collectors? In the case of the sumptuous John Singer Sargent show recently on display in Washington, D.C., and Boston, and various smaller Sargent spin-offs at New York University and the Jewish Museum, among other sites, it is hard not to suspect that the vogue for Sargent is not only a rediscovery of the luminosity of his work but also the tribute of one Gilded Age to another, a subtle kind of self-congratulation.

Now comes Elaine Scarry, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University and the author of The Body in Pain, with a short, sweet book to argue that "the banishing of beauty from the humanities in the last two decades has been carried out by a set of political complaints . . . [that] are themselves incoherent." She hastens to add:

When I say that beauty has been banished, I do not mean that beautiful things have themselves been banished, for the humanities are made up of beautiful poems, stories, paintings, sketches, sculpture, film, essays, debates, and it is this that every day draws us to them. I mean something much more modest: that conversation about the beauty of these things has been banished, so that we coinhabit the space of these objects (even putting them inside us, learning them by heart, carrying one wedged at all times between the upper arm and the breast, placing as many as possible into the bookbags) yet speak about their beauty only in whispers.

Scarry has attempted something noble and important, and her book-originally the text of her 1998 Tanner Lectures at Yale-is a pleasure to read. Her arguments (there are two, principally) lose a good deal of beauty in summary, but nonetheless I will summarize.

First, beauty evokes a longing for fullness and creation, even in the form of duplication. We want to tell others about beautiful paintings we have seen, beautiful songs we have heard, even beautiful arguments we have read. The desire to spread the beauty one beholds acts as a force not only for beauty but also for truth. "[T]he beautiful person or thing incites in us the longing for truth because it provides . . . an introduction . . . to the state of certainty yet does not itself satiate our desire for certainty since beauty, sooner or later, brings us into contact with our own capacity for making errors." The beautiful "acquaints us with the mental event of conviction, and so pleasurable a mental state is this that ever afterwards one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction-to locate what is true."

If I follow this first argument-and I find it elusive, which is not to say unbeautiful-it is that beauty "is allied with truth" in that it "ignites the desire for truth by giving us, with an electric brightness shared by almost no other uninvited, freely arriving perceptual event, the experience of conviction and the experience, as well, of error"-and it is paradoxically (observe this lovely judo move) the possibility that one may fail to see the beauty of a beautiful thing, or that it may outlast the beauty we felt in it, that alerts us to the value of beauty. "Our very aspiration for truth is its legacy. It creates, without itself fulfilling, the aspiration for enduring certitude."

All this is prologue to the second argument, which is that beauty is conducive to the desire for justice. When we behold the beautiful, we learn to be attentive to the world, and when we are attentive to the world, we notice injustice. The aesthetic sense is disinterested and generous-the more we love the beauty of the sky or flowers, the more we want them to persist in the world, even if we do not live to see them.

I would love to be persuaded by her main arguments, but I am not. Scarry is struck by the parallels between love of beauty and love of justice, but parallels are not causes, and history shows how easy it is to sever these two ideals. One may love beauty, even want to make more of it, without thinking that everyone is equally entitled to its benison. One might want to draw an exceedingly sharp moral line between the good citizens deemed eligible for beauty and the barbarians deemed impervious, tasteless, or even expendable. In the extreme case, as George Steiner taught us, Germans were fully capable of slaughtering in the after noon and loving Mozart at night. On his single day of conquistadorial pride in Paris, June 28, 1940, Hitler devoted three hours to an art tour including a visit to the Opéra where, according to Nazi leader Albert Speer, he "went into ecstasies about its beauty." (Afterward Hit ler said, "Wasn't Paris beautiful? Berlin must be made far more beautiful.") Over the next two years, Hermann Goering, a very busy man, took time out for at least 20 visits to the trove of loot that the Nazi art thieves had amassed at the Jeu de Paume. Hector Feliciano writes in The Lost Museum, "If Hitler and Goering had not been interested in the arts, Nazi art looting would certainly not have been a war priority; it would not have happened in the methodical manner and on the overwhelming scale it did in Occupied Europe."

Now, it could be argued that the top Nazis' love of beauty was inauthentic-not a deeply felt, discerning love. For one thing, Fascists tended to admire the grandiose, overblown, and sentimental. Hitler, a schlock artist himself, preferred the kitschy Sacre Coeur to the sublime Sainte-Chapelle, and in general Nazi taste ran against Impressionist, Cubist, and other forms of "degenerate art." (Scarry doesn't approach the problem of discriminating between good taste and bad-which saves her a lot of trouble but leaves us awash in skepticism.) Or it could be argued that the Nazis' occasional high valuation of art might have been less a love of beauty than a love of the prices it would bring on the market. On the other hand, Goering did keep a lot of the great stuff for his private delectation.

There is a danger of what Leo Strauss called "reductio ad Hitlerum" in such arguments, but less stringent examples might be added-the Borgia who hires Michelangelo, the Henry Frick who mistreats steelworkers yet wills Rembrandts and Vermeers to New York City for public display. This is not a mere debater's point. Beauty may "prepare us for justice," but the wretched truth is that it may not. It may provide a "radical decentering," a dissolution of the self's petty selfishness, or, as Iris Murdoch put it in a 1967 lecture on "The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts," "an occasion for 'unselfing.'" (How pretty to think so!) But it may not. Curiously, Scarry does not address the vexing problem of the different notions of beauty prevailing among different cultures and social groups, and she does not ask the perennial question of how racist or sexist writing (Dostoyevsky's or Pound's) can be beautiful, too. There is, in addition, the sad fact, also unaddressed, that the just may have terrible taste. George Orwell called Gaud"'s stupendous Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona "one of the most hideous buildings in the world" and added that "the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance." I am left with the unbeautiful conclusion that there is no great, indissoluble chain of virtues linked to ensure that beauty induces truth and truth, beauty. In politics, ugly compromise may be the most just pos sibility under the circumstances, and the beautiful blade swooping down to cut the ugly Gordian knot may be committing a crime.

On Beauty and Being Just is a lovely book, but it is more convincing as a tribute to Homer, Dante, Wittgenstein, Proust, and Matisse-to name some of those whom Scarry reads sensitively-than as an argument. In the end, beauty must speak for itself, however incon veniently. We cherish beautiful things not because they make us better people but because they are beautiful and we love them. To insist that their beauty is also conducive to justice is another utilitarian argument of the sort that is especially familiar in America. Beauty should be freed of the demand that it accomplish anything other than beauty. It shouldn't have to work for a living. Beauty is beauty, just beauty, not the road to justice.

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