Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Thoughts on the nature of beauty

I'm reading Kant's Critique of the Power of Judgment for one of my classes. Specifically, we're reading his definition of beauty (that's putting it lightly), and I came across some passages that provoked thoughts in my head-thingy.

In section 16 of the Analytic of the Beautiful, Kant describes the differences between "free beauty" and "adherent beauty," the first which "presupposes no concept of what the object ought to be" and the second which "does presuppose such a concept and the perfection of the object in accordance with it."

Examples of "free beauties" are things like flowers and "a host of marine crustaceans," which Kant sees as things that only a botanist or a biologist (if anyone) cognizes the true concept of and therefore our feeling that these things are beautiful cannot be derived from the concept, and also abstract things like non-lyrical music and "foliage for borders or on wallpaper" that are non-representational and "signify nothing by themselves."

Examples of "adherent beauties" are things like "the beauty of a human being...the beauty of a horse...[or] of a building" (I have some idea of why a horse is different from a crustacean, but we'll leave that aside)--objects that, Kant claims, "presuppose a concept of [their] perfection." And consequently these things are only as beautiful as they compare to their concepts of perfection.

Later, Kant says that "a human being...could have much finer features and more pleasing, softer outline to its facial structure is only it were not supposed to represent a man."

This part really struck me, and I paraphrased it for myself: "People could be more beautiful if they were not supposed to look like people." Essentially, because human beauty is held up to this concept of perfect human beauty (Hello, Plato!) but must always be attached to the human in question, it can never be as beautiful. If there were no ideal, no such concept, then our feelings on human beauty would be less restricted and we could appreciate it for just what it was and not what it was supposed to be.

I am not silly enough to claim that this is a valid excuse for the ridiculous media standards of beauty, and definitely not crazy enough to think that anyone in that industry read this and used it as a justification for such objectifications, but I think it is worth wondering if these standards of beauty are unrealistic by definition and that perhaps it is ridiculous for ANYONE to hold him or herself to them because you can never that ideal, by virtue of being human.

Man, that sounded more eloquent when I thought of it four hours ago. Ah well.

1 comment:

Duff said...

Then again, there is something to beauty, and there is a value in pursuing beauty, and if you did not have a standard above what you currently are at, you would have nothing to pursue. This beauty can be in the art you make, or in your physical appearance. There is nothing inherently wrong or shallow in pursing making yourself physically more beautiful (put THAT in your pipe and smoke it, Plato!)

That said, media-defined notions of beauty often disregard other things of value, like what is physically possible or what is healthy. Beauty should not be pursued to the exclusion of other, relatively more important, ends.