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Beauty and Ugliness

The Function Of Beauty

According to Kant, beauty has no function beyond the pleasure it generates. As much as this view influenced philosophical discourse, it did not satisfy natural scientists and social and cultural researchers.

Beauty and sexual selection.

Charles Darwin (1809–1882) sought to answer the question: how has natural beauty been acquired and what is its purpose? He rejects the idea that beauty in nature is a merely arbitrary outcome of physical forces. Darwin believed that the beautiful colors and diversified patterns we see in butterflies, moths, fish, birds, and other creatures must be beneficial in some way. In The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), he presents the theory that beauty is a result of accumulative sexual selection. Studying mating rituals among various species, Darwin concludes that the animals' splendid decorations, their pomp and display, could not be inconsequential, and that it is impossible to doubt that the female admires the beauty of her male partner. This contrasts with the traditional view expressed by Burke (1767) that beauty is feminine, while the sublime is masculine.

Kant states that only humans are capable of appreciating beauty. Darwin insists that the origin of the ability to notice beauty (and appreciate it as such) is the same for animals and humans. Yet he agrees that humans' perception of beauty is far more complex than that of animals and involves cultural values and traditions. He examined courting customs in different cultures and confirmed that beauty plays an equally central role in choosing mates, in spite of cultural differences.

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) concurs with Darwin as to the origin and role of beauty in human life. In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud asserts that there is no doubt that beauty originates in sexual feelings, and that all forms of pleasure are related to sexual love. According to Darwin and Freud, the function of beauty is universal, but the variety of its manifestations coheres with cultural relativism. Tattoos serve as a beautifying means in one culture and are condemned in another. The Makalalo women used to pierce their upper lips and place a ring in it. Piercing, until recently regarded as esoteric in Western culture, is now commonplace in Western society. Facial hair (beard or mustache) is thought to enhance masculine beauty in Western culture. While the American Indians considered facial hair vulgar, they appreciated long hair for men. However, the passion for beauty and the readiness to suffer to achieve it are similar in all cultures.

Naomi Wolf, an active feminist, denies that this is true. She rejects the idea that beauty answers genuine, universal needs. Beauty, according to Wolf, is a myth created during the industrial revolution and used ever since by men to manipulate women for their own interest. Beauty, she holds, is not universal and is not a function of evolution. The readiness of women to suffer in order to achieve the false ideal of beauty indicates the dominance of men and confirms male manipulation. Thus, according to Wolf, the female suffering for beauty is not a genuine product of evolutionary forces (1991). Camille Paglia criticizes this kind of feminist approach for concentrating on images of beauty of the last century and for failing to encompass a broad historical view. Paglia places the origin of beauty in ancient Egypt (1991).

In contrast to Wolf's position, Nancy Etcoff argues that beauty is a powerful and genuine element in everyday life. She agrees with Darwin that beauty influences sexual choice, but she goes on to argue that it influences all aspects of life from early childhood on. Beauty is not the result of political or economical manipulation, but rather the other way around: due to its strong impact, beauty is used as a means of achieving political and economic ends. Beauty, according to Etcoff, is not a product of a certain period in history; its origin, rather, lies in human nature itself (1999).

Beauty and art.

Art was traditionally considered a source of beauty; some even argued that natural beauty is subordinated to artistic beauty. Plato, however, separated art and beauty into two independent concepts: real beauty reflects truth, while art is a deceiving imitation of nature. Aristotle, by contrast, held that good art is beautiful and that, therefore, the two are inseparable: a good work of art is a beautiful work. The Aristotelian aesthetic tradition prevailed for centuries, but it was the eighteenth century that gave rise to the idea that creating beauty is the essential purpose of art.

Kant holds that good art is beautiful, although it differs significantly from natural beauty: a good work of art is a beautiful representation. A representation can be beautiful even if its subject matter is not beautiful. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) argues that beauty is the essential feature of art, and natural beauty is a reflection of artistic beauty (Aesthetics, 1835). In this view, beauty reflects intentional creation, not incidental results of blind, natural forces. The poet Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805) associates art with freedom and beauty: we arrive at freedom through artistic beauty, since it is a product of intentional, free choice (Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, 1795). The comparison between artistic and natural beauty led Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) to the observation that life and nature imitate art far more than art imitates life or nature. Art is the creation of beauty; life and nature constitute its raw materials (The Decay of Lying, 1894). Benedetto Croce (1866–1952) similarly states that the sense of natural beauty is a derivative of artistic beauty. Beauty of nature cannot be explained unless one regards it as the work of a divine creator. Beauty, according to Croce, is a synonym of intuition and expression, and these refer to the artistic form. The content of the work is beautiful only when wrought into form.

Robin G. Collingwood (1889–1943) defines art as an attempt to achieve beauty (Outlines of a Philosophy of Art, 1925). However, his viewpoint did not gain influence in the twentieth century. The prevailing analytical trend preferred, it would seem, clear-cut, definable notions and has not been conducive to the study of the paradoxical nature of beauty, its ambiguous logical status, and the endless disputes over matters of taste. Thus, beauty has been dismissed as a vague and insignificant concept and considered irrelevant to art. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) remarks in this analytical vein that beauty is an odd word that is hardly ever used (Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, 1938). John A. Passmore states that there is something suspicious about the notion of beauty, and that artists seem to get along quite well without it. He associates beauty with kitsch and bourgeois art (1954).

The association of beauty with superficiality and tranquil bourgeois life stood in contrast to the revolutionary spirit of modern art and the general atmosphere between the two world wars and after. Detaching beauty from art became common practice. According to Curt J. Ducasse (1881–1969), there is no essential connection between art and beauty. Art is an attempt to express feelings, and artists may intend to create or express ugliness in their work (The Philosophy of Art, 1966). Nelson Goodman (1906–1998) argued that many of the best paintings are, in the most obvious sense, ugly. Beauty, according to Goodman, is a vague and deceptive concept, while art is a kind of language that has no essential bond with beauty (Languages of Art, 1968). The influential and much-discussed institutional definition of art presented by George Dickie (1974) similarly bypasses the notion of beauty.

Mary Mothersill strongly criticizes the wide neglect of beauty and its detachment from art. She argues that the idea of beauty is indispensable and taken for granted in art criticism, because although critics do not explicitly refer to beauty, the idea is implicit in their criticism (1984). Mothersill's analysis of beauty reflects a change in approach. By the turn of the century we witness the growth of a renewed interest in various aspects of beauty. Wilfried Van Damme examines the anthropological perspective of beauty (1996). Eddy M. Zemach defends the objectivity of aesthetic properties and their empirical testability (1997). James Kirwan studies the history of the concept in order to illuminate the experience of beauty (1999). Peg Zeglin Brand examines the role and significance of beauty in social life and in relation to gender (2000). Lorand offers a theory of aesthetic order that revives the connection between beauty and art (2000), and Nick Zangwill rethinks the metaphysics of beauty (2001). These and other contemporary studies confirm that beauty is central to human experience in spite of its neglect in the discourse of the last century. The genuine vitality of beauty is bound to intrigue the reflective mind and inspire further investigations of its nature.


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——. The Century of Taste: The Philosophical Odyssey of Taste in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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Mothersill, Mary. Beauty Restored. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984.

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Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New York: Vintage, 1991.

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Tatarkiewicz, Wladyslaw. History of Aesthetics. The Hague: Mouton, 1970–74.

Van Damme, Wilfried. Beauty in Context. Leiden, Netherlands, and New York: Brill, 1996.

Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. New York: Anchor, 1992.

Zangwill, Nick. The Metaphysics of Beauty. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Zeglin Brand, Peg, ed. Beauty Matters. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Zemach, Eddy M. Real Beauty. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

Ruth Lorand

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ballistic galvanometer to Big–bang theoryBeauty and Ugliness - Definitions Of Beauty, The Function Of Beauty, Bibliography