For a hundred years art lost interest in beauty; now it seems to be returning.by Charles Jencks / April 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Book: The Secret Power of Beauty Author: John Armstrong Price: Allen Lane, ?12.99
Beautiful people are always with us, as evolutionary psychologists and a trip to the news-stand confirm. But beauty as an overriding goal of the arts began to decline more than 100 years ago. Several factors explain its fall from grace: clich?, associations with a ruling taste and the way it dominated other concerns. In the past few years, however, it has begun to make a comeback. Not only have there been large exhibitions on the subject in Avignon and Washington DC, but important investigations have been published, such as Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just (1999) and Wendy Steiner’s critique of modernism, The Trouble with Beauty (2001). A recent issue of Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Fall 2002), has essays by Susan Sontag and Arthur Danto that reclaim aesthetics as the central problem of art. John Armstrong’s The Secret Power of Beauty is in this line of contemporary thought. A Glaswegian who worked on aesthetics in London, Armstrong is now a director at the centre for public philosophy at Monash University in Australia. Given his public role, it is no surprise to find he commands a limpid style of some subtlety. His earlier books, Conditions of Love and The Intimate Philosophy of Art, suggest he might be aiming at the “body and soul” sector of the self-help market. The subtitle of his new book, “Why Happiness is in the Eye of the Beholder,” and the lack of notes or bibliography also support this supposition. Such a supposition would, however, be wrong.
Armstrong starts off his exploration with great confidence and wit, surveying first the old explanations of beauty – fine proportions, fitness to function, harmonies of various kinds, and Hogarth’s serpentine line of beauty. He might have made more of the latter’s self-parody (women’s use of corsets to get the perfect shape), but he does score a telling point in recounting David Garrick’s objections to his 18th-century friend and guide. Why, if it’s all in the continuously changing curve, Garrick rightly asks, isn’t my stomach, which grows more and more serpentine with the years, more continuously beautiful? Well, among other reasons, Armstrong answers, because the experience of this aesthetic state comes in wholes, not parts – or “the law of the whole” as he puts it, paraphrasing Ruskin. This is…