Two Essays On Beauty


1. Beauty will save the world?

This paper was originally presented as one half of a key note presentation by myself and Victoria Walters on behalf of PLaCE for Beauty Will Save the World, an interdisciplinary postgraduate conference on art and social change held at Bristol University, 7-8 September, 2010, organized by Cerelia Athanasiou and Shaira Kadir.


I’ll begin with a question that’s been with me while preparing this talk. At a conference like this, what distinguishes speaking politically from talking about politics? This question is prompted by Geraldine Finn’s politics of contingency and her critique of:

“The traditional ontological assumptions of high-altitude thinking, thinking forgetful of its contingent roots in particular persons, places, and times”.

Finn’s politics of contingency ask that we practice a certain form of “bricolage” and original/originating speech, working in a space-between ethics and politics to question the values, principles, and practices of the political status quo and the vision of the “good life” which animates and is animated by it.

So I’ve tried to keep in mind that our being here is contingent on our being a self-selected group who identify – if only in part – with the highly particular institutional spaces and discourses of contemporary art on one hand and the university on the other. And we do so at a particular time – when these institutions are facing major economic cuts. Simultaneously our social and environmental situation requires that we overcome addiction to the possessive individualism that maintains and is maintained by the culture of consumption and start to act on the basis of what is sometimes called “post-disciplinary” thinking. (Personally I prefer the notion of a holistic thinking that is agnostic with regard to the social function of disciplinary exclusivity). But our difficulty – if we acknowledge a difficulty in the present situation – is that the institutions we identify with are both formative in terms of personal and social identity and function precisely to justify and naturalise certain presuppositions. They perpetuate, that is, the presuppositions that animate, and are animated by, possessive individualism and the various interwoven manifestation of political and economic power from which that self-understanding is inseparable.

And these institutions maintain their status by, among other things, rewarding us for speaking at events like this. That is to say, following Gemma Fiumara, for exercising the privileging of speaking over listening in its fullest sense, for maintaining the ever-increasing formalization of specialist disciplinary “outputs”. Outputs that, for the most part, conceal the problem of reciprocity across areas of basic human concern by perpetuating what Fiumara calls (I quote): “the monotony of so-called theoretical contrasts which perhaps only represent an archaic warlike strategy transposed into the realm of epistemology” or, indeed, of culture. So a politics of contingency requires the disciplinary agnosticism that, for example, allows the archaeologist Barbara Bender to point out, in the context of environmental and social concerns, that [I quote]:

Landscapes refuse to be disciplined. They make a mockery of the oppositions that we create between time [History] and space [Geography], or between nature [Science] and culture [Social Anthropology].

It’s in this context that I want to turn to beauty.

The phrase ‘beauty will save the world’ – taken from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot – provided the title of Solzhenitsyn’s 1970 Nobel Prize lecture. Solzhenitsyn quickly abandoned Dostoyevsky’s claim, however, proposing instead that maybe art can help the world. Abandoning beauty for art is typical in our time. But abandoning a word that’s become uncomfortable may simply neglect the power of what it names. This is particularly true here, in the institutional space of the university. Why, in a discursive space licensed by society to produce, evaluate and manage knowledge, do I feel constrained when speaking about beauty? I ask this because most students of the arts in Britain are now educated in state-licensed universities.

The institutional difficulty with what I’ll call “raw beauty” is that it includes what the painter Francis Bacon called “the brutality of fact”. Dave Hickey writes about Joan Mitchell’s paintings, recently exhibited in Edinburgh, that [I quote]:

Mitchell’s sunflowers bloom for us in their glory, singly and in floral banks. They reward us in the fullness of their moment – which is not much longer than the painter takes to re-imagine them – but they die dead. Mitchell insists that they do. They decay into weeds and sticks. They turn ugly and forbidding, rot and burn away.

His argument is that the raw beauty of Mitchell’s paintings follows from the fact that:

“she believed in death – and life, too, perhaps, but nothing else, nothing with a capital letter: Not Painting, Art, Genius, Heroism, History, America, Patriotism, True Love, or even Doubt, or even Nature as it is romantically conceived”.

And Mitchell’s paintings can stop me believing in these power words and our endless high altitude debates around them – at the very least for the time that I view them. This is the power of raw beauty. James Hillman suggests that we think about this power in relation to the sensuous attributes that ancient Greece gave to the goddess Aphrodite – a goddess whose honorary titles included “the Gravedigger” and “Fate” – and whose earlier incarnation was the Mistress of the Animals. These titles remind me that raw beauty can be radically, indeed sometimes terminally, unsettling. To find an imaginal equivalent for Aphrodite’s raw beauty today I’d need to turn to the goddesses evoked by Tantric art.

So it’s significant that the artist Adrian Piper – who teaches contemporary philosophy, ethics and political theory – draws on “practices of the self” like yoga that are inextricably conjoined with Indian philosophies in questioning Kantian aesthetics. She argues that the price of a genuinely post-Kantian aesthetics is the sacrifice of our particular and contingent –that is geographically and historically constituted – ego-self. A possessive individualism constructed, as Hillman reminds us, in the image of “the theological God of monotheism” and “repeats the splendid isolation of the colonial administrator, the captain of industry and the … academic in his ivory tower”. Piper suggests that to live the relationship between aesthetics, ethics and politics differently would be to stop internalizing a social system that encourages me to see everything as a potential resource at my disposal, to what Martin Heidegger calls “standing reserve”.

I understand Piper’s approach as paralleling the “quasi-pagan model of enchantment” set out by Jane Bennett. Like Hillman, Bennett suggests that we adopt something like a polytheistic perspective. By doing this I can, for example, better distinguish between forms of beauty that the university approves and those it rejects. I can then start to ask why this is the case and what the consequences are for students – particularly students of the arts. I notice, for example, that the university accepts the cerebral, Apollonian beauty of mathematical precision, elegant analytical formulations and neat or witty conceptual propositions that valorise its underlying mentality. Also that it ignores sensuous Aphroditic or Dionysian types of beauty because these bypass that mentality.

Of course there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with Apollonian beauty or a rationalist epistemology – if you’re happy to work within a mind-body hierarchy and understand them as partial perspectives with their own particular strengths and weaknesses. But I suggest that over-identification with either numbs our animal sense, cuts us off from the raw beauty of things in their concrete particularity – things taken in through careful noticing and a considerate appreciation of their suchness. I think institutions of culture and knowledge fear raw beauty because it brings with it what the poet Rilke calls “the beginning of terror we’re still just able to bear”. Rebecca Solnit, an environmental activist, anarchist and writer on art, argues that the seductiveness of raw beauty frightens intellectuals and political radicals because [I quote]:

“To be seduced is to be reminded that there are things stronger than reason, than agenda. Fear of seduction is fear of one’s own vulnerability to others …”.

Solnit also notices that this fear is prevalent among contemporary artists, manifest in an implicit hostility to the concrete, particular thing in its ‘suchness’ that stems from [I quote]:

“a desire to demonstrate one’s control over, superiority to, command of it, to close it off. Such authority is the desire to have the last word, to close the conversation”.

This fear of vulnerability and loss of control among many artists has been exacerbated by the historical sequence of late Modernist art criticism, the conceptual turn in art practice, and the absorption of art education into the university system. A system that Gemma Fiumara’s critiques as knowing how to say everything while being almost entirely unable to listen.

Solnit also insists that raw beauty is:

… irreducible, keeps coming back, keeps speaking, keeps surprising us…. Beauty makes us start all over again and again”.

A further reason for the fear of raw beauty may be that it makes us into “eternal beginners”. All these fears are ultimately triggered by the activity of perception or sensation that in Greek is called aisthesis, the root of which refers to: “taking in”, “breathing in” – the “gasp” of wonder or astonishment that is our primary aesthetic response and associated with our corporeal, animal sense of the world. This gasp of astonishment – the ahh of wonder or, in Japan, the shee-e of breath drawn in through the teeth – helps explain Piper’s interest in Indian practices of the self. The Sanskrit term rasa – meaning literally a taste in the mouth – is the basis of a highly sophisticated, Tantric-inflected aesthetics that first reached maturity in C13th Kashmir but is still largely unread in the West. These references all point us to a sensate, embodied awareness of the raw beauty of the world not captured by disciplinary knowledge.

To verify the experiential basis of this awareness I have only to watch my cat as he prepares to leave the house each morning. He draws breath in deeply through his nose and breaths it out over his palette with a hissing sound, a movement that ensures that he both “smells” and “tastes” the outside world he is about to enter, literally knowing it by breathing it in.

There are three reasons why I find it useful to adopt an aesthetic psychosocial aesthetic close to traditions of polytheistic animism. Firstly, in line with Joseph Beuys’ educational thinking, it helps me as a teacher to practice a prophylactic agnosticism towards the disciplinary bias of the university system.  Secondly, it reminds me that to over-identify with Western philosophic aesthetics today is at best to risk intellectual provincialism and at worst to give tacit support to cultural and political xenophobia. Finally, in a period of social change it helps me articulate a “seeing otherwise” that undoes the categories of the dominant epistemology and the politics it underwrites. I find it instructive, in this context, that both Kandinsky and Joseph Beuys challenged their own cultural presuppositions by engaging with the performative praxis of shamanic cultures. Cultures that offer, like the Tantric praxis articulated by Abinavagupta in the C13th, models that suggest a more holistic psychosocial aesthetic in which the corporeal, affective and conceptual listen to each other, are mutually enhancing. Let me try to suggest what is at stake here.       

The scholar Paul Reps translates a four thousand year old proto Zen Buddhist aphorism as:

See as if for the first time a beautiful person or an ordinary object.

I still find this the best instruction for refreshing my experience of surprise or wonder in the face of the world – one that makes no categorical distinction between the beautiful and the everyday, or between a person and an object. This aphorism asks that I develop a perceptually based practice or ability that can, if I so wish and have the time and ability, be exercised further through work that may in turn open others to raw beauty and what flows from that openness. Work we may or may not wish to categorize as ‘art’.

By now I hope you sense why I want to disentangle raw beauty from aesthetics as a minor branch of philosophy concerned with taste, form and art criticism; from “disinterestedness”; from a career in “socially engaged” practice; and from the celebrity world of art museum openings, orchestral first nights and prizes at film festivals. Instead I’m arguing for personally attending to a raw beauty that invites constructive uncertainty – combining pleasurable surprise with an uncanny disrupting or destabilising of received presuppositions and values. This allows me to see the world as if for the first time – or rather, to see it other than as it is currently categorized on the basis of a privileged disciplinarity based on the old adage: “divide and rule”. This is the political dimension of attending to raw beauty, one that needs keeping in consciousness against all attempts either to trivialize or repress it.

There is another, related benefit in attending to raw beauty – it affirms the world of my animal being. This affirmation is not, Jane Bennett insists, of any particular condition or aspect of the world, but of the experience of living itself – the stubborn attachment to life that most living bodies seem to possess. Raw beauty reminds me that it is good to be alive– something that I and many others often find difficult to experience – but also and critically that my aliveness is inseparable from my inevitable death. Because I share that inevitability with all other living entities, it can provide an existential basis for empathetic imagination.

Something James Hillman writes helps me remember what we – since according to Joseph Beuys we are “all artists” – need to consider in a period of social change [I quote]:

“… the question of evil, like the question of ugliness, refers primarily to the anaesthetized heart, the heart that has no reaction to what it faces, thereby turning the variegated sensuous face of the world into monotony, sameness, oneness”.

This monotony follows, I would argue, from the attitude to the material world that reduces it to “standing reserve” for a possessive individualism – one increasingly alienated from wonder and the capacity for empathy. Alienated because it finds it harder and harder to maintain the control it demands in the face of environmental crisis. A crisis that exposes our vulnerability because it draws attention to our interdependence on other beings – both human and non-human.

What I’m proposing is an alternative to traditions that, following Kafka and Brecht, speak about taking a axe to the frozen sea within us or of shaping reality with a hammer. A politics of contingency includes disciplinary agnosticism; it is refreshed by attending to raw beauty; it speaks politically by avoiding undue identification with high altitude thinking and by locating its exchanges with others within the contingences of particular situations. This is the ethical, aesthetic and political position of empathetic imagination – the imagination that is the indispensible basis of any political praxis that listens to and acts hospitably towards others. I think this is what leads David Abrams to argue that we should not work to attain a mentally envisioned future, but instead strive to enter, ever more deeply, into the sensorial present – strive to become ever more awake to other lives, the other forms of sentience and sensibility that surround us in the open field of the present moment.

Of course a politics of contingency also requires that I acknowledge that our different circumstances within and beyond this institutional space – of age, affiliation, conditions of employment, and/or any of the identity issues that underwrite single-issue politics – may overwhelm our empathetic imagination. We may be unable or unwilling to access the imagination necessary to find a new solidarity that is both more intimate and more extensive than our disciplinary system of cultural and knowledge production allows. I can only hope not. Either way, thank you for listening.




I took this image of Christine Baeumler’s project, “Reconstructing the Landscape: A Tamarack Rooftop Restoration” (see a trip to Minneapolis/St Paul  some years after giving this talk, but there are resonances here that I like.

2. ‘Beauty Will Never Save the World: The Invention of a Disciplined University’

Paper given at the University of Bristol Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) Postgraduate Workshop, 9th March 2011, in response to the questions: How do changing conceptions of valuable knowledge define the value of the arts, humanities and social sciences today? What is the role of the University in a neo-liberalised society? How should the arts, humanities and social sciences address emerging (re)definitions of ‘the public’?


I want to begin by restating some points I made in response to the proposal that Beauty Will Save The World. We meet at a very particular time – when the arts and all but STEM subjects in education are facing economic marginalization. Simultaneously our socio-environmental situation increasingly requires that we overcome our addiction to the possessive individualism that maintains and is maintained by an increasingly global culture of consumption.

I suggested then that we urgently need a form of holistic thinking that addresses the psychosocial effects of disciplinary exclusivity. However, our particular difficulty in this respect as a self-selected group is that the institutional worlds of culture and education we closely identify with also function precisely to naturalize certain formative presuppositions of our personal and social identity. That is to say they perpetuate the epistemological presuppositions that maintain the authority of professional expertise, the exclusivity of academic disciplines, and hierarchical distinctions between science (fact) and the arts (fiction). The same presuppositions, that is, that underpins a culture of self-interest rationalized as the pursuit of wealth; belief in personal happiness based on technological innovation; and the interwoven manifestations of contemporary political and economic power.

Today we’ve been invited to address various questions, including: “Is the epoch of cuts and fees going to see the reintroduction of the clichéd divide between the arts and sciences”? As someone with 40 years experience in the arts I’d say that “clichéd divide” never actually went away – it just took a back seat while there was money around. However the implications of this question are important for all the reasons implicit in my opening remarks.

The Czech poet and immunologist Miroslav Holub was well placed to reflect on the relationship between art and science. Significantly however he ends a discussion of their similarities and differences by claiming that there is no such thing as a “scientist” and no such thing as a “poet’’ because [I quote]:

… 95 per cent of our time we are really secretaries, telephonists, passers-by, carpenters, plumbers, privileged and underprivileged citizens, waiting patrons, applicants, household maids, clerks, commuters, offenders, listeners, drivers, runners, patients, losers, subjects and shadows.

This list may need updating and the percentage of time adjusting – Holub, after all, was born in 1923, had to delay his university studies due to the Nazi occupation, and stopped publishing poetry for seven years after the communist coup in 1948. None the less his point is well made – at least in relation to those of us who cannot simply buy themselves out of the type of common tasks Holub identifies. He continues as follows [I quote]:

We pretend to live inside a world-fruit of our creativity and culture. But in fact our work happens to be a tiny, subtle, at times permeating, but most of the time confined, domain in a world and in an age dominated by the giants of management and manipulation, by untamed autonomous superstructures that look down on us as if at an easily manageable microbial culture.

I don’t want to belittle the “tiny, subtle, at times permeating, but most of the time confined domain” of our specialist practices and disciplines. I value the disciplines I learned during my formal education, as I know do others. But I have come to see that over-investment in disciplinary-based exclusivities and the authority they maintain is a form of corrosive intellectual provincialism. A corrosive provincialism that supports the reductive commodification of every form of activity that holds to values other than the economic and so facilitates the political transformation of education into an instrumental adjunct of the global market economy.

We practice disciplinary agnosticism by understanding disciplines as sites of engagement with open-ended, performative and overlapping taskscapes. For example, the focus of my work is on “landscape”, understood as the site of multiple engagements with the physical locus of innumerable connectivities. My work requires that I practice disciplinary agnosticism because, as Barbara Bender observes:

Landscapes refuse to be disciplined. They make a mockery of the oppositions that we create between time [History] and space [Geography], or between nature [Science] and culture [Social Anthropology].

Practicing disciplinary agnosticism turns the focus of attention from “our” discipline out towards the life-world – towards the world where, at least for most people, the greater part of life is performed and for which we all have a collective responsibility. I would argue that the practice of disciplinary agnosticism is a prerequisite for practically addressing questions about epistemological shifts, the contemporary role of the University and emerging redefinitions of what constitutes ‘the public’.



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