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On Beauty
by Miles Mathis

The whole history of aesthetics and art criticism has concerned itself with the definition, reduction, deconstruction or destruction of beauty. At various times the question of beauty has engulfed the entire question of art, as in Hellenistic times or during the 18th century. And even now, when beauty is supposed to have been explained away, an inordinate amount of ink still flows as to its nature.

We have been told that beauty is a myth, that it is a product of culture, that it is a mental construct, that it is relative, that it is reducible to usefulness, or nature or sex. It has been called a tool of domination, or conversely, the shield of the passive and weak. In the first instance it is said to be man's fiction to keep woman down. In the second instance it is woman's protection from man, her guarantee against violence—in the same way that a baby's beauty protects it from adults, assuring, in most instances, that it will be cared for.

The problem is that beauty has successfully resisted all reduction and deconstruction. No explanation of beauty, for or against, has been at all persuasive. No one can explain, or explain away, the beauty of a flower, much less of a human being. In the case of flowers, I might point out that we are not bees: we have no real use for flowers. They do not need our protection, we do not need their loyalty or affection. Meal worms are more potentially useful to us than flowers, since they are more nourishing; but no one would argue that meal worms are more beautiful. Apple blossoms are more useful than orchids, since they presage apples; and yet we prefer orchids, which presage nothing but lots of work.

As for human beauty, it has also resisted any final connection to use or biology. No one can seriously argue that attractive men and women are better mothers or fathers, or better husbands or wives, or even better lovers. Consensus is to the contrary: because they can get away with it, they are more likely to be selfish lovers, undependable spouses, and spotty parents. And yet their appeal never dies. Those too craven to date them watch them on TV and dream about them. Why? No one can say.

Modern social critics tell us that these pathetic dreams and fantasies are created by advertisers or political parties or "the patriarchy." But the advertisers and other conmen did not need to create our fantasies in order to use them against us. The idea of human beauty is as ancient as we are. It exists in tribal cultures and it exists in matriarchal cultures. It has been shown to exist in infants, who gaze more often at attractive people. What cultural myth are infants in the grip of? Where, exactly, did they learn to be prejudiced?

It is clear to anyone with a spark of honesty that beauty exists, and that it does not exist as a subcategory of politics or philosophy. It is not good or evil, it is not intrinsically ennobling or corrupting. It is a complex objective characteristic, in the same way that "blue" is a simple objective characteristic. Nor is beauty in the eye of the beholder. A woman may prefer a man who looks like her father or her first childhood sweetheart, but that has nothing to do with beauty. Beauty attracts, familiarity attracts, other psychological traits attract, but this does not make beauty the same as familiarity or psychology. Given two men, neither of whom looks like her father and neither of whom are allowed to speak, a woman will invariably be attracted, initially, to the handsomer one. Everybody knows this.

Some have pointed to the Eskimos' preference for fat women and other similar examples as proof that there is no standard of beauty, but again, this has nothing to do with beauty. The Eskimos do not prefer fat women for their beauty, they prefer them for their warmth. As tribal people, they do not have the luxury of choosing mates for artistic reasons. Only the wealthiest people in the most advanced cultures have been able to afford to ignore the necessities of life such as staying warm, finding and preparing food, bringing up children. When all this is done for them, they are free to hone their artistic sensibilities. Of course I am not going to argue that modern culture, or any super-wealthy culture, is not decadent in a thousand different ways. But I am going to argue that the conception of beauty as it still exists in modern culture is not at all decadent.

A hundred years ago Tolstoy attacked all the arts for being decadent, and I agree with his argument, for the most part. However, Tolstoy attacked art as a practice, at the end of the 19th century. He did not attack the concept of beauty. Art, in practice, has continued to decline, as I have asserted in previous articles, but the conception of beauty, where it has survived, is much the same as it was in Tolstoy's time. In some ways it has even refined itself. Take the ballet, for instance. Tolstoy's argument that the ballet, in being such an all-consuming specialty, was detrimental to its practitioners—which detriment was not at all outweighed by the joy it brought to its audience—is difficult to counter. Like all specializations, the arts can be deforming. However, the ballet is one of the few arts that improved in the 20th century. I therefore have great difficulty in accepting that, for instance, George Balanchine's eye for gazelle-like women is an example of decadence. It may be that this is what the human conception of beauty is, freed from all external or biological factors. I think there are very few ballet aficionados, male or female, who would maintain that the ballet was more beautiful to watch a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, when the dancers of both sexes were heavier. The old films are difficult to watch—the primas are so comparatively ungainly. If the point is and was to look swanlike, then clearly contemporary dancers have perfected their craft—mostly by perfecting their bodies. This has been achieved partly by a more rigorous training, but even more by the recruitment of more swanlike people to begin with. Male dancers have also become leaner and more athletic and more beautiful. Compare someone like Peter Martins with his predecessors. He is both better and better looking. This is not a cultural prejudice, it is a precondition of the ballet. A form of dance which has the central precepts of grace and extension must refine itself in this direction, in the same way that basketball must refine itself in the direction of taller people and horse racing in the direction of lighter people.

Of course some would define human beauty as sexual attractiveness and be done with it, in which case the Eskimos' preference is hard to separate from beauty. But if you define beauty as artistic usefulness rather than sexual usefulness you take a different road altogether. From what we know, Balanchine found his primas sexually useful as well, but they were chosen in the first instance because he knew they could demonstrate grace on the stage better than anyone else. As it is with dance, it is also with painting. Painting may be thought of as an instant of dance, and what is pleasing to the choreographer is also pleasing to the painter, for the same reason.

The question then becomes, why do we find a swan to be more beautiful than a goose? Some would say that it is because the swan resembles a woman, but then we are trapped in a vicious circle. The swan resembles the woman and the woman resembles the swan. Where in all this is the original concept of beauty? Fluid movement would appear to be a part of it, but everything else is difficult to isolate. "A proud bearing of the head," for instance, obviously applies to the woman first and the swan only by simile, but does a proud woman adopt a beautiful pose in order to awe, or do we find pride beautiful? The first it must be, since ugly people striking proud poses do not become beautiful. But then this means that beauty is "what a beautiful person does," which is not a very helpful definition.

Good looks are hard to define, but they are pretty easy to isolate experimentally. It is turning out that they are also standard to a very large degree. Within some easily understandable variations, there is amazing agreement on what constitutes a beautiful man and woman. That is, some may prefer dark skin or hair, or light, but very few prefer short necks, fingers, or toes, large ankles or waists, thin lips, baldness, small eyes, deformations, or signs of age. These are uncomfortable facts for everyone of us, since even those with long fingers or necks will develop signs of age, but they are facts nonetheless. Trying to write them off as signs of cultural or sexual prejudice is only an evasion. Even if we insist on calling them prejudices, they will continue to exist. We can call night a solar prejudice but that will not stop it from getting dark.

Women like to pretend that it is only men who have strong physical "prejudices". Women's other prejudices (financial, social, etc.) may override their physical preferences more often than they do in men, but this does not make women more pure or spiritual. We are all driven by our instincts, and ranking these instincts is a pure sort of folly. If history has taught us anything it is that scolding people for their sexual preferences is the surest of all possible ways of wasting your breath.

Besides, what is pleasing aesthetically and what is pleasing sexually aren't necessarily the same thing. As I have said before, nudity in art need be neither pornographic nor erotic. I can only speak from my own experience, but for me aesthetic appreciation does not always imply erotic appreciation, or the reverse. Aesthetic admiration is often rather chilly and cerebral, which may explain the obsession Hollywood and high fashion and the ballet all have had for skinny ice princesses. It may also explain the odd asexual nature of many famous artists, from Leonardo to Sargent. Aesthetics may have less to do with the sensual pleasure of desire and gratification, and more to do with the sort of mathematical joys of harmony and balance. This would explain the close connection between classical music, painting, and the ballet, as well as the close creative tie between Balanchine and Stravinsky. Beauty may or may not be nothing more than transcendentalized sexual attraction, but the fact is that at this late a date in history it is transcendentalized, for whatever reason. That is, it has disconnected from sex. The beauty of a nude causes a spiritual thrill that is unlike the thrill of a caress. I am not going to argue that it is a higher or purer thrill. In fact it is certainly less intense. The important thing is that it is different.

So how has it evolved? Why has extension (long limbs, long neck, etc.) come to signify beauty? A long neck confers no natural benefit upon a woman—she does not graze the tops of trees or look out above the forest canopy for predators. Nor is it clear that things like long fingers or thick hair are more harmonious than not. A small waist and thick hair may signify youth, but what about pretty feet and a long neck? Many perfectly healthy youths have stubby toes and necks. In fact, sturdy people seem to be less easily injured, have more stamina, and live longer than these frail gazelle-like creatures preferred by artists. If we worship health we should worship the sturdy and long-lived. If we worship harmony, we should worship the round and bald, for what is more harmonious than a circle?

Are we simply under the spell of a few powerful and perverted men: Praxiteles, Botticelli, Balanchine? Or is there something to the long fascination with lean and sinewy youths of both sexes—the Phrynes and Lolitas and Tadzios? Do angels or fairies really look like this perhaps? Or is this where nature is pushing us in the very long run?—perpetual adolescents with knee-length tresses?

I don't know and neither does anyone else. Personally I find the angel and fairy myths more compelling than the myths of biology or politics. Beauty as biology or politics or culture or sex is demonstrably false, whereas beauty as an approximation of the divine is beyond proof. It is charming precisely because it leaves intact the mystery of all art.

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