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Beauty as a Property

by Miles Mathis

Wendy Steiner published a book in 2001 with the alluring title Venus in Exile. Its central thesis was that art would benefit from a return to beauty, and even feminine beauty. To launch my column this week I am going to make use of several quotes from it, as well as quotes from a New York Times review of the book by Paul Mattick. This will allow me enter a brief discussion of the definition of beauty.

Ms. Steiner tells us that beauty "is the name of a particular interaction between two beings."

Mr. Mattick counters that, "Beauty is neither a property nor a mode of interaction; it is a classification, which, like all classifications, implies a particular social relation between the classifier and the classified. Modern artists' critique of beauty, whatever the artist's own misogyny, must be given credit for their early challenge to a structure of values and behavior that has become increasingly hard to justify. Calling for a return to old times without the inequality essential to them will not put Humpty Dumpty together again."

Ms. Steiner concedes, "The problem is how to imagine female beauty, in art or outside it, without invoking stories of dominance, victimization and false consciousness."

Mr. Mattick agrees of course: "This is indeed a problem. But the bigger problem is Steiner's failure to think through the historical relation between beauty and femininity."

Mattick wants to appear to trump Steiner with a superior interpretation, but all he does is restate her definition of beauty in more and different words. Steiner does not say that beauty is a mode of interaction, she says it is the name of an interaction—which is the classification of an interaction. The name of a mode of interaction is itself a classification. A name prepares a thing for a slot. This naming and grouping is classification.

So it is not Steiner who is guilty of "failure to think through" the problem, in this instance, it is Mattick. He has made the cardinal error in what is now called semiotics of failing to differentiate between names and the things named. He conflates the signifier and the signified. Only the word "beauty" is a classification; but the question is what does that word signify. He has entered the vicious circle of subjectivity, where the word, which is an idea, signifies a classification, which is also an idea, which classifies a social relation, which is also an idea. In such a circle the word is never allowed to signify a thing or characteristic of a thing, for it would then become the signifier of a property. Steiner is caught in this trap, too, but she only has her leg in, whereas it appears that Mattick is in by the neck. For her, beauty is an idea. For Mattick, beauty is the idea of an idea.

To avoid solipsism, an idea must refer to something outside the mind. A word like beauty cannot signify another word, it must signify an object or a fact. Consider a somewhat simpler example. Consider the word "tree." As a word, it classifies living things. But the question, "What is a tree?" is not asking about the word "tree," it is asking about the object that the word signifies. A tree is not a word or a classification. It is an object: a real object with real properties.

Now, beauty is meant to be the same sort of word. It was intended to refer to real things. Historically it has always been a property. Furthermore, its very use depends upon it being a property. It is always things that are said to be (physically) beautiful. In this sense, beauty either exists or it does not. Relocating it out of the object and into the mind is pointless, since it is never used as a classification of ideas. That is simply not what beauty means, in most usage. Making beauty subjective is analogous to relocating "treeness" into the mind: it not only disregards the existence of trees, it disregards the entire history of naming things and of creating definitions. The informational content of words like "tree" and "beauty" concerns real things and events. If there is no tree, then there is no reason to name it or classify it.

In The Pathetic Fallacy, John Ruskin went even further, stating that the new misunderstandings regarding subjectivity were symptoms of personal deficiency in the philosophers who proposed them:

If you find that you cannot explode the gunpowder, you will not declare that all gunpowder is subjective, and all explosion imaginary, but you will simply suspect and declare yourself to be an ill-made match.

This brings the psychology full circle, you see. Ruskin's arguments in the 19th century should have put an end to the whole pathetic business, but for reasons not difficult to fathom illogic has continued to be a much better seller than logic.

Many modern philosophers think there is no way out of these semiotic circles, but in this case there is a very clear way out: making the names of things refer to actual things. Mattick may answer that this assumption is unprovable, but treated as an axiom it does not need to be proved. It is useful not because it provides certain knowledge but because it sets up a sensible deductive process. It sets up a definitional system that does not break down into a mess. But assuming that a word signifies an idea does not allow one to build a meaningful system of terminology. It quickly breaks down into nonsense, tautologies or contradictions.

To state it even more boldly, defining such words as the signifiers of things is logical; defining them as signifiers of other words is not. Assuming beauty is the property of a thing sets up a meaningful system; assuming beauty is a word that signifies an idea does not.

An idea can change just by wishing it to. An object cannot. You cannot make a tree short and red and tidy by fiat or vote or wish. "Treeness" is not a cultural decision or process or interaction or relationship. It is a definition. The word “beauty” has historically been less precise than the word tree, but it has always been meant to signify a physical property: an objective, real, thing. In Steiner's words, it is an attribute of "the other." Therefore it is absolutely and definitionally linked to the existence of the other, and to the existence of properties of the other. Physical beauty as a subjective classification is a contradiction in terms.

None of this is to say that subjects—that is, people—do not divert and color facts. But it is to say that experience presupposes something to experience. If objects did not have real properties, we would have nothing to color or divert or interpret. The reason that modern philosophers, critics and other intellectuals prefer this sloppy sort of subjectivism is clear: it allows them to dodge the real questions—such as "what constitutes beauty as a property"—and to instead wallow in the realm of ideas, where you can think whatever you want. If words and ideas don't finally refer back to reality, then absolutely anything can be said. This plays into the current ideas of freedom, and so seems to be democratic. But in fact it is the end of science and of all clear thinking. It leads to writing like Mattick's, which, with a false rigor, relies heavily on prestige and posturing, but ultimately says nothing.

Now on to Mattick's "structure of values and behavior that has become increasingly hard to justify." He doesn't say exactly why people finding each other beautiful is increasingly hard to justify—all he needs to do is imply it and the modern reader knows where to go. That is, it is presumed to link directly to patriarchy, hierarchy, and all the shibboleths of modernism and feminism. Unfortunately, the moderns have utterly failed to provide the necessary link from "beauty as a property" to "violence and false consciousness". Women find men beautiful and men find men beautiful. How have these categories failed to end in violence, according to the social critics? The answer is that beauty as a definition has nothing to do with cultural violence. Beauty does not imply a particular social relation between the classifier and the classified, beyond the relation of seer and seen. What social relation does the classification "tree" imply? Or "table" or "bottle"? A classification is nothing more than a grouping; a definition nothing more than an axiom. Both are an ordering of experience that may be very nearly impersonal and objective. That some classifications and definitions may later become polluted by politics and other social and personal factors does not change the basic nature of them as categories.

Mattick's conundrum, like many of the philosophic conundrums of the past century, is a manufactured one. The moderns have assumed that straightforward actions like naming and defining and classifying are necessarily complicated by social interactions, and they have assumed this for a reason—out of the muddle a new politics could be fashioned, a politics free of reason and logic and rigor. This is best shown by Steiner's quote. "The problem is to imagine female beauty... without invoking stories of violence...." But this is not a problem at all. It is quite easy for anyone who wants to to imagine female beauty without invoking stories of violence. There is no necessary link, and implying that there is would have once been seen as a huge implication, one that required some sort of grand proof. Social criticism has never even thought it worthwhile to begin such a proof. Their argument never gets past the naïveté of this: because some bad men have used beauty to oppress women, beauty is bad. The moderns give a few examples of bad men and think their proof complete. As if the existence of bad men is proof against the existence of good men. As if improper use is proof of the impossibility of proper use. As if the goodness or badness of individual people had anything at all to do with the definition of a word.

The physical beauty of a woman or man as an objective property has no necessary social implications at all. It may lead to violence or it may lead to great joy. Most often it leads to both. Physical beauty as a general term is even less social: it is not a social factor at all, since it was historically distilled from a broad range of beauties—human, animal, natural, scientific, linguistic—many of which are outside the purview of human relationships. What oppressive politics do people mean to impose on swans by calling them beautiful, or upon flowers or sunsets? We certainly oppress nature, but beauty is a tonic to this oppression, not the cause of it.

As for Mattick's belief in the historical relationship between beauty and femininity, I should think that if men had defined beauty mainly to suit their own social agenda, then it would have no real connection to femininity at all. As a construct of men, it would tell us about them, not about women. But women also find themselves and each other beautiful, and the historical relationship between women and beauty is not nearly as sinister as Mattick implies. Both men and women have used physical beauty as a tool for themselves from the beginning, as one would expect. Women have not borrowed a tool of men, both men and women have made proper and improper use of nature. That is the rather simple truth of the matter.

You can see that Mattick has not touched the central thesis of Steiner's book. He has used her book as an opportunity to restate the absurd politics of the intellectual status quo, in properly oily terms. Steiner's thesis, that art and social criticism have bottomed out, and that some of the babies lost in the bathwater need to be resuscitated, is valid, courageously advanced, and sometimes well-expressed. The only place she fails is in her conclusion, where she attempts to provide current examples of the correct road out of Bedlam. After spending entire chapters asserting that we need a return to an art of "the other" (meaning an art that is once again connected to, and about, the outside world—and especially other people) she showcases modern feminist artists who are painting themselves. They are not interested in the other—that is, men. And Steiner does not think to mention men who are painting the other—that is, women. Dead male artists painting women are held up as a lost paradise, but living men painting women are still seen as politically regressive, no matter what the emotions involved might be.

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