Friday, April 1, 2011

On Ugliness

Keith Miller deals with the notion that beauty is in the eyes, and not below the waist, in his TLS essay, “Beholders’s Eyes” (TLS, 3/12/11). Miller offers a vignette at the end of the essay that, as one might think, concerns a subject near and dear to the heart of every aesthetician from Plato onward: nudity. “Some sharp-eyed editor at the Sun had noticed that the inception of that newspaper’s Page Three feature, a smiling young girl photographed naked from the waist up, with a breezy potted biography (‘Kate from Kent, 21, likes hot-air ballooning’) attached, coincided roughly with the publication of The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer,” writes Miller. Greer was subsequently asked to put in her two cents, and Miller summarizes her response thusly: “she (Greer) seemed to be saying…that these pictures were not unwholesome, because while they were effective at generating cheerfulness, they were not capable of generating desire.” While “Greer’s ‘handyman’ was quoted in support of the thesis, Kant [mentioned earlier in Miller’s essay] was not.” Would that the Sun were the sole problem confronting contemporary aestheticians as they grapple with what beauty is! Miller rues the fact that “beauty and desire are being sundered in ways that no western aesthetician could have predicted” by a culture where children “learn about the opposite sex from hard-core pornography.” Earlier in his essay, Miller offers up a brief survey of beauty, from the disinterested notion that “beauty should somehow be its own reward” to “the functionalist or utilitarian view, which holds that beauty has something to do with fitness for purpose” (argued by Robert Morris) to the idea of “perverse beauty...celebrated by, among others, Baudelaire in the nineteenth century and Bataille in the twentieth.” Though Umberto’s Eco’s latest volume, History of Beauty, was a subject of the essay, Miller points to his previous book, On Ugliness, as being more to the point in discussing the concept of beauty proposed by Baudelaire, and one “which has the field at the moment.” Elaborating on this line of thinking, Miller goes on to say,  “It’s ugliness that fascinates us and does all the deep symbolic work (sin, death, desire) in Western culture.”   

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