• gerard van weyenbergh

What is Beauty? part 1

In the idea that we traditionally have of Art and aesthetics, the first relates to Beauty, and the second to the experience of Beauty. However, Beauty in Art has always coexisted with other experiences.

The sublime, the ugly, the terrifying, the repulsive, the banal, also give rise to specific experiences - but which, always, call for the vocabulary of Beauty.

A movie can be shocking, boring, provocative. We do not say the less that it is beautiful. It would be very nice if there were times in the history of Art for Beauty and times for different experiences. Everything is mixed up. To take just one example, even the much-vaunted classical Beauty of Greek statuary must have looked quite strange under the period polychromy violent colors.

Harmony, correctness, moral goodness.

There is a fundamental polysemy of Beauty, which oscillates between four major definitions:

  • that by harmony and proportion,

  • that by the useful and the function,

  • that by moral goodness and good,

  • that by pleasure.

Beauty as a proportion responds, in principle, to what has been called the classical ideal, and first of all in its Greek form. Hegel, who saw in Greek Art the triumph of Beauty and a summit after which Art was already beginning to decline, was not mistaken. Plato defines Beauty by convenience and correctness, which the proportion of numbers can express, but not only since correctness can be that of repetition or a balance within a whole.

The correctness in question can receive a functionalist interpretation - we come to the second facet. It is then emphasized that the object is suitable for the use we make of it. Beautiful pottery is fit for purpose, without excessive frills: form is defined in relation to function. Except that this identification of Beauty and function is easy to defend only by taking simplistic examples. We are quickly confronted with the problem of the appearance of the functionality: what seems suitable is not necessarily suitable, and what is suitable is not necessarily beautiful. The recent evolution of automobile bodies in the direction of the standardization of aerodynamic forms is a good example of the divorce between functionality and Beauty. For many contemporary objects the integration of technical functions is so extensive that the apparent functionality is left to free: what is the beautiful shape of a computer?

The third definition of Beauty relates it to moral goodness. It is true that we appreciate a beautiful act of courage or generosity and that there are beautiful love stories. In the Banquet , already, Plato made the link between the pursuit of Beauty and that of the good. The "raw" and unadorned character of a modernist construction, the candor of a geometric composition respond to this definition of Beauty and give the work an almost moral value. It is also rare that the spectacle of virtue or good feelings in the cinema does not contribute to the promotion of films.


The Art of the modern age, especially in the XX th century, is often presented as having renounced the Beauty with him, we would be past the "fine arts" in the "arts no longer beautiful."

Finally comes the fourth facet, that which defines Beauty by pleasure as the central experience of Art, both pleasure in producing Art and pleasure in the aesthetic experience. This criterion seems to go by itself as Art is identified with a satisfaction, but it turns out to be even more confused than the others, insofar as almost any pleasure subjected to a particular process of elaboration can be aestheticized - and has been. For some, the striptease is an art. Sewing and cooking are in the same case. In short, whichever way we turn, we realize that we are dealing with criteria that correctly cover a certain number of cases:

  • A Palladian villa for harmony

  • A craftsman's tool for functionality

  • A love story for moral Beauty

  • A succulent dish for pleasure

However, they bring into the realm of Beauty what one would not want:

  • A modernist building bar

  • A "designer" vacuum cleaner

  • A nice swindle

  • A gory movie

Also, Beauty escapes, and we measure, as a result, to what extent it depends on convention, whether it is specific to a culture, an era or a group of appreciation. © Beaux Arts - Yves Michaud