Beauty: Major Contentions

Three Portraits

  • We use evaluative terms in artistic appraisal that imply an expertise we lack, or we appeal to standards we cannot articulate.
  • Nearly all artistic declarations are expressions of our approval rather than of a work’s quality.
  • Subsumed under the category of “taste,” these expressions were formerly thought to have merit, but today are recognized as purely emotive.
  • If expertise is possible in artistic appraisal, it must be limited to some educable knowledge, such as the history of an aesthetic or the estimation of the commercial worth of a work, but it cannot be founded upon superior taste or some inner discernment, for such intuitions are warrantless.
  • A valid warrant might be sought in either some definable quality in the work itself or in some transaction between the work and the appraiser, but changing cultural tastes challenge the former and the ineffability of aesthetic response dooms the latter possibility.
  • Postmodernism regards a claim to superior taste to be yet another grand narrative and imposition of established power; it rejects the possibility of judgments of quality in general as intrusions upon personal autonomy.
  • The postmodern objection is so total as to challenge the possibility of judgment applied not only to art but also to many valid applications of expertise, such as those practiced in judicial proceedings.
  • Expertise requires a similitude and conceptualization of individual experiences that the uniqueness of aesthetic creation cannot provide.
  • Claims to expertise in contemporary aesthetics are entangled with invalid appeals to authority and with an alienist critique that is more a political statement than an aesthetic one.
  • If starting from a clean slate, any attempt to warrant claims to beauty in artistic creation faces problems of conceptual specification, and though these might one day yield to neuroscience, to improved psychological science, or to mathematical theories of natural forms, our present incapacity ought to instill a hesitancy to attempt judgments on the issue.

 

Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist

  • The concept of the antihero has shared a developmental history with twentieth century entertainment media; it is so clearly entrenched in our minds as to be an archetype of desirable moral conduct; as such, it demands a serious analysis.
  • A third development in pop culture accompanied the rise of entertainment media and the antihero which affected both: the postmodern cultural critique.
  • The origin of these three cultural markers can be traced to the Romantic movement’s emphasis on pantheist intuition expressed through powerful emotions aimed at an increasingly literate middle class in the process of rejecting all institutional authority.
  • Victorian formalism dominated the sociological literature of the second half of the nineteenth century, advancing a formulaic and conventional propriety that sought to domesticate Romantic emotion; the result was a sclerotic sentimentalism in narrative fiction.
  • This sentimentalism’s purpose was to capture the archetype of experience rather than experience itself.
  • By the World War I era, an antithesis emerged first in narrative fiction and thereafter in the exploding film industry; it was marked by a conscious rejection of typologies in favor of unique individual experience set against a Darwinian struggle for survival.
  • This literary movement, naturalism, competes in popular media with a remnant Victorian sentimentalism to this day.
  • Other factors contributed to the early stirrings of postmodern existentialism, and they all became distilled more through popular media than through disciplined academic analysis into the 1960’s, and so the concept of the antihero, like the Romanticism that had inspired it, filtered from popular media into academia, where it was refined and taught to post-secondary students through literature and humanities courses in the last half of the twentieth century.
  • The grounding question for the antihero is always this one: “What gives meaning and purpose to individual experience?”
  • The existentialist answer is “nothing,” a response that stimulates a search for meaning that combines despair and Gnostic catharsis with an utter contempt for sentimental convention and a grounding rejection of hypocrisy.
  • As postmodern thinkers began appropriating phenomenalist arguments drenched in existential angst for dissemination through popular fiction, they began to transform their protagonists from victim of unknowable and contingent reality to heroic rebel fighting the bad faith of conventional society.
  • This battle was largely formalized in narrative media, and it became the dominant moral model by the close of the twentieth century, picturing an isolated protagonist resisting the hypocrisies of the larger culture by rejecting its values in favor of dimly intuited virtues of honesty, courage, loyalty, and moral freedom.
  • Accompanying this transformation was a rejection of any sense of loss in favor of a cynical irony that now dominates popular culture; rather than mourn a loss of meaning, the antihero could celebrate his radical preferential freedom.
  • But by the last third of the twentieth century the antihero had been disseminated so widely that popular culture could hardly be resisted without rejecting the now-stereotyped antihero himself, an irony completely in tune with the zeitgeist.
  • We see narrative fiction now that toys with the stereotyped antihero to demonstrate not a conventional sellout but a betrayal of the defining moral code of antiheroic life, yet such a rejection inevitably ends badly, thereby renewing antiheroic values.
  • Both our admiration for the stereotyped antihero’s dogged pursuit of personal freedom and our contempt for his occasional betrayal of it imply that these fictional characters are the moral exemplars of our age; they take their preferential freedom seriously and pursue moral ambitions that are paradoxically quite well-defined even in the face of their existential freedom, implying universal moral values that their postmodern creators most certainly would deny.

 

Tall Tales

  • Fictional narratives cannot mirror reality and only need be true to their own premises.
  • Consumers of these narratives find it difficult to accept their artificiality in part because academics consciously attempt to deny it as they seek out its “truths.”
  • The reason we fail to see the unbridgeable gap between fictional reality and our own is rooted in the categorical mental mimesis of reality we all create in exercising preferential freedom.
  • We take for granted the mimetic nature of our perceptions and reflections, which must imperfectly represent an external reality to consciousness, but this attempt is so often thwarted or distorted that much of our quest for utility is marked by an effort to pierce the perceptual wall to find a reliable mimesis.
  • Fiction gift wraps a representation intended to be intelligible to reason because it is an artificial and conscious creation that makes its reality far more accessible to its consumer than the external reality she seeks to comprehend.
  • Our eager embrace of this artifice satisfies a real need to comprehend but does it by an intentional act of creative self-deception that consumers find difficult to resist; this effort is well expressed by Coleridge’s phrasing: “a willing suspension of disbelief.”
  • Such is the perennial attraction of narrative fiction, but in the anomie and moral vacuum of the twentieth century, fiction’s satisfactions assumed an inescapably moral dimension: in the absence of other moral authority, the protagonists of narrative media became models of moral conduct.
  • These largely unnoticed cultural shifts were marked also by the moral flexibility necessary to accept them; one change was a restriction of moral truth to the experiential, and combined with the existential axioms of the antihero, this focus on private experience and moral autonomy sought the same comprehensiveness from personal reality as could be found in fictional realities of movies and novels, inevitably producing further alienation and ironic cynicism that now permeates popular cultures.
  • The issue is further complicated by the aesthetic requirements of artistic creation, which impose even greater artificiality onto the creations of contemporary narratives as they seek to make their creations aesthetically satisfying to consumers as well as internally consistent.
  • We can clearly see these artifices at work when we compare an historical biography to historical fiction, the result being that “based upon a true story” most clearly signifies “untrue.”
  • The temptations of narrative fiction have been recognized since Plato’s Republic, but they were denied by Aristotle’s invention of the archetype and the Romanticist embrace of “emotional truth.”
  • These developments were supercharged by the collapse of institutional authority in the twentieth century, producing a moral vacuum that narrative media quickly filled with the archetype of the antihero, which by the last third of the century had thoroughly permeated popular cultures as stereotype.
  • Postmodern critiques began with a specious elevation of “text” thought to be a propagandistic tool of entrenched institutional power, which required two approaches: first, to treat all discursive prose as “grand narratives” equally inventive and implicitly false; and second, to “deconstruct” the putatively buried truths in such texts that revealed putative social prejudices, but the more fundamentally false claim that fiction could ever present correspondence truths remained unexamined.
  • Moral direction cannot be transferred from the created reality of fiction to our own reality, so all efforts to seek it in narrative media are inherently distortive and ultimately false, revealing that our reliance on narratives as moral exemplars is the most delusionary of all grand narratives.