In 1948, the abstract artist Barnett Newman wrote, “The impulse of modern art was to destroy beauty.” One among many impulses of recent art has been to piece it together again. It is a beleaguered movement, but promoted by a wide range of figures, from democratic populist Dave Hickey to the late Susan Sontag. Several books have been written on the subject, a recent one being the Princeton philosopher Alexander Nehamas Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in World of Art .
Nehamas book begins with Plato and ends with Nietzsche, and is guided throughout by the authors fascination with Edouard Manet’s provocative 1863 nude, Olympia . Nehamas provides a potpourri of critical observations on anything from Marcel Proust to evolutionary biology or modern television. As we find in the work of so many philosophers of aesthetics today, we find Immanuel Kants take on beauty in the crosshairs. In his Critique of the Power of Judgment , Kant developed a notion of beauty as disinterested contemplation. (A notion famously dismantled by Nicholas Wolterstorffs unflinchingly Christian Art in Action ). Kants philosophy divorced beauty from desire, claimed beauty to be universal, distanced beauty from everyday life, and¯perhaps most problematically¯presumed to be able to identify beauty in the first place. Whether or not my summation does justice to Kant, one way of organizing Nehamas book (there are perhaps many) is as an attack on these four propositions.
First is beautys divorce from desire. Nehamas contrasts Platos rapturous love for beauty to the cool, non-possessive detachment of Arthur Schopenhauer. Nothing could be farther from Platos celebration of desire in the Symposium than Schopenhauers hymn to its cessation. As if to reunite beauty and eros once again, the book displays a plethora of nudes. Some of Nehamas inclusions hover near the pornographic; but this is to show that the author is aware of the difficulties the beauty¯ eros connection involves. Sometimes, a single taste and a moral virtue may pull in different directions and we may simply have to live with the tension between them: Ask any Wagner fan.”
Second, Nehamas criticizes the distinction of art and beauty from life. Prompted by Hal Foster, Nehamas suggests that beauty is part of the “the everyday world of purpose and desire, history and contingency, subjectivity and incompleteness.” Following Arthur Danto, Nehamas suggests that art need not even contain an aesthetic element. In fact, the question “What is art?” or “Why is this a work of art?” may not be worth pursuing at all.
These questions had never been urgent as long as the arts were taken for granted; they were raised only when the radical innovations of the nineteenth century began to erode the public’s confidence in traditional certainties. The first work to address them systematically, Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? , did not appear until 1896 . . . .
Nehamas, then, is aware of arts fractured contemporary condition. Art is a wineskin incapable of containing what ferments in this authors reflection on beauty.
Nehamas then moves to universalism. The notion that there are universal criteria for anything is far from welcome in contemporary academe, and the aesthetics of Nehamas is no exception. But, beyond fashion, the author makes a nuanced case for his position against any universal criteria for beauty:
Aesthetic judgment must move away from a dogmatism that detects a difference in quality in every divergence in taste without, at the same time, falling into a relativism that refuses to make any judgment at all.
There are, then, many kinds of taste, and “in most cases, bad taste is literally the lack of taste, the absence of style¯dull randomness or drab uniformity.”
The books most fruitful line of inquiry comes when Nehamas attacks Kants notion that what is beautiful can be determined. We could call this Nehams critique of the judgment in Kants Critique of Judgment . Nehamas suggests that art critics or film reviewers cannot define what makes something beautiful as much as they can recommend, or not recommend, that we make the effort to find out for ourselves. Such evaluations are not conclusions but spurs.” True beauty cannot be defined. “The passion for ranking, the fervor for verdicts . . . has deformed our attitude toward the arts . . . .” It was on this subject¯in a talk Nehamas gave at Princeton to promote the book¯that he grew most passionate, and most convincing. “The art we love is the art we don’t yet fully understand. Such apophatic beauty holds promising potential for a theological engagement with Nehamas very open philosophy of beauty. Michelangelos sonnets, for example, repeatedly betray the sculptors belief that an experience of beauty prompts a longing for God, beautys ultimate source. Unfortunately, however, this is an avenue of exchange that Nehamas securely closes off.
Nehamas explains that beauty’s dangerous, deceptive side was addressed by Plato and his followers with “a vast philosophical picture, eventually appropriated by a current within Christian thought, according to which beauty, when it is properly pursued, provides a path to moral perfection and is aligned with goodness and virtue. So far, so good. Yet secularization, for Nehamas, is a given: The sense that a higher authority¯reason or God¯secured that alignment was gradually lost and the picture gradually faded, only the dangers of beauty remaining in the traces it left behind.”
Not only is beauty disconnected from God, it is disconnected from the good. Nehamas does concede Montesquieu’s notion that “the pleasure given us by one object inclines us toward another . . . .” There is then an expansive quality to appreciating beauty, one that Nehamas even suggests he cannot live without. But to call this expansion necessarily benevolent is too much. Plato may have believed that beauty and goodness converge. I believe, on the contrary, that there is no clear answer to such questions and no reason to expect one. To think of beauty as only a promise of happiness is to be willing to live with ineradicable uncertainty. Nehamas’ work is a beauty that is “stripped of its moral connotations.”
This is not to say that those who disagree on the relation of beauty to goodness can write each other off. Nehamas spots a fascinating convergence between Plato and Nietzsche:
Plato writes that only in the contemplation of beauty is human life worth living” because he saw nothing of value in beauty, or anywhere else, that was not already moral; Nietzsche declares that “only as an aesthetic phenomenon are existence and the world eternally justified” because he believed there are no moral values at all.
Nehamas, then, shows how people with faith in a transcendent order and people with no such faith can both meet in appreciation of beauty; but the former group may leave the book feeling perplexed. It is a worthwhile text, having indicated beautys elusive, apophatic dimension to a contemporary audience. “Beauty always remains a bit of a mystery, writes Nehamas, forever a step beyond anything I can say about it, more like something calling me without showing exactly what it is calling me to.” Nehamas flirts with the mystery, but then curtails it in a way that might make Kant blush. After repeatedly touting uncertainty, Only a Promise of Happiness arrives at an abruptly certain conclusion: The value of beauty lies no further than itself.”
Matthew J. Milliner is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Princeton University. He blogs at www.millinerd.com .
Only a Promise of Happiness by Alexander Nehamas
Critique of the Power of Judgment by Immanuel Kant
Art in Action by Nicholas Wolterstorff
Symposium by Plato
What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy