In my estimation there is no more perverse doctrine than that which states that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. Not because it is not true that the experience of beauty is apprehended and appreciated at the level of individual perception, which is, in some sense, a redundant observation, but because of the reductiveness of identifying beauty itself with its mere apprehension. It is perverse, and not just mistaken, precisely because it refuses to accept the reality – and by that, I mean the real existence – of beauty and therefore its possibility of being analysed and understood, communicated and becoming once more a central part of our cultural narrative, repudiated as it was for a large part of the twentieth century.
The perversity of the reduction of beauty extends beyond ontological and epistemological concerns, though, into the social; it implies that we cannot refine our own sense of the beautiful through meaningful interaction with others; and it suggests – or even mandates – that we dare not teach the young about what is beautiful, as this would imply a denigration of some culture and cultural forms as inferior. The abandonment of a commitment to beauty can be seen in the parlous state of our culture in the West today, which increasingly celebrates the ugly in all its forms, or else, in reaction to that, the twee and insipid. It is perhaps an artefact of the infantilisation of our culture that the space for the mature appreciation of beauty is being squeezed to the margins, displaced by the unenviable choice of teen rebellion or kindergarten sensibility.
It is true that the apparent relativity of the beautiful seems to be confirmed, not only by the fact that we individually assert different things to be beautiful, but by the change in the perception of beauty over historical time. I will argue, however, that this is best understood as the process of the discovery of beauty, in the unfolding of the nature and structure of beauty’s constituents with the passage of time, to which various civilisations have contributed their own insights. I will also argue that the beautiful cannot ultimately be separated from notions of the true and the good and predict that the closer we come to an encompassing theory of beauty, the more that will become apparent.
The historical semiotics of beauty
Some time ago, while out driving, my wife and I witnessed a glorious full moon, hanging clear and limpid above the horizon. My wife was the first to spot it and commented how large and beautiful it was. We decided to pull over and spend some time just contemplating it. Being so inclined and interested in things astronomical, I mentioned that sometimes the moon is closer to the Earth, which makes it appear larger to terrestrial viewers, referred to as a supermoon. She refused to be impressed by this information and merely wondered whether such a sight had been seen in the remote past. I was not quite sure what she meant by this, but set forth again what I considered to be the interesting and salient fact that in the past the moon had been much closer to the Earth, that Earth’s day had been much shorter and that over time the drag of the moon’s gravity had caused the Earth’s spin to slow down and days to become longer. The imparting of this wisdom was received in silence.
Looking back and reflecting later, it became apparent that compared to the empirically-rooted but rather banal information I was supplying, my wife’s question was far more perceptive, as it could be excavated to reveal a richer stratum of ideas. For example, a thousand years ago, in what we for so long have referred to as the Dark Ages, would people have seen such a sight? The question is not about the physics of light or the biology of perception; it is about meaning, interpretation and social possibility. In our modern intellectual sphere, we have the possibility of a choice of epistemological perspectives: instrumental or structuralist, phenomenological or evolutionary, for example. For a medieval peasant, we suppose, not only did those terms, or their equivalents, not exist, but we doubt whether even those perspectives, which those terms denote, existed.
In all probability, the medieval peasant, farming a strip of land on the estate of the local lord, had a well-developed semiotics, but it was one rooted in the cycles of nature and of the agricultural cycle, tied in to the festivals of the Church. The priest as the most educated local would have been on hand to explain, or dismiss, the questions of the curious, almost certainly with reference to church teachings. According to Eco (1986): “The Medievals inhabited a world filled with references, reminders and overtones of Divinity, manifestations of God in things. Nature spoke to them heraldically: lions or nut-trees were more than they seemed; griffins were just as real as lions because, like them, they were signs of a higher truth.” Nature was full of signs, and in many ways the medieval peasant, being much closer to the natural world than we are generally today, would have had a more detailed knowledge of its practical processes and warnings, but not the theoretical insight to the interconnectedness of all nature that we would perceive today through our embedding in a scientific worldview. However, for the medieval peasant the signs were infused with symbolism through which they lived simultaneously in a mythopoeic reality, a Christianised revival of the sense of awe and wonder that had so characterised the Classical period of antiquity (ibid).
Could a peasant farmer appreciate the beauty of a full moon or a sunset? The barrier to such knowledge is almost as impassable as the attempt to recreate the prehistoric mind, or that of another species. As peasants were universally illiterate, they did not record their thoughts; as they were uneducated, poor and powerless, neither did anyone evince any interest in what they thought or experienced. Today, revealing the prejudices of our own age, we assume their consciousness was similarly constructed to our own, but we have no evidence for this. The closest we can get is through the theologians and poets of the era. This reveals some differences from modern consciousness. According to Myers, Pastoureau and Zink (2017), medieval nature poems “combine a myopic attention to what is close by – branches, blades of grass, the banks and hedgerows – with the pleasures of the other senses – the song of the birds, the rushing waters of the spring, the scent of the flower, the caress of the breeze – that are made possible by this very proximity and intensified by the limited vision”.
This suggests that the medieval idea of beauty was less conceptualised than that of the Greeks (at least the Greek philosophers) and less holistic than today, but sensually richer. The medievals saw the underlying unity of things in theological terms, the ‘Great Chain of Being’ and their own immersion in nature, but they lacked the framework of objectivity, to the extent of lacking the concept of ‘landscape’ (ibid). We surmise that the medieval peasant, in common with most pre-modern peoples, would have been in awe – that curious mixture of apprehension, wonderment and intoxication – at the sight of a supermoon or anything that strayed from the mundane and regular and, lacking knowledge of causes, would have fallen back on a supernatural explanation. This could be totally wrong; perhaps they were simply indifferent to nature or incapable of an aesthetic appreciation. It is unlikely we will ever know.
Part 2 will consider the evolution of the perception of beauty
Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (Originally published as: Sviluppo dell’estetica medievale, in Momenti e problemi di storia dell’estetica, vol. 1, 1959.) [Trans. Hugh Bredin] New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
Nicole Myers, Michel Pastoureau, Michel Zink (2017). Art and Nature in the Middle Ages. New Haven: Yale University Press