Intimations of moral perfection

The Secret Power of Beauty
October 22, 2004

Is it mere snobbery to disparage the taste of people who hang three china ducks in diagonal flight on their walls? Is a woman's beauty a window or a mask, and what effect does it have on her personality? How is it that photographs can sometimes overlook beauty, and sometimes invent it? Why is the beauty of a child so poignant? Can we recognise a beauty that we do not feel? Why, indeed, does beauty concern us at all?

This is a small sample of the questions we may bring to John Armstrong's deceptively slight, deceptively approachable book, with its invitingly bite-sized chapters. And a good many such questions receive some sort of an answer within.

Armstrong swiftly disposes of William Hogarth's attempt, apparently if ludicrously based on our preferences among women's corsets, to construct a universal theory of beauty in terms of form. He makes equally short work of claims that beauty's key ingredient is fitness to function or mathematical proportion: out goes what seems to us today the dotty idea of the music of the spheres.

What these single-factor theories miss, we are told, is that beauty is plural and holistic, the product of the interaction of multiple contributions. ("Why, if there are 19 of anything," wrote J. L. Austin, "is it not philosophy?" The same might be said of the elements of beauty.) But is beauty outside us at all? Might it be entirely in the eye of the beholder? That is to say, is the criterion of the beautiful the response it evokes rather than something intrinsic to the beautiful object? Not entirely, says Armstrong, but not entirely not: both are needed, and work together.

Is the sense of beauty a disguised sexual reaction? Only up to a point: the pleasure of beauty, which we are invited to see as a response to intimations of a moral perfection not of this world, has a certain asexual distinctiveness.

Is "good taste" simply prejudice? No, because taste can be educated.

The inquiry widens still further. Do reductive evolutionary explanations of beauty as a sign of health or status show that any non-utilitarian conception of beauty must be a fantasy? How can there be beauty in landscapes? (Surely not for the Darwinian agricultural reasons suggested here.) Why do some people hate beauty?

The provocative questions Armstrong raises are plentiful, and his treatment of them is never less than illuminating, despite the occasional truism ("Beauty doesn't always co-exist with other attractive or admirable qualities" - as in stupid cock pheasants?).

As the book moves towards its conclusion, it goes somewhat off its previous rails, departing from aesthetics and ambitiously adumbrating a philosophy of the happy life - an unconvincing philosophy, concentrating too exclusively on the role of beauty in bringing happiness. There are more things in heaven and earth... But on the penultimate page, the last and fullest of a series of resumptive summaries brings a measure of closure.

Although Armstrong is a philosopher, his book is almost wholly accessible to any intelligent person. If I have a complaint, it is that his style is slightly flat and humourless, although there is the odd flash of wit, as when he says of Descartes: "He thought a lot about triangles."

There is also the occasional if uncharacteristic dip into Pseuds' Corner, as in the first sentence of the book, which concludes: "Our vision of success in life has the experience of beauty at its heart: we pursue happiness in sensuous loveliness." Tell that to the marines.

The publishers have missed several tricks. They allow Armstrong to say that Konigsberg is in Poland (it never was; as Kaliningrad, it now belongs to Russia), and to misspell Pierre Bourdieu's surname throughout. A page consisting merely of a floating asterisk is pointless.

They have also done their best to uglify the book, despite its topic. The jacket features an unremarkable blurred aqua photograph of an apparently unremarkable-looking woman in a swimsuit. The lettering on it is printed in raised shocking-pink thermal type. The index is a bad joke (try looking up "happiness" or "Gainsborough"). Is it meant to be a parody?

The "cloth" of the boards is (to the eye of this beholder) an unlovely turquoise. The photographs that illustrate the argument are printed in black and white on the uncoated text paper, weakening their contribution sometimes to vanishing point, especially when the issue turns on the colours of their originals. For example, "In the distribution of colour... Gainsborough's picture is masterly - the rough patches of white and gold... sit well with the flesh tones." For shame!

But the secret power of the book enables it to rise above this shabby treatment, and to prevail.

Henry Hardy is a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford.

The Secret Power of Beauty: Why Happiness Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Author - John Armstrong
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 172
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 7139 9474 6

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