It’s really an awkward scene in American Beauty Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) goes on about how a plastic bag is the most beautiful thing ever. In 1999, before the rise of cynicism (personally, I blame Y2K), people treated the scene as something beautiful. In a way, it is. But in more of a way, it’s weird. Still, it underlines something intrinsic in all human beings, which is that we all hold some concept of beauty.
Walk down the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, the area of New York that’s still New York, and along with the rundown buildings of a failed public housing system you’ll see scenes of astounding beauty. In these crumbling bricks of buildings, people take to the streets to express themselves in art, in music, in dance. Walk into the poorest part of Mexico and you’ll still hear humans expressing themselves in art, attempting to obtain some form of beauty.
In many ways, we’re trying to mimic what we see in nature, attempting to copy and surpass. For myself, staring into the endless horizon of the Pacific Ocean is soothing, but Fantasia On A Theme stirs emotions within me for some unknown reason. Honestly, I don’t really need to know, I don’t care to know.
Yet, the idea of beauty is a somewhat unexplored element of philosophy in the modern age, that is, it’s relegated to the ugly and unbeautiful world of being analyzed. And it does need to be analyzed, but only if the analyst understands he’ll never understand what he’s analyzing. Beauty is one of those odd things that exists, but exists just out of touch of our reason, something that we feel we can come close to understanding and grabbing, only to have it slip away just when we are closest to it.
Why is it that we seek after beauty? A brutalist interpretation might be that it’s a survival instinct that helps us cope with the brutality of life. This, however, doesn’t seem to quite capture the existential feeling; it sounds rational, it even sounds reasonable, but it conflicts directly with our experiences of beauty. Maybe we seek after beauty for some sexual reason that we just can’t figure out, but this reduces the whole of the human experience down to sex. Again, a rational case could be made, but it wouldn’t be satisfactory (ironic considering it even involves sexuality). This isn’t to say that beauty is irrational – being against reason – but that ultimately the concept of beauty is suprarational – being beyond reason.
There’s the old analogy used to contradict religion about bringing blind men into a room and having them touch different parts of an elephant. While they’ll all describe different parts, they’re all describing different parts of the same thing. While it’s a good analogy that’s misapplied, when applied to beauty it makes sense; whether we’re looking at the sunrise over mountains in Mexico or listening to Mozart, we’re seeing different parts of beauty that lead to one, universal form of beauty. Oh, hello there Plato.
But I won’t go the route of Plato, at least not completely, because his theory of the forms is very incomplete. I would agree that our experiences of beauty point to an ultimate form, some sensus divinitatis within every individual that cries out for beauty, though their experience of it may be subjective. It does beg the question though, that if beauty is universal in form (but subjectively experienced), where does it come from? If it’s something that’s created, then how could the concept of beauty be formed before the form of beauty came about? This would be a contradiction. So then beauty would be eternal, but what would those implications be? If we live in a closed universe that has no divine, how do we explain beauty?
I will not come to any hard conclusions or push for hard conclusions, but merely leave the above for you to think about…or to ignore. But we cannot deny that there is a universal experience of beauty, so we must always push for the arts (which expose beauty), not because it’ll make better students or better workers, but because by helping to satisfy that deep human hunger for beauty we will make better humans. And maybe, just maybe, we can make the world a slightly better place to live.