13 October 2017

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Is beauty an advantage?

Is beauty an advantage?

Beauty is an old subject in philosophy and aesthetics. It is also an old
subject in art, culture and our lives.

The arguments about beauty have in one way or another centred on whether
beauty is subjective or objective and indeed: what is beauty? We
therefore cannot escape these issues whether we like it or not.

And although beauty can be present in a myriad of things, we can agree
to split the topic in two parts: beauty of things and beauty of human
beings. I will slant my ideas on beauty of human beings.

I do subscribe to the notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder,
but the eye of the beholder can never see (metaphorically and physically
speaking) anything without sense perception. So what matters is not so
much what we see but rather what we perceive: I will therefore contend
that even visually impaired people can experience beauty.

But seeing is not enough. We can only make sense of what we see if we
can put what we see into a context. The context gives us the scope of
what we perceive or see: context also gives us the ability to describe
what we see in language form. Seeing an Amanita muscaria mushroom (Fly
agaric) in a forest fills me with a sense of natural beauty with its
orange and red colours. But seeing the ugly blackish trombetta dei morti
(Italian) or horn of plenty (common English) means that I am in for a
culinary delight in the evening since these mushrooms have a very
enchanting and agreeable taste when prepared fresh in food.

This brings me to the first issue of our debate: beauty is advantageous
for whom? The holder of beauty or the beholder of beauty? If mushrooms
are anything to go by, beauty seems to benefit the holder of beauty and
not necessarily the beholder.

To suggest that beauty is an advantage suggests that a choice is
involved: a choice between what is perceived as desirable and the not so
much desirable. And choices are usually made in the context of our
beliefs and desires; but when we make a choice we are also explicitly
asking ourselves what is this thing of beauty for? What's in it for me?

Back to our mushrooms in the forest there are a number of factors that
would make one mushroom beautiful for one purpose but not another.
Knowledge and useful information about what is beautiful (or ugly) can
help us decide whether something beautiful has an advantage for us or
the mushroom. The problem is that whilst mushrooms are either colourful,
and thus beautiful, or dull and ugly, being beautiful does not
necessarily mean good.

But I promised to focus on human beauty. We have been told that the Mona
Lisa is supposed to be the paradigm of female beauty and enigma, and the
statue of David the paradigm of male beauty. Or at the very least of
physical beauty. The question, however, is whether these are examples of
beauty. I would argue that the Mona Lisa and the Statue of David are
examples of beautiful (people): but not necessarily paradigm examples of
beauty. Indeed can there be a paradigm of beauty despite the fact that
we can distinguish between someone who is beautiful and someone who
isn't. Is there a Platonic form of beauty: probably not!

Of course, an alternative to the subjective argument of beauty is that,
beauty is objective and that some examples of human beauty can be
described as paradigm examples of beauty. But this argument goes beyond
the claim that some features in people make them beautiful. Those who
employ the objective argument of beauty go much further by suggesting
that these paradigm examples are to be emulated, copied, desired and in
many cases discriminate against those who do not fit the paradigm in
favour of those who do. Maybe the failure of this argument is the reason
why the Aryan race doctrine failed.

But if the Mona Lisa is to be a paradigm of beauty I can easily put
forward two (out of many) other paintings that certainly have the status
of a beauty paradigm: Doña Isabel de Porcel by Goya and the young woman
in the Umbrellas painting by Renoir. In modern times the fashion model
Twiggy represented a new paradigm shift in female beauty.

But even paradigms and paradigm shifts cannot escape the clutches of
context: the beauty of Twiggy is the beauty of the woman next door like
most women on Earth who became a paradigm shift of beauty. Renoir
preceded this idea with the Umbrellas painting. The Mona Lisa and Doña
Isabel de Porcel are examples of wealth and privilege a theme that still
persists today. A side note, Leonardo da Vinci and Goya were more like
photojournalists of today, depicting the facts, whereas Renoir was the
first "street photographer" depicting life in the streets of a city.

What is important for us is that while beauty and beautiful things have
not changed, beauty itself is not a pre ordained privilege. So if beauty
is not a privilege but a fact of reproductive nature and evolution, what
kind of advantage is (human) beauty?

By definition, an advantage is something that is desirable but only a
few people posses. In a way beauty is an advantage because it is scarce,
and this is basic economic theory. Scarce resources attract a better
premium price than mundane things. The negative side of beauty is that
it takes up a lot of energy trying to maximise the "benefit" of this
scarce resource.

Thus although beauty might very well be an advantage it is not an
advantage without costs. But if beauty is a scarce resource, how can
there be a paradigm of what is human? Secondly, if there is an arms race
to be the most beautiful this suggests that beauty is no longer an
advantage but a norm.

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813
Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com.es/
MeetUp https://www.meetup.com/PhiloMadrid-philosophy-group/

PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
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Calle del Meson de Panos in Opera

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Is beauty an advantage?

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