This week we put on our philosopher hats and talk about aesthetics, or the study of beauty. We tackle baffling questions such as, “Why do art and beauty matter?” “When we ascribe value to a thing, do we in fact cheapen it?” and “Will Hannah be able to decipher the chicken scratch in the margins of her notes?” We also talk about zombies, naturally.
1:03 Aesthetics is defined as “a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, especially in art, and/or a branch of philosophy that deals with the principles of beauty and artistic taste.” Kant referred to this as “agreeableness.”
1:47 Beauty is paradoxical because it is experienced subjectively, but we treat it as though it is objective.
2:57 Art and beauty help us to heal, understand other people, and know that we are not alone.
3:20 We discuss The Three Transcendentals: the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.
6:12 “Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” (William Morris). When something is beautiful, it is not useful in a utilitarian sense.
8:02 What makes a story beautiful? Clare shares how a story like The Walking Dead can be spiritually beautiful in its message, even if it isn’t visually beautiful. It shows that life is worthwhile, and human beings will fight for it even in the most horrible circumstances.
9:57 Hannah shares about theater as an art form that unifies its audience and helps people feel less alone. It tells us that we all have questions about our existence and the world we live in.
14:55 Roger Scruton, a British philosopher, writer, and public commentator, created a documentary called Why Beauty Matters. In it, he describes beauty as “a remedy for chaos and suffering that shows human life as worthwhile.”
16:08 Useless things are often the most valuable. Take love, for instance. If you put a price on something beautiful it cheapens it.
17:30 Here’s the obligatory C.S. Lewis mention. Lewis described a feeling that he called Joy, with a capital “J,” seeing things in life as a little piece of heaven. Similarly, Scruton points out that the things we love seem not to belong in the real world.
19:09 Stories are powerful because they give us a sense of closure that real life rarely provides.
20:52 There is a difference between being “productive” and being “fruitful.”
Surprised by Joy, by C.S. Lewis
William Morris, an instrumental figure in the Arts & Crafts Movement.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
Shadowlands (1995, starring Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis and Debra Winger as Joy Gresham). Available at Alibris: Over 175 million books, music, & movies. 10,000 independent sellers. Your marketplace.
Why Beauty Matters. A fabulous and important documentary by the late Sir Roger Scruton, one of the greatest contemporary thinkers of the late 20th century and early 21st century. In order to compare and contrast Beauty and Ugliness, this documentary depicts some truly sickening pieces of “art.” Viewer discretion is advised–or at least, we advise you to refrain from eating while watching this. “Art once made a cult of Beauty. Now we have a cult of Ugliness instead.”
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Clare: Hello, everybody. Welcome to the next episode of Splanchnics. I’m Clare Walker. This is my daughter Hannah Kubiak, and we are the hosts of this very serious podcast. In today’s episode, we’re talking about aesthetics, the study of beauty, and beautiful things. So stay tuned.
Clare: All right, we’re back. Hannah, what were you just looking up?
Hannah: I was looking up the definition of aesthetics. The dictionary says it is “a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, especially in art, and/or a branch of philosophy that deals with the principles of beauty and artistic taste.”
Everyone’s taste is different and taste changes with the times. “Agreeableness” is the word that Kant uses.
Beauty is something that we can’t just say, “I like that.” And everyone’s like, “Oh cool, you like that? I don’t have to like that.” When something is beautiful, you like it and you also expect everyone else to like it as well. What they described it as in the philosophy class that I took was that beauty is a paradox because it is something that we experience subjectively but we treat it as though it’s objective. Does that make sense? It’s both subjective and universal. So some things are beautiful to everyone. I don’t think anybody would say that a sunset isn’t beautiful.
There’s a quote from Dostoevsky from his book, The Idiot: “beauty will save the world,” which I think is very true. We mentioned this, I think in our very first episode. We mentioned beauty will save the world.
Clare: When we were talking about Tolkien, we said that beauty will save the world because we were talking about how I had experienced beauty in ways that I found to be very healing.
Hannah: People can find healing through art and theater. I know that as an actor, I’ve experienced being able to heal through theater, being able to understand things through theater, being able to understand other people. There are these three primary principles: the Good, the True and the Beautiful.
Clare: Are those called the three transcendentals, is that correct?
Hannah: Three transcendentals: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Out of all of these three, we’ve sort of lost touch with the Good and the True because people have their own perceptions of what they believe is true and what they believe is good or right. So people can’t agree on what’s true and good anymore. If you tell somebody, “You can’t do that. It’s wrong,” they would just say, “No, it isn’t,” and do it anyway. So that’s not a way that you can communicate with somebody anymore, by just telling them whether something is right or wrong or true or false.
But beauty is something more universal and it’s because it is both subjective and objective. It can’t be refuted. When you say that something was beautiful and that it touched you because it was beautiful, and it changed your mind about what you think the truth is or what you think is good. People can’t refute that because it’s not just happening in your mind with your logic or anything like that. It’s happening in your soul.
Clare: You could explain to someone what happened to you, then you could even explain to someone, “Here’s why I think that thing is beautiful.” You could line up and list some criteria that you could name perhaps, but sometimes whether something is beautiful or not is a mystery. You can’t always explain it.
I think that I had mentioned this, the thing about beauty: Beauty reaches straight for the heart as opposed to an argument or attempts at persuasion. So it’s very important that people experience beauty in their lives.
There is a famous saying that just came to mind. I believe it is from the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement of Interior Design and aesthetics. I don’t remember the name of the person, or perhaps you could look it up. He said, “Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” So imagine if you were to construct your home or your office or your life like that. You only have in it things that are useful, which could be a way of saying things that are good. And if something is beautiful, it’s not necessarily useful in a utilitarian sense. But it’s good, isn’t it?
Hannah: Well, Oscar Wilde said “art is quite useless,” in his introduction to The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Clare: Art and beauty, beautiful things, they really don’t have any utilitarian or practical use unless you consider interior healing and having a peacefulness inside after experiences as something useful. I think that those are good things.
What kind of beauty are we talking about? Visual beauty? I guess we’re talking about it at all, aren’t we? Because remember in our first episode I was talking about how I had a reaction to beautiful music, a reaction to beautiful paintings, a beautiful performance. How about this? How about having a reaction that is healing and helpful to you and inspires you. How about having that type of reaction from a beautiful story?
Hannah: I think all of those qualify, definitely.
Clare: So there are beautiful stories where it may even depict something that’s not necessarily aesthetically pleasing or, it’s rough around the edges, or it has some things that are perhaps distasteful. But overall, the story is beautiful because of what it’s saying about the human condition, about life and so on.
I’ll never forget this. Do you remember Andrew Lincoln, who plays Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead? I watched this when the show was first coming out when they did the first season with six episodes, and he was very excited about being in the show about zombies. Everything in this world is horrible.
Hannah: So much fun for an actor.
Clare: I’ll never forget that what Andrew Lincoln said, he was so excited. He was talking about it, and he said, “It’s going to be beautiful.” The show is going to be beautiful. I thought, “That’s an interesting statement” because that show actually is not visually beautiful, is it? Anything with zombies. It’s gross. It’s disgusting. It’s horrendous. But the beauty he’s talking about is the human stories that are going on, the stories of transformation and healing that are happening in people’s lives as they deal with this zombie apocalypse, essentially this crisis that brings out the best and the worst in people. So in a way, some of those episodes really are beautiful stories. Hannah: Even if they show the worst in people,
Clare: Because the response of some of the people to the worst coming out of the world, out of the zombies, or out of other people, it brings out the best in them. And that’s beautiful.
Hannah: Two things that I learned about theater and art is that we all share common questions and theater leads us to self-discovery. So I like to think of theater or art as a unifying thing.
Here’s a story. I’ll tell it to you in a story because stories are way more effective, right? I directed a play about a year ago and my goal with the play was to show what you were talking about before, the best of people and the worst of people.
Clare: Are you talking about Titus Andronicus?
Hannah: Yes. For me, it was a story about how people interact and how horrible and wonderful human beings are. And there was a reviewer who came to see the show and in his review of the show he drew a bunch of parallels between the show and the current political climate and all this stuff, and was referring to a very minor character in the play and wasn’t about the story at all. It was just about, “This part of this play reminded me of this political thing. In this political climate that was very, very relevant.”
And it made me so mad because when you have a political message or goal in mind when you’re making art, you’re dividing your audience, and art is supposed to bring people together. And even if you’re expressing certain ideas or certain viewpoints with your characters, I feel like you can do that and still make something that’s unifying, that brings people together and makes us know that we are not the only ones who have questions. We’re not the only ones who are lost. We’re not the only ones who don’t know what they’re doing in life.
One of our favorite movies is Shadowlands, and he has that conversation with a student of his, and he says a statement that appears a couple of times: “We read to know that we are not alone.” I think this applies to all forms.
Clare: We experience art in order to know we’re not alone, or hopefully, after experiencing the art, we realize that we’re not alone.
Hannah: So you read something or you hear a story and you’re able to see yourself in something. And as actors, we have to do that as well. When you’re picking out a monologue for an audition, for example, don’t think about whether or not you look like this person. Think about what they’re saying. Does it resonate with you?
I have an audition coming up and I’m doing a monologue from a character called the Duke of York, who is the 60-year-old uncle of this really silly frivolous king, basically telling him, “Listen, buddy, you’ve got to shape up or people are going to start to hate you and someone might want to kill you and I really don’t want to, but I’m going to have to turn against you even though I love you.” And that resonated with me, so I used it even though I could never play the Duke of York for real in a show. But that monologue resonated with me.
Clare: Well, because your summary of that statement [is something] that anybody could say to anybody else, especially the older, wiser, experienced person could say that to someone who they observe and perhaps a younger person who’s making huge mistakes, and here’s your advice.
Hannah: That’s the universal older people giving advice to younger people. “You’re going to be mad at me and that’s okay because I’ve got to say this.” I wanted to talk about Roger Scruton a little bit. Sir Roger Scruton. He’s from England.
Clare: Now that’s all I know about him.
Hannah: I think he’s a philosopher or a thinker or something. I don’t really know, but we watched a documentary. This guy: world renowned British philosopher, writer and public commentator. He did a documentary that we watched for school called Why Beauty Matters. And he talks about various things like finding beauty and redemption in the worst things. “Beauty is a value as important as Truth and Goodness. It’s a remedy for chaos and suffering. It shows human life as worthwhile.”
This is what I thought of when you were talking about The Walking Dead, because it’s about how human life is worthwhile, and people struggling with that and thinking, “I don’t want to live in this world anymore.”
Like that woman who found out she was pregnant and she thought, “I don’t know if I want to bring a child into a world like this.” Those kinds of questions, showing human life as worthwhile.
So, when we give something value, when we say that something is useful, therefore it is valuable. Useless things are often actually the most valuable, like love. We don’t want to fall into a culture of utility where something that isn’t useful goes away. But if you put the usefulness of something first, it sort of cheapens it. Ascribing value to something brings it down to earth as opposed to it being something sublime, too big to even really think about. So it brings us out of this world.
For those of us who believe in a great beyond or an eternity, it’s sort of a little taste of heaven to see something beautiful.
Clare: Do you remember we talked about this recently? What C.S. Lewis called Joy with a capital “J” Joy? His brother made a little diorama of a garden, and Lewis described that as “heaven in a biscuit tin.” Those little glimpses of heaven.
Hannah: “Something you love seems not to belong in the real world.” That’s Roger Scruton again. It can’t be limited or described, because when you consider something as beautiful, your mental space is in a realm beyond the laws of this planet.
Clare: The fact that you can’t explain why you think something is beautiful or why you love something.
I wanted to segue back into stories. I think this is one of the reasons why we like stories: because they do something that real life often doesn’t do, and that is provide a satisfying ending. There’s something beautiful about a satisfying ending.
For example, I just finished watching season two of Jack Ryan.
Hannah: Well, that’s not what I was expecting you to say.
Clare: What is beautiful about that or what is satisfying about that story and stories like it is that it’s glorious to see a corrupt politician taken down. Because it so seldom happens in real life. Corrupt politicians get away with stuff in all of human history. It’s rife with corrupt politicians getting away with things.
And the other thing that we like about stories is that they follow a progression. They follow an arc, they come to a high point, and then they have a satisfying denouement and conclusion and you can put everything into a tidy box in the form of story. Whereas real life is so seldom like that.
It’s like P.G. Wodehouse wrote. His character Bertie Wooster says, “Life is one damn thing after another.”
This is where the term, “the hamster wheel” comes from, right? Being on a hamster wheel is not beautiful. It is not sublime. You feel like it’s pointless. Being on the hamster wheel is pointless, ultimately, but what are you doing all the time when you’re on the hamster wheel? You are doing “useful things.” You’re buying and selling and earning and producing and going on errands and checking off things on your to do list. That is being useful and productive, and you know what? There’s a big difference between being productive, which is utilitarian and useful but ultimately meaningless, versus being fruitful.
Fruitfulness is beautiful. Because it has meaning beyond the everyday temporal things, like making sure the refrigerator is full of food. I guess food is important. You must have food in your refrigerator so that you can eat and sustain your life, but ultimately, what’s the old saying? “Man does not live by bread alone.”
Hannah: I have another quote from Dostoyevsky.
Clare: All right. Lay it on me.
Hannah: It’s from a book that he wrote called “Demons.” “Man can live without science. He can live without bread, but without beauty, there would no longer be anything to do to the world.”
Clare: Do you want to leave it at that?
Clare: That was cool. I hope that you all enjoyed this conversation about beauty and aesthetics. we wish you all the best. Let’s sign off. Bye everybody. Bye. See you next time.