Beauty is generally described as a quality that makes the contemplation of something pleasurable. This includes the sight of a landscape, certain times of day, people, objects, music, paintings, poems, songs, or more broadly abstract things such as ideas, thoughts, behaviours, relationships, and of course memories. In many cases it is a consciously made value judgment, in other cases we are overwhelmed by a pleasant feeling of attraction to something we find beautiful. My wife and I witnessed a young lady on the street who clearly had some beautiful thoughts expressed in a sweet smile and we both smiled in sympathy.
Of course, in a world of dichotomies, the beautiful is opposed to the ugly, but there is an observable phenomenon in which supposedly ugly attributes are occasionally perceived as beautiful nonetheless, and this is called the “paradox of ugliness.” But ugly is actually something that fills us with an unpleasant feeling or that repels us for some reason, at least initially, usually in connection with some perceived danger, real or imagined. Sometimes it is the contradiction of values that one sees, which is often provoked by activist groups in an attempt to get people to rethink an issue.
In all attempts to define beauty as something objective, our subjective side is consistent with the adage that beauty is “in the eye of the beholder.” The reaction that something I perceive as beautiful or ugly triggers in me often affects my own attractiveness to others, and people who are particularly critical of others, no matter how likeable they may otherwise appear, reveal a “mean streak” that many perceive as ugly.
In classical ideas, of course, beauty is defined by the relationship of the beautiful object as a whole and its parts. We have an idea of what proper proportions are and how they form an integrated, harmonious whole. Other views see a necessary connection between pleasure and beauty, for example in the form that an object is beautiful only if it causes disinterested pleasure and are called hedonistic concepts. There is a whole range of very different approaches to the phenomenon of the experience of beauty.
This makes it a very odd phenomenon to experience, especially in the western cultures, where the common ideas of beauty are often contradicted by the provocations of minorities, and attractiveness plays a bigger role than beauty. There are also the changing concepts of beauty that can cause generational conflicts, or the enacted portrayal of a character in a book, which in film or television contradicts the imagination of the reader. There are also conceived stereotypes, which cause distress, such as the typification of goblins in the Harry Potter films, which are now seen as “antisemitic”, although the image produced was a classical portrayal of how people in the past saw the fantasy figures. Curiously, the image that the written description that JK Rowling gave doesn’t invoke the same repulsion.
We are confronted far more today with the depiction of femininity by transsexual men, which is often a gross contradiction of the traditional image of femininity. In some people it evokes repulsion because it suggests a danger of misrepresentation, which is imagined to be used to abuse others. Again, this doesn’t have to be a real danger, but the suggestion is enough to cause discomfort. A question arises, whether the portrayal of femininity in this way is in fact only a provocation and intended to repel people. We seem to be in a time when incitement is normal on social media, and there are enough people all to willing to be provoked.
However, it makes a mockery of those who feel repulsion towards their own image but don’t have the impression that they have the wrong sex, or those who feel forced to comply with accepted standards, masking themselves more or less with make-up. Some feel they are over-sexualised, but some do it to themselves in their attempt to appear attractive, assuming beauty is a terminology that doesn’t apply to normal people and sexual allure the only goal.
Beauty then, seems to be overrated, and doesn’t play a role in the lives of ordinary individuals. The feeling of being overwhelmed by a pleasant feeling of attraction is reserved for summer evenings and sunsets in foreign lands, for the flirt on holiday, or for music, paintings and songs. There is also a real lack of beauty for many people in urban areas, where nature is reduced to manageable lawns and a few parks here and there. It makes people accept what they can get, just to get away from the hum of traffic for a while. So, have we driven out the concept of beauty because we have put it on a pedestal, declaring it divine? That could have a negative effect on our appreciation for the beauty that surrounds us, or on our pursual of beauty as a goal for our environment as an experience of life.