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Beauty, Balance, and Justice Posted on December 4th


On Beauty and Being Just, by Elaine Scarry, is a fascinating discussion of the now-taboo subject in arts criticism: beauty. The book is unusual–Scarry takes on beauty as a serious philosophical subject, and makes the bold claim that an appreciation of beauty leads to a desire for justice. See this interview (Good interview–too bad the interviewer keeps harping on the fact he was run over by a truck!)

The book is a reaction against what Scarry believes have been the prevailing attitudes towards beauty. One of the ideas she reacts against are the ideas that beauty is harmful, because it distracts us from the injustice of the world.  Scarry counters this by linking beauty to justice in three ways:

1. Beauty gives us a sense of conviction. When we see suddenly experience beauty, it creates a visceral certainty. We know it is beautiful–and the for-sure knowing is part of the pleasure of beauty. Scarry claims that the feeling of rightness and certainty that beauty invokes encourages us to want the same feeling out of our moral existence. Therefore, we seek the certainty of justice.

2. Beauty encourages a replication of itself. We see beauty and we want to make it ourselves. Beauty makes us want to be better, and that leads to justice.

3.Finally, beauty involves symmetry. A beautiful person, animal, painting or poem is beautiful because it contains an internal symmetry. A painting is compositionally balanced, a poem or short story contains rising and falling action in equal measure. Justice also involves symmetry: rights should be equal, punishment should be in proportion to crime, etc. Beauty gives us an appreciation of balance, and balance is the premise behind justice. 

pointless image of justice scales 

All of Scarry’s arguments are fascinating, but what about those of us who find ambiguity and disjunction a part of beauty? There is certainly some symmetry in beautiful things, but there must also be something out of balance to warrant our interest. For instance, a painting that is too tidily balanced leaves nothing for the viewer to do. The work does not bear further scrutiny because it is resolved. The same problem occurs with a short story that is tied up at the end with a tight epiphany, appropriately foreshadowed. Short stories and poems that rely too heavily on balance (“rely too heavily on balance”–ha!) are forgettable, because they both answer and pose the questions.

In a beautiful work of visual art, there is an ambiguity born of the tension between disparate elements. Beauty is not a complacent whole; it is a array of specifics reflecting light off each other. I think this is the hypnotic nature of beauty–we want to unify the discrete points of light that never quite converge. Beauty, in its mysterious incompleteness, insists on our involvement. It is a kind of irritant.

But back to the justice aspect. If beauty does have elements of ambiguity and dissonance, what would that mean for justice? If you believe that disunity is part of beauty, then this hardly seems transferable to the scales of justice. Is this why great artists are often so morally unsound? 

P.S.  Perhaps Simone deBeuvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity can answer this.  (Great title–per my “Unknowing” entry, the title may be enough! )

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