Defining beauty

Finnish architect Professor Juhani Pallasmaa explores the ethical meaning of beauty

4 min read

The relationship between beauty and ethics is surely an unfashionable subject. In fact, beauty has been a problematic concept in art for a century and works of art now seem to question the entire notion. Also today’s celebrated architecture hardly aspires to serene beauty as experiences of the unheimlich, or of an outright mental threat, are often more apparent. What is the meaning of this distancing of life and art from beauty?

Art is not only a selective sampling of the world; art implies transforming the world, an endless modification towards the good – Rainer Maria Rilke

Sublime beauty was the central aspiration of art until the 19th century, but our quasi-rational and materialist consumer culture regards art as a deviation, cultural entertainment or investment. However, today an interest in the connections of ethics and aesthetics, beauty and truth, is clearly re-emerging. The perspective of an ecological catastrophy surely calls for the fusion of aesthetic and ethical sensibilities.

The titles of several significant books in recent years, such as Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just and Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice, exemplify this concern. Also Joseph Brodsky often wrote about the interactions of these two dimensions: ”Every new aesthetic reality makes man’s ethical reality more exact because aesthetics is the mother of ethics.” The notion of biophilia, the science and ethics of life, pioneered by biologist Edward O. Wilson, expands our ethical responsility all the way to biodiversity.

Beauty and elegance of thought are essential criteria even in mathematics and physics. Beauty represents qualities which cannot be formalised and expressed by any other means. The physicist D.A.M. Dirac argued that the theories of physics which project beauty, are probably also the correct ones. Herman Weyl, who completed quantum and probability theories, made an even more outspoken confession: ”My work has always attempted to combine truth with beauty, but when I have been obliged to choose one of the two, I have chosen the beautiful.” So, beauty and reason are equally valid approaches in human judgment.

Beauty is not an added value on top of the real essence of a thing, as it expresses the wholeness and completeness of the phenomenon. Our emotive reaction is often the most synthetic mode of understanding and beauty implies the experience of a complexity as a singularity. Emotion is a domain of intelligence implying a comprehensive structuring and judgment of the phenomenon.

Psychologist Howard Gardner indentifies ten categories of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, inter-personal, intra-personal, naturalistic, ethical and spiritual intelligences. I wish to add the categories of aesthetic, emotional and atmospheric intelligences to this already thought-provoking list.

Art articulates and expresses the lived world of experience, and it mediates the human essence of this very experience. Every artistic work is a microcosm, a complete world, or in the words of Andrei Tarkovsky ”a whole world as reflected in a drop of water”. Art is not merely aestheticisation as it involves genuine thought about our being in the world, through embodied images and means characteristic to the art form in question.

We have an amazing unconscious capacity to identify ourselves with objects of our perception, and to project ourselves and emotions on to them. Experiencing a work of art is an exchange; the work lends us its authority and magic, and we lend the work our emotions.

Neuroscience has recently associated this act of unconscious mirroring with our ”mirror neurons”. The great ethical value and equality of art is that we are able to experience our own emotions mirrored by the most profound and sensitive minds in human history. We can feel through the emotions of Michelangelo, Bach and Rilke.

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