Alexander Nehamas' Only a Promise of Happiness.

The big picture.
March 13 2007 2:27 PM

Beauty Is Back!

What really makes art beautiful.

(Continued from Page 1)

"When I say, then, that I find the beauty of Manet's Olympia overwhelming," he writes in his chapter-length discussion of the painting, "I am not just reporting how the painting makes me feel while I am looking at it. I am saying that I literally want to devote part of my life to it—not just to look at it (although that will certainly be part of it) but also to come to know it better, to understand it and see what it accomplishes."

This slightly obsessive pursuit takes him back to the history of the nude in European art, and the way that Manet's portrait of a prostitute accompanied by her black maid subverts Titian's Venus. (Early critics, recoiling from Manet's departure from conventional notions of beauty, called Olympia "a sort of female gorilla" and thought the painting depicted "apes on a bed.") It also takes him forward to portraits by Diane Arbus, in which the subjects' eyes, like Olympia's, seem "focused almost infinitesimally off to the side." He persuades himself that Manet "painted Olympia as she might have looked to—and at—a photographer taking her picture," and that the spooky black cat on her disheveled bed is startled by the flash. Such considerations are what Nehamas means when he says he "literally wants to devote part of my life" to Olympia; as in a happy marriage (or at least a marriage that promises to be happy), the more he learns about his companion, the more he wants to know.

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Nehamas' excursus on Manet isn't really meant to be art criticism; it's supposed to illustrate the unpredictable role of beauty and desire in the experience of art, and how art can take us in unexpected directions if we give ourselves over to it. Nehamas is impatient with any attempt to link art and morality, conceding that his fascination with Olympia and "vast numbers of female nudes" might not be "altogether innocent." Scarry's argument that "beauty promotes the sense of justice" strikes him as naive. After all, "beautiful villains, graceful outlaws, tasteful criminals, and elegant torturers are everywhere about us." What Nehamas expects from beauty is something more like an expanded sense of the world; he wants to be emotionally overwhelmed, not morally corrected.

My only complaint about Only a Promise of Happiness is that the book is sometimes a little professorial, a little smug in its risk-taking. In its narrow focus on the tradition of the female nude at the expense of most other kinds of art, it follows a fairly safe line of argument. Who now finds Olympia shocking? If Nehamas had spent three years looking at Carl Andre's machine-cut steel plates laid out on the ground, for example, or at a Mapplethorpe photograph of sadomasochism, we might feel that he had strayed into less familiar territory.

Even Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon asks more of us right now, 100 years after it was painted, than Olympia. Nehamas notes that with Les Demoiselles, "Picasso had begun his lifelong game of hide-and-seek with beauty," and that in such paintings Picasso "makes nothing easy," painting "against" his audience rather than for it. Picasso's rejection of conventional beauty is far more drastic than Manet's. I imagine that Nehamas, if prompted, would say that spending time with Les Demoiselles might send us to a deeper study of African masks and cultural practices, to issues of colonialism, to prostitution and the deformation of women, to Cubism, and so on. Living with the painting would mean mulling over such things. But I can't help feeling that some sort of "taming" of the anarchic energies of these once-shocking paintings inevitably takes place in this process. All this comfortable contextualizing runs the risk of becoming a bit too domesticated, a lively seminar in intellectual connections. That's not necessarily the best place to find the kind of aesthetic disorientation and sensory surprise that Nehamas is right to expect from great art. The happiness he's after is something wilder and freer. And if he can't quite rope it into words (beauty is "only a promise of happiness," after all), that ultimate elusiveness is the central point of his sane and provocative book.

Christopher Benfey is Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke. His latest book, A Summer of Hummingbirds, about writers and artists in Gilded Age America, has just been published by the Penguin Press.

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