Alexander Nehamas' Only a Promise of Happiness.

Alexander Nehamas' Only a Promise of Happiness.

Alexander Nehamas' Only a Promise of Happiness.

The big picture.
March 13 2007 2:27 PM

Beauty Is Back!

What really makes art beautiful.

Olympia. Click image to expand.
Manet's Olympia (1863)

There are signs that the hundred-years war on beauty is drawing to a close. We can date the first hostilities to Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907, the jagged painting of five prostitutes that he called his "first exorcism painting." With its African masks and crude frontal nudity, the painting seems bent on exorcizing something—probably syphilis in Picasso's case, but beauty itself for later painters and critics inspired by it. Clement Greenberg thought beauty was kitsch and argued that Jackson Pollock's supposed "bad taste is in reality simply his willingness to be ugly in terms of contemporary taste." Barnett Newman, the most eloquent of the Abstract Expressionists, put it bluntly in 1948: "The impulse of modern art was to destroy beauty." In 2003, Arthur Danto, in The Abuse of Beauty, declared mission accomplished: "The discovery that something can be good art without being beautiful [was] one of the great conceptual clarifications of twentieth-century philosophy of art."

Danto, Newman, and the rest thought that the suppression of beauty was a great liberation—a mustache on the Mona Lisa lets us all breathe more freely. Philosopher Alexander Nehamas isn't convinced, and he's not alone. The influential critic Dave Hickey, in The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (1993), decried "the continuing persistence of dated modernist conventions concerning … the inconsequence of 'beauty' in twentieth-century images." In 1999, Elaine Scarry launched her own defense of beauty, On Beauty and Being Just, in which she argued (via notions like "fairness") that our appreciation for beauty in art and nature is closely linked to our longing for justice. These thinkers aren't calling for some nostalgic return to conventional Beauty with a capital "B"—from Boticcelli to Bouguereau—before Picasso and Pollock disfigured it. It's the whole conception of beauty itself that, in their view, is ripe for revision.


Nehamas, in particular, thinks that beauty has been too narrowly defined and that both the pro-beauty camp and the anti-beauty camp have painted us into a tight corner. Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Artis his attempt to free us from the enclosure. Nehamas isn't one of those reactionary critics who want us to take a fresh look at easy-on-the-eye painters like Norman Rockwell (whom Hickey, among others, has tried to rehabilitate) or Andrew Wyeth. He thinks that the whole debate about beauty has been premised on a basic confusion between the truly beautiful and the merely "good-looking." Rembrandt's subjects—his homely Dutch matrons or flayed hunks of beef—aren't beautiful in any conventional way, and yet his paintings are undeniably beautiful, if by beauty we mean something larger and more elusive than accepted standards of taste. And John Currin, in works like Heartless (1997), has achieved the dubious aim of making "an ugly painting that depicts a beautiful body," if by beautiful we mean standard pinup attractiveness.

Nehamas feels that beauty deserves a second chance because he thinks that the war on beauty has restricted what we can hope to expect from both art and life. He thinks that this restriction of beauty began long before Modernism. He notes that modern philosophy, beginning with Kant, tamed art by putting it in a cage called "the aesthetic," an ethereal realm "completely isolated … from all relationships with the rest of the world," including sexual desire. Schopenhauer went even further, denouncing all "amorousness"—including nude figures "calculated to excite lustful feelings in the beholder"—as a "malevolent demon," and calling for an almost Buddhist extinguishing of all desire. Under this philosophical regime, beauty was seen as inherently dangerous and had to be policed by connoisseurs and philosophers who kept it, so to speak, in its frame. Art museums, repositories of nude statues and paintings, were meant to encourage an almost religious aesthetic "detachment." If desire had any place in the transaction, it was a narrow one, and inappropriate at that.

Mark Twain captured the inherent cognitive dissonance of this position when he called Titian's gorgeous Venus of Urbino, whose fingers conceal (or caress) her genitals, "the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses." Why the vitriol? "It isn't that she is naked and stretched out on a bed—no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand. If I ventured to describe that attitude there would be a fine howl—but there the Venus lies for anybody to gloat over that wants to—and there she has a right to lie, for she is a world of art, and art has its privileges." The last phrase is ironic, of course. Twain feels (enviously) that Titian has gotten away with something by smuggling some appealing smut into the inner sanctum of art.

Nehamas is on Twain's side and wants to banish guilt altogether from our experience of art and desire. In this short book he tries to cobble together a countertradition of philosophy, yoking Plato and Nietzsche, in which desire is considered inseparable from art, and art is reconnected to our daily lives. While conceding Schopenhauer's sense that there's something demonic, or at least inescapably uncertain, in our relations with beauty, Nehamas embraces the risk. He thinks that beauty—true beauty of a kind beyond mere appearance or "good looks" —is attractive precisely because you don't know where it will lead you or how it might transform you.

Nehamas' title comes from Stendhal's On Love, "Beauty is only a promise of happiness," and like Stendhal he thinks that love and beauty have a lot in common. When we are attracted to a person or to a work of art, we want to know them better. "Beauty beckons as love impels," he writes. "The art we love is art we don't yet fully understand." I don't think Nehamas is trying to sound mystical or mysterious here. He's trying to describe, instead, how art really works on us. He takes his own three-year-long-and-counting love affair with Manet's Olympia as an example.