In his recent book, Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed, Howard Gardner—MacArthur Fellow, Harvard professor, and public intellectual associated with the Museum of Modern Art, among other institutions—grapples with some of the most important challenges faced by people who aspire to a life as a moral citizen in a changing world. In his chapter on “Beauty,” he identifies problems with the previous attempts at defining the term—including his frustration that the traditional definition of beauty fails to account for the aesthetic appeal of his favorite contemporary compositions by people like Elliott Carter. To replace the outmoded ideal of beauty that risks being equated with kitsch, he posits instead what he calls “a path toward a solution” in which “certain antecedent features prove ‘symptomatic’ of artistic beauty.” While these conditions do not invariably result in an experience of an artwork as beautiful, he suggests that a transcendent experience is impossible in their absence.
His three antecedent features strike me as an optimal starting point for any discussion of beauty: “The object is interesting; its form is memorable; it invites further encounters.” To me, the immediate appeal of this framework begins in its refusal to evoke the standard paradigms of pleasure, mass appeal, smoothness, gentleness, or embodiment of the natural world. These latter standard terms—typically named by those attempting to define the beautiful—have the effect of excluding most of the art that I viscerally enjoy. They lead us towards specific surface elements and rules governing the creation of acceptable art, an authoritarian vision of the idea of beauty. For me, this traditional approach evokes a Pavlovian urge to rebel against its constraints. In contrast, Gardner’s conditions provide a starting point that emphasizes the ability of art to engender thought while our experience of the work deepens over time.
For me, Gardner’s new paradigm rings true and allows for a helpful re-framing of our discussions of beauty in art. I’ve generally been distrustful of traditional conversations about relative aesthetics, because the time-honored notions of beauty demean many of the artworks that speak directly to me. When beauty is equated with surface appeal, I’m forced to defend the very viability of art that expresses things that are harsh or discordant or noisy, even though these latter qualities are those that I find attractive. Gardner’s precursors avoid specific labeling of the details found in individual pieces, thereby moving towards a universal standard that can be applied across style boundaries. He avoids prioritizing specific artistic movements and also doesn’t need to posit singular examples of the essential qualities of beauty. Instead, he relies on the individual experience and allows for friendly disagreement on what attracts individual patrons. His approach invites us to remain open to new and unusual artistic experiences in hopes of finding beauty in unexpected places.
Interestingly, the very nature of discussing beauty through antecedent qualities leaves a surprising amount of wiggle room in the definition of beauty itself. While beauty cannot be experienced without the precursors listed above, Gardner posits one final factor, without which beauty is not perceived: the “tingle.” In short, while he believes that beauty cannot be perceived without specific underlying factors, in the end he allows for it to remain a matter of taste, something experienced individually. Hopefully, we can find freedom in this personal approach, allowing for each of us to be open to new forms of beauty outside of our traditional notions.
Next week: taste in new music.