I use the term “aestheticism” to label a tendency of some arts people and philosophers: they despair of any sturdy results in the realms of truth and goodness, and so they look to beauty as the value out of which to build culture. There are many varieties of aestheticism, some of which show a great sensitivity to values, e.g., Frederick Turner, Beauty: The Value of Values. There are other varieties that are less mature.
In what follows, I first present a caricature of a radical skeptic and indicate how that position undercuts itself. In my opinion, taking time to understand these two admittedly densely philosophical paragraphs gives you ideas to help protect you against a lot of sophistry that is more common than we might suppose. Then I say just a bit about beauty’s bonds to truth and goodness; recognizing these bonds protects from aestheticism.
Radical skepticism rejects the idea of truth, claiming that science (which is in such flux) is all revisable, philosophy (where fundamental debates continue without end) is just a matter of opinion, and religion (with its contradictory claims and embarrassing blunders) is an illusion. Radical skepticism challenges the concept of beauty as merely subjective, “in the eye of the beholder,” and morality as merely a tool of social power.
But radical skepticism subverts itself. It takes historical science to establish the fact that scientific ideas change. In order to dismiss philosophy, it is necessary to take a philosophical position and perhaps defend it with philosophical reasoning; the notion that philosophy is mere opinion is itself merely an opinion. The view that religion is an illusion implicitly claims insight into the emptiness of what can be seen from every mountain top of religious experience. Skeptics regard beauty as merely subjective and not also something that the Creator imparts to what is created and helps the appreciative beholder to recognize; but they contradict themselves in practice when they feel contempt (an aesthetic emotion which implicitly claims objectivity) for those who embrace the (allegedly really ugly) error of thinking that beauty is real. Skeptics about morality claim that it these concepts are mere words used to manipulate, control, and oppress people. These skeptics contradict themselves in practice, since their critique of oppression is a moral critique; and their confused muddle does not help them protect the oppressed.
Walking in beauty is based on living the truth, and it is completed by participating in goodness. Truth and goodness protect beauty from aestheticism—the exaltation of beauty in isolation from the other two supreme values. In an aestheticist value-vacuum, beauty readily descends to emotional self-assertion. Cutting beauty’s bonds to truth and goodness also dooms beauty. The confusion and chaos of the twentieth century, reflected in the arts, will stay with us until the world is ready for major change; but there are bright lights on the horizon—such as this conversation.
Do you find any of the skeptical attitudes attractive? If so, have you simply accepted them? If not, how do you respond to them?
Have you had experiences in the arts that seemed to be “emotional self-assertion” devoid of higher meaning and value? What constructive responses do you propose to this problem?
Photo credit: “Alturas 200 x 170 cm” by Hebertsanchez – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alturas_200_x_170_cm.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Alturas_200_x_170_cm.jpg