Who can say with certainty what beauty is? Today beauty is not a mutually shared value, but an individual property, it’s in the ‘eye of the beholder’. But what if the ‘beholder’ is wrong?
While we’re skilled at assigning value to many events or properties, we prefer to render our opinion using tangible indicators. With formulas or a monetary gauge, the outcome is black and white and doesn’t require any sort of torturous, ambiguous weighing of pros and cons. The critics can be shut down by a simple retort: it’s just math.
We are on much shakier ground, however, when we attempt to assign value to events of philosophical nature: things that are good or bad, right and wrong.
Like beauty, which is hard to define but easy to point out, the right and the wrong are abstractions, escaping a definition. We know it when we see it.
I know that Ancient Greek statues and Renaissance paintings are beautiful. To know this I don’t need to rely on technical measurements. Classical art evokes stronger emotions and a sense of awe. It invites contemplation and promotes selfless thoughts. It represents universal humanity and its collective struggles and victories. However, when we observe a piece of postmodernist art, like, say, a shark in a formaldehyde tank, we’re not invited to ponder what it represents or what it’s meant to evoke or inspire. The value of a Damien Hirst’s shark tank, unlike that of a Renaissance painting, is rather in its originality, in that ‘no one has thought of that before’. Novelty and originality are cute, but they are not synonymous with beauty. Novelty art may carry a shock or entertainment value but it does not bring out something that is ‘unsaid but strongly felt’. But, novelty aside, there’s a more trenchant analysis of value here: we’re asked to marvel at the commercial value of the entity: what it was sold for and who bought it. Against such an ironclad argument one will be hard pressed to mount an adequate objection.
Because of this overreliance, either out of fear or out of habit, on the technical tools to assess the intangibles and abstractions (like beauty), we have developed a ‘spiritual’ disability. We’re afraid or unable to declare that something is ‘wrong’ or ‘ugly’, because then we would be forced to make our case without relying on our preferred methods of argument. In order for our argument to be heard and taken seriously, we would have to show that what we think is wrong is ‘unprofitable’. But what if ugliness is profitable? How do we make our case then?
This discomfort with abstractions has broader implications. It seeps into and corrupts our public life.
The spirit of law is routinely violated even when the letter of law is upheld. Technically many criminals, especially white collar ones, are found to have done nothing wrong, and yet we often feel that the justice has not been served. How do we get that feeling? The law was upheld, we should accept it and go on with our business. But that feeling of a lack of closure, that some wrong hasn’t been righted doesn’t leave us. No law was broken when banks structured and sold mortgage-backed securities to gullible customers. The same bankers could not be touched or stripped of their bonuses because they were bound by contracts. The sanctity of contracts is sacred under the law and is indifferent to public ire. A decade later, the President of the United States pardons a conspiracy peddler and a racist felon. Technically, all of the above abides the letter of the law, but violates the spirit of the law. This spirit is something that we struggle to define even when we feel its validity and importance. Here, our reliance on numbers and technology and the letter of law gave an opening to clever, self-serving charlatans: they appeal to our reason to get away with crime. Reason, they say, tells us we have to move on. We nod, as if under a spell, and move along.
One can argue that it’s quite a big leap from Damien Hirst’s art to the pardoning of Joe Arpaio. I think these two are connected, two sides of the same coin. It’s a libertine ethos, when things are done simply because they can be done. It’s the proverbial “everything is allowed” Karamazovian lament. This mode of thinking and operating, that ugliness and beauty are the same because both can be profitable, has debased our moral radar: we have forgotten how to discern the good from the bad. And it’s not like we were very good at it to begin with, but at least back in the day we could use religion is a guide – a poor and violent guide, sure, but one that facilitated a communal, agreed upon appreciation of things that can not be measured by P&L. Today we don’t even have that.
This intellectual capitulation creates social apathy and sense of hopelessness. The apathy, in turn, opens the door for various self-serving hucksters.
Technocratic arguments are routinely and skillfully deployed to wear us down, to make us doubt our own assessments. The poor can not be helped because ‘numbers’. The rich needs another tax cut because ‘growth’. ‘Numbers’ and ‘growth’ are magic words, near-religious incantations coming out of the Koch brothers pantheon, that are tailored to shut down any nascent public debate. And, indeed, how can one counter ‘numbers’ and ‘growth’ with ‘feelings’ and ‘spirit’? He will be laughed out of the room.
We’re in a bind here. If ugliness and beauty are the same because both can be profitable how do we discern one from the other? Furthermore, if one, against all odds, is capable to arrive at conclusion about what ‘good’ is, he will not only face a lack of available avenues to address the disbalance, but a whole variety of social, economic and political impediments that prevent him from acting out the ‘good.’
A few years ago on this blog I ruminated on the concept of freedom and I arrived at the definition of freedom as the ability to be a good citizen. And how can one be a good citizen today? Does that also follow that without the ability to know beauty we can not be free?