People have wondered for a long time on what is beautiful and what isn’t. The Greeks certainly did, and even though they had set rules to define what the “right” proportions were for sculptures, buildings etc. they still had philosophers ready to challenge those ideals. Not sure if it was because they were dating someone ugly, but some of them decided that a bit of ugliness makes things prettier.

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius for instance gives a bit of a bizarre example with bread. I think right now of him since this past weekend I saw a bust of him at the Yale Art Gallery:

(took this one with an iPAD)
So he decides that those small imperfections on the bread is what makes good bread, even when it was not what the baker wanted. Or olives, that look good when they are almost rotten:

For instance, when bread is baked some parts are split at the surface, and these parts which thus open, and have a certain fashion contrary to the purpose of the baker’s art, are beautiful in a manner, and in a peculiar way excite a desire for eating. And again, figs, when they are quite ripe, gape open; and in the ripe olives the very circumstance of their being near to rottenness adds a peculiar beauty to the fruit.
(translation taken from here)

Closer to our time Kant had the idea that in order to judge the beauty of something you had to have a “disinterest” in that object. What does this mean I don’t have a clue, but people always look at you with uttermost respect if you quote Kant. Anyway, I suppose he means that in order to judge beauty you must not benefit in any ways from it. So it is OK if you think a painting is beautiful as long as you do not want to own it, or you think a girl is beautiful but you don’t care to date her, that sort of stuff. Why is this even relevant? Well, he assumes such a “disinterest” will make the judgment of beauty more Universal. As soon as you have an interest in something it gets more personal, and he wants a theory of beauty that is more encompassing than the individual.

It goes without saying that the concept of beauty changes a ton through different periods, and an interesting example is the depiction of the Crucifixion. For some time people did not allow such representations since they considered them to be shocking and lacking taste, but then things changed and now we are used to an incredible amount of paintings or sculptures showing it. There is a very gory one here at the Yale Art Gallery for instance. I also took a picture of that one with an iPOD, but I found a better one taken by a flickr user:

Benedotto Bonfigli, Perugia, c. 1410-1496, Christ Crowned with Thorns, c. 1455
(Christ Crowned with Thorns, by Benedotto Bonfigli

A similar shift in aesthetics happens with depictions of death or the macabre; its purpose during the Middle Ages was to freak out people, but especially from the 19th century onward we started loving it and considering it an art form in itself.

What I find particularly interesting is when it comes to ancient cultures. Sometimes an object gets unearthed that nobody knows for sure what it represents. It looks pretty, but nowadays we have a completely different perspective on what is beautiful and what isn’t. Maybe the object was supposed to inspire fear or terror, but today we go “Awwww that is so cute” and that is it.

Then some people have no doubts on what is beautiful and what isn’t, and they don’t fully buy into “some ugliness makes everything prettier”. Like Philip Larkin, who wished he had asked the cute girl out instead of the not so cute one (and mind you, he was no Adonis)

Wild Oats (Philip Larkin)

About twenty years ago
Two girls came in where I worked—
A bosomy English rose
And her friend in specs I could talk to.
Faces in those days sparked
The whole shooting-match off, and I doubt
If ever one had like hers:
But it was the friend I took out,

And in seven years after that
Wrote over four hundred letters,
Gave a ten-guinea ring
I got back in the end, and met
At numerous cathedral cities
Unknown to the clergy. I believe
I met beautiful twice. She was trying
Both times (so I thought) not to laugh.

Parting, after about five
Rehearsals, was an agreement
That I was too selfish, withdrawn,
And easily bored to love.
Well, useful to get that learnt.
In my wallet are still two snaps
Of bosomy rose with fur gloves on.
Unlucky charms, perhaps.


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