On Beauty

Review of The Secret Power of Beauty, by John Armstrong (Allen Lane, 2004)

© Donald Richardson, November, 2005


This book is something of an aesthetics reader, though a useful - and eminently readable - one.

An exposition of 18th-century English painter William Hogarth's theory of the S-curve is followed by David Garrick's doubting-Thomas equation of this 'line of grace and beauty' with the profile of his own ageing torso. Armstrong examines mathematical theories of proportion in music (Pythagoras) and architecture (Palladio), Keats's famous equation of beauty with goodness and truth and Kant's focus on the eye of the beholder. All are rejected as inadequate or in error. So, too, are the philosophies of Winckelmann, Schiller and Pater.

This will not surprise anyone who has tried to find wisdom in these writers. Yet, Armstrong accepts, like most of them, that aesthetics is the study of the 'secret power of beauty' - in spite of his noting that 'the most sophisticated attempts to discover [it] have been unsuccessful'.

Why did he bothered to write the book then? one wonders. Well, it is interspersed with his own attempts to explain his fascination with the concept - none of them very convincing, however. An example is his discussion of the relationship between beauty and pleasure. 'If I don't take pleasure in a particular object then it just isn't beautiful for me', he says - but goes on to add that this 'may seem to introduce more problems that it solves'. Indeed! The traditional religious equation of pleasure with evil is one such.

One weakness in Armstrong's discourse is his adducing evidence from fictional literature rather than fact - which must expose his argument to the charge of circularity. Another is inherent in any system that equates the aesthetic totally with the beautiful - the inability to account for the appeal of works of art that cannot naively be accorded that honorific, such as Goya's Disasters of War and Shakespeare's King Lear.

Armstrong's theory is a one-size-fits-all procrustean bed. He fails to recognise our differential ways of regarding, understanding and valuing nature, humanity, works of art and works of functional design. Nature has no inherent aesthetic qualities. We humans impose our aesthetic values on a sunset, or a thunderstorm. In his second chapter, in which he discusses design, Armstrong attempts to establish - as some of the Bauhaus alumni did - that fitness to function is a valid explanation of 'beauty'. But, this thesis has long been invalidated: does it matter if a tractor is ugly so long as it works well? And the human body, although often considered an object of beauty for various - and different - reasons, has its own functional imperatives which can bear no relationship whatever to how it 'looks'.

However, one of Armstrong's concepts that everyone will agree with is that engagement with works should never be superficial - which implies that aesthetic education is basic to our civilization.