The Useful and the Useless

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Among the many definitions of beauty is the one most operative in our everyday lives: the pleasing or attractive features of something or someone. This is beauty in the intuitive or experiential sense; we know it when we sense it. Aesthetic snap-judgments of this sort and the disagreements they ignite recall the cliché, “There’s no accounting for taste,” and its Latin predecessor, de gustibus non est disputandum (“In matters of taste, there can be no disputes”). This does not mean that taste is thoroughly or hopelessly subjective. Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have uncovered basic universal principles of art. For example, philosopher Denis Dutton observed that we find beauty in things done especially well, while anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake contends that “decorating” was a crucial way our ancestors marked off practices essential to physical and cultural survival, such as hunting, peacemaking, and rites of passage. Yet, once we move beyond the baseline acceptance of the existence of beauty and its importance in human life, opinions take over and vary widely.

Historically, aesthetics has been a difficult subject to intellectualize. George Santayana observed in The Sense of Beauty (1896) that, as a philosophical subject, beauty has “suffered much from the prejudice against the subjective.” This is mitigated in part by the inclusion of art history and critical theory under the philosophical umbrella. Yet, such efforts highlight rather than bypass the fundamental obstacle of personal taste: in order for beauty to be taken seriously, it must be removed from the proverbial beholder’s eye and placed in some externalized rubric. Santayana summed it up: “so strong is the popular sense of the unworthiness and insignificance of things purely emotional, that those who have taken moral problems to heart and felt their dignity have often been led into attempts to discover some external right and beauty of which our moral and aesthetic feelings should be perceptions or discoveries, just as our intellectual activity is, in men’s opinion, a perception or discovery of external fact.” In other words, if beauty (and morality) cannot find footing in objective truth, they are forever doomed to triviality.

The dismissal of emotions runs counter to the biological-anthropological theories alluded to above. Whereas philosophers tend to view beauty as an end and art “for its own sake,” evolutionary theorists investigate the basis for art’s emergence and persistence as a cross-cultural phenomenon. For them, what constitutes the beautiful from one person or group to the next is less important than its functionality. Beauty and utility are not at odds, but are instead inextricably linked.

In a way, our aesthetic judgments harmonize the philosophical and biological-anthropological sides of this debate. On the one hand, we over-rely on the moral-philosophical categories of “good” and “bad” when describing art, giving the impression of absolute or empirical standards, whether or not they actually exist. On the other hand, these designations stem from a functionalist response: “good” means useful; “bad” means “useless” (or “less useful”). A painting or musical composition might be beautiful according to academic standards, but fail to move us on a personal level. We can intellectually appreciate its creativity and execution without being emotionally attracted to it. Likewise, something of lesser technical quality can be strikingly beautiful if it serves a purpose. As Baruch Spinoza put it in his Ethics (1677): “By good I mean that which we certainly know to be useful to us.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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