Beauty and ugliness


I have an Australian friend called Nicki who recently worked as a waitress in a restaurant. She had to serve drunken middle-aged couples, a spectacle she described as ‘ugly’.

I didn’t think much about her use of the word ‘ugly’ at the time but I have since grown to like it. Whereas I would tend to say that I find something ‘wrong’ and then explain to others why they should feel the same, Nicki says something is ugly and leaves it at that. What for me is a moral issue is for her an aesthetic one.

There can be very little comeback on something as subjective as an aesthetic judgment. After all, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, or at least so we are told. Asking someone to justify an aesthetic judgment is like asking them to explain why they like chocolate. Some things are just brute facts and need no explanation.

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Maria Schell

I think most of our aesthetic judgments could be analysed if we had the time and inclination to do so. I find the young Maria Schell beautiful and if asked why, I would point to her clear skin, her lustrous hair, her bright eyes, her healthy white teeth and her symmetrical and perfectly proportioned features. Her face suggests both intelligence and health. Since most men’s brains are built similarly to mine in that they are designed to seek out signs of reproductive health in women, signs that we interpret as ‘beauty’, most men will find the same women beautiful as I do.

The experience of beauty takes place in people’s brains. If there were no brains, there would be no beauty, so to that extent beauty is in the brain of the beholder. But since we generally agree on who or what is beautiful, then beauty can also be said to be an objective characteristic of things. Just as you need two hands to clap, so it seems you need both a brain and a potentially beautiful object for the experience of beauty to happen.

The same is true of most things. Bitterness doesn’t exist out there in the world. We humans just perceive foods that are bad for us as bitter and those that are good for us as tasty. There are good reasons why we like some foods and dislike others, though we are generally unaware of these reasons. Something is delicious if the food and our taste buds ‘agree’.

Similarly I think there might be good reasons underlying why both Nicki and I regard the sight of middle-aged people, especially women, getting drunk as ugly. For me it’s because drunken people are often boorish, and boorishness becomes women even less than it becomes men.

I think that even if you manage to justify your tastes in terms of reasons you can always dig a little deeper: Okay, so drunken people tend to be boorish. Why don’t you like boorishness? Depending on your outlook, such deep questioning can either seem profound or just stupid and annoying like children who just keep asking why? why? why?.

No matter how good your reasons, someone can always find a further question to tack onto the last, just as you can follow every number with a bigger number. Yet unlike with numbers, you can stop further questions with the helpful response, ‘That’s just how things are’. With this statement you have struck the bedrock of your nature, brute facts, axioms. ‘That’s just how things are’ is similar to Nicki’s, ‘I just find it ugly’ in that both indicate that there is no point digging any further.

There is something simple and refreshing about Nicki’s aesthetic response compared to the post factum rationalisations that you cobble together when pressed. And maybe these aesthetic responses win people over more effectively than reasoning ever can. Trying to persuade someone why it is wrong for Muslim women to wear burkas is a fool’s errand but stating that you find them hideously ugly leaves no room for argument. After all, no one can prove to you that they aren’t ugly.


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