March 3, 2023

Lucy Tomlinson: The process of looking

Lucy Tomlinson is our research assistant for The Beauty Project; a research project that seeks to expand an evidence base for cultural value by looking at ways to understand and articulate the value of beauty. Here Lucy shares her reflections on doing a deep dive into beauty through key philosophical texts spanning hundreds of years.

Reading, and writing, about beauty has been a daunting task.

Although as a student and sometimes a teacher, I have been generally aware of the outline of some ideas about beauty within the philosophical texts of, let’s say the last two and half thousand years, I was not prepared for the richness of thought surrounding this most opaque of ideas.

There is a sub-discipline of philosophy known as the “history of ideas”, where you trace the development of a concept and its sway over history, politics and society over time. It is not so much about taking a stand and arguing for one particular viewpoint, but analysing how people have thought about an idea and evaluating its influence.

I thought this method would be ideal for looking at beauty in the context of this project. That, rather than developing our own analysis and theory of beauty, we would be following beauty’s progress over time, like a counter in a game of snakes and ladders. Sliding down the occasional snake but, in general, making progress onwards and upwards to the ladder of present-day thinking about beauty and the beautiful. But it wasn’t that simple. In fact, I would say it was more like trying to plot the shortest route across a cobweb.

I started at what many philosophers think of as the beginning, with Plato. Or perhaps given the non-linear nature of thinking about beauty, we can imagine him at the centre of the web. For Plato, beauty is primarily a metaphysical topic, but his writings on the subject also manage to take in other facets along the way, such as aesthetics, psychology, desire, education and politics. Already a centrifuge of concepts spinning off in different directions, each possibility taking us on a different path.

Perhaps the most familiar question in the theory of beauty is whether beauty is subjective (located “in the eye of the beholder”) or rather an objective feature of beautiful things. While Plato acknowledges that love and/or desire have a role to play in the experience of beauty, he believed that the property of “being beautiful” resides in the object itself. Some later thinkers disagree and take an approach that we would recognise as much more psychological.

One way of beginning to answer this question is to try and think about what beautiful objects have in common. The heterogeneous nature of beautiful objects can be illustrated by two buildings, built with the same purpose in mind but embodying very different, even oppositional, qualities, that we nevertheless consider beautiful.

In around 1135, a chapel was built in Edinburgh Castle dedicated to St Margaret, a Scottish queen (and latterly saint) known for her piety. It is the oldest original building in the castle, and some say in Edinburgh, a city known for ancient structures. It is a small chapel, built for around ten people, and its interior is simple to the point of austerity. There is almost nothing inside but a carved stone arch and low oak benches. The walls are pure white and seem to glow.

At practically the same time, the first of the famous stained-glass windows in Chartres Cathedral were being made. Soaring lancet windows and kaleidoscopic roses pour jewel-coloured light into the otherwise gloomy nave of the cathedral. The deep blue that dominates the windows is especially associated with Chartres, and was reportedly closer to the price of precious stones than other kinds of glass. The cathedral itself is enormous, breaching the boundary between earth and sky in an act of both devotion and ostentation. It is garlanded with ornate statuary and the High Altar is swagged with marble and gold. Of our two buildings, one is sumptuous, majestic and elaborate; the other simple, restrained and modest. Both lead many people to report experiences of beauty while inside them. What connects these places? Pure objectivists about beauty would point to characteristics that the buildings might share, such as symmetry, harmony or some other relational quality in the building itself. Pure subjectivists think the answer lies in the experience – that the person is reacting in a particular way, and if they reacted that way to a supermarket then that would be as valid.

The task of The Beauty Project is, as I understand it, not to settle this debate, but to explore what these different modes of thinking might mean to our real-life experiences of beauty. People generally agree that beauty is valuable, but also treat it as ephemeral and an indulgence. Or are made to feel they must do so. As my reading has progressed I have found that, contra to Plato’s eternal and idealistic conception of beauty, there are political, social and economic dimensions to beauty that we cannot ignore. But perhaps that is a topic for another blog post…

What scientists like Rox, philosophers and Quarantine seem to have in common is a love of questions. For all, questions are instruments of excavation. For the scientist, the question generates a hypothesis which can be tested and validated. For the philosopher, the right question properly phrased allows us to probe our intuitions about a topic, and formalise our thinking with logic and arguments. For Quarantine, the question is a tool to be used in artistic practice. The point isn’t so much the answer, as the process of formulating the answer.

The Beauty Project is about the process of looking – both at the places, people and practices that we consider beautiful, but also at ourselves when we undergo experiences of beauty. Asking questions that don’t always have one right answer, or may have several. I have thought more about my experiences of beauty in the last few months than I have done for many years, which in itself has been a beautiful experience. Even if the questions have been difficult to articulate and the answers more mysterious than ever.

A stack of books on the subject of beauty. White background, grey tabletop.

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