The Necessity of Beauty and The Fictions of Equality
What does it mean, today, in our #MeToo age, when all of us are supposedly equal, to declare that one is moved, almost transcendently, by beauty? Is it permissible to wax poetic about the delicious curve of a buttock, the fine-grained smoothness of a craftsman’s wooden table, the sublime power of Milton’s poetry, or the connection to some divinity one feels when one is caught in the tessellated light of a cathedral’s rose-window?
Perhaps our discomfort lies in this — beauty stands in opposition our modern notions of egalitarianism; to claim something is beautiful is, by definition, to set it above the ordinary and mundane, and in so doing to reify the claim that most people and things are ordinary and mundane. One feels put down: — “I, ordinary, I, mundane?” What greater insult could there be? “You mean to say, I’m not special; I am, despite my best efforts, not that different from other people?” Our spirit recoils at the thought.
Yet here there is also a paradox, for when it comes to the means by which we distribute institutional and economic power, we generally accept that some people and things are indeed better. We acknowledge that better students should be accepted into better universities and that we should promote better workers to upper management; few except the most strident economic egalitarians contend that it is wrong to pay some people better than others. When the question is one of utility, when some supposedly objective means of evaluation lets us quantify outcomes, we are happy to establish serrated ranks and argue that these hierarchies are just ones because they serve society.
To declare a love of beauty is to stand firmly athwart the now near universal conception in the English speaking world that “everyone is beautiful in their own way,” or as the New York Times recently put it: “The ability to say ‘I’m beautiful’ — and to really, truly believe it — may not be a fundamental right, but it, too, is revolutionary in its way, reflective of contemporary upheavals in how we perceive race, gender, sexuality, ability and size. Who gets to be beautiful now? Anyone who believes themselves to be so.” This is a form of aesthetic communism, of the redistribution of the property of beauty, to everyone. We have given up on solving economic inequality so we engage in the worst possible alternative — aesthetic egalitarianism.
Beauty, as Todd Gitlin has reminded us, has no utility. It is a telling feature of our modern culture that we countenance inequality if we think it useful, but the second we cannot find a practical use for our distinctions, we transfer all of our suppressed rage over purportedly “necessary” inequalities, to those we deem unnecessary. It is thus with beauty — possessing no utility, the hierarchies and inequalities that the love of true beauty creates are understood by many as strictly selfish. To claim something (or worse, someone) is beautiful is to be labelled elitist, egotistical or cruel.