How Art Creates Beauty of the Most Horrible Things

Art is capable, perhaps uniquely so, in finding beauty or maybe better yet “perfection” in the sense of “excellence” in most horrible things. The ending of Moby Dick and Gravity’s Rainbow (two of the greatest books of the last 200 years) both come to mind. Both end with a terrible death, in the former of an entire crew of a whale-hunting ship and in the latter of a hapless boy strapped into a V-2 missile to be shot by the Germans at Pennemunde at London in 1944.

In a more modern sense, we can see this in Tarentino’s movies, where he portrays a stylized form of aestheticized violence that is both beautiful, terrible and “perfect.” I mean perfect or “excellent” in its “beauty” in a Platonic sense of the Greek word arete.

Aesthetics, the Philosophy or Art, Beauty, and Taste

The section of philosophy that deals with beauty, what it is, what it means, how to define it, its purpose, etc. is called Aesthetics. This school of thought was probably started by Plato. The actual study of Aesthetics itself dates from Hegel.

In the 19th Century, John Rusk made some great contributions to the genre in his works on art or art criticism. Kant, Nietzsche, Confucius and the Buddha all had important things to say on this subject, so you can see that the philosophical discussion of beauty extends to theology too, as Buddhism and Confucianism are seen as marriages of philosophy and religion or, I would argue, using Heideggerian language, “philosophy-as-religion.” Hume and Kant both linked art to the ability to produce pleasure in its consumer.

John Keats argued in Ode on a Grecian Urn that truth was beauty and vice versa, so here Tarantino’s hyper-realized violence is beautiful in part in its sheer graphic nature. In Hinduism, Satyam Shivam Sundaram makes the same statement – “Truth is God and God is Beautiful.” This sense of art as truth + beauty could be called a “mathematical conception of art” as we see in concepts like complexity, simplicity, and symmetry (symmetry in particular seems linked to art and beauty both) that mathematics itself can be both artistic and beautiful.

In the modern era, Freud  (the “Uncanny”, John Dewey (connection between art and ethics), Theodore Adorno (the Culture Industry), Marshall McLuhan (making the invisible visible), and in particular Arthur Danto (modern art as kalliphobia or anti-beauty), Andre Malraux and Walter Benjamin (the Renaissance and recent definition of art and beauty).

Modern Philosophy as the “Progression” from the Intelligible to the Unintelligible

Lyotard, Merle-Ponty, and Lacan are as usual much less intelligible. If we can see philosophy as the development of a social science, it seems to be “developing” from intelligibility towards unintelligibility. Kant and Nietzsche started it, Sartre turned it into an art form, and in the modern era, philosophy has ceased to have much of any meaning at all. See the French School starting in the 1970’s. The object here is apparently to make as little sense as possible.

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