Illustration: Lara Wüster
The aesthetics of art seem to be a widely discussed topic throughout the history of philosophical thought. But what about the aesthetics of the body?
I cut my flatmate’s hair after the first two weeks of quarantine. By now, I have forgotten what makeup feels like on my face. And I’m only seen by a camera on my laptop, my closest friends and family.
Is beauty subjective or objective? Is there an underlying concept of beauty, intrinsic to us humans? Is there a universal concept of beauty? But if society universally decided beautiful is she who wears his hair cut, nail polish and gets her wrinkle treatment once a month, isn’t there something universally wrong? Bodily perfection seems to be the goal, not only for women but for men also. But what if all gyms close?
Even in the worst of times people are concerned about how they look, mascara peaked in 2008, lipstick during WW II.
Beauty products “make people feel happy,” Jones said. “It makes them feel much better about themselves at a very difficult economic time.” (Altman, NY Times)
Beauty gives us pleasure. Being the master of our own appearance gives us a feeling of control. But what if a common understanding of beauty just doesn’t work anymore because the places, we need to go to maintain it, are closed?
If we look at the use and uselessness discussion of beauty and follow the thought of Xenophon, one of the Greek philosophers a few thousand years ago, we consider things beautiful in relation to the use for which they are intended (Cf. Xenophon, Book III, viii). If beauty is always intentional, and the intention of a flat belly is to attract partners, what is the point of that in times where you cannot meet someone in person? Does it maybe make us understand that our own beauty should be related to the use that it gives to ourselves? Feeling attractive not for the pleasure of being admired by someone else, but by oneself? Can we ever escape the thought of what others consider beautiful, or is it always us looking through society’s glasses at ourselves?
Can we, if we accept our flawed body, our uncut hair, the nail polish peeling of, universally agree that it is not this concept of beauty that matters and gives us pleasure, but the beauty of our own body without external forces? If our body makes us feel good, makes us happy with our closest friends and family, shouldn’t we call it beautiful? After all, it makes all the pleasure of the world possible, with or without nail polish.
Does that make beauty independent from being intersubjective, as Hume and Kant would state it is?
„Now, when the question is whether something is beautiful, we do not want to know whether anything depends or can depend on the existence of the thing, either for myself or anyone else, but how we judge it by mere observation (intuition or reflection). … We easily see that, in saying it is beautiful, and in showing that I have taste, I am concerned, not with that in which I depend on the existence of the object, but with that which I make out of this representation in myself. Everyone must admit that a judgement about beauty, in which the least interest mingles, is very partial and is not a pure judgement of taste .“(Kant 1790, section 2)
Kant wants us to focus on the mental representation of the beautiful, not on the object itself. If we look at ourselves in the mirror, do we only see a body ready to be optimized for a special purpose? Or can we appreciate its form for its own sake?
But if this is only possible if one is indifferent to the existence of the thing as such, how can the body be beautiful? Can we even perceive bodies without intention, without use, without a common understanding of aesthetics in our society, aesthetics we have to work for?
If the answer is no, can we even be beautiful?
Altman, Mara: „What is beauty now?”, NY Times <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/15/us/beauty-coronavirus-body-looks.html>.
Kant, Immanuel: 1790, Critique of Judgement, J.H. Bernard, trans., New York: Macmillan, 1951 .
Sartwell, Crispin: „Beauty“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/beauty/>.
Xenophon, Memorabilia, E. C. Marchant, trans., Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1923 [4th century BCE text].