Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Ideas or Beauty

I'm one of those few people who actually alternates between ideas and aesthetics. About half the time I am writing scholarly articles; the other half, I am writing poems and plays. Given my publications and discussions on social media, one might assume a preference for ideas over aesthetics; yet, when given the opportunity to teach on any topic I wanted for the composition course at SMU, I chose to teach variations on the myth of Hippolytus and Phaedra this semester, and on the nature of beauty next semester.

Admittedly, the discussions of Hippolytus and Phaedra have given rise to discussions about shame and guilt, both in class and here, on this blog, but the focus in class has mostly been on the interactions of the myth with the different cultures in which they were written and performed. Yes, when we discuss Seneca's version of Phaedra, we will discuss Stoicism, but in the end, we will be discussing an aesthetic representation of that general philosophy.

These musings have been prompted by an essay by Terry Teachout in which he observes that, "To be an aesthete in an idea-driven age is to run the risk of being dismissed as irrelevant by those who prefer ideas to beauty." Indeed, I strongly relate to that observation. I expressed this frustration in a poem, meaning that for too many people, I wasted my time, since nobody's going to read the poem, while if I had written it in a blog post or essay, it would have been read. Ironically, though it would have been read, it likely would have been just as ignored as the poem.

Of course, just because something is written as a poem or a play (or a short story or a novel), that does not mean that aesthetics has triumphed. There are plenty of creative works out there intended to model an idea. But when this happens, all too often the complexity of the world -- a complexity which gives the world beauty, and which in turn gives beautiful works of art their own beauty -- is sacrificed for the simplicity of ideas. If a work of art is intended to demonstrate the truth of socialism, Marxism, Keynesianism, Monetarism, or Austrian economics, that work will fail as art. Yes, even if one uses what I consider the view of the economy that best encompasses the economy's complexity, the work will fail unless it serves beauty first and foremost. Only if and when it encompasses beauty will it most accurately describe the world in its full complexity.

One could of course ask, "Well, what, then, is beauty?" But to do so would be to start on the path of ideas. I could talk about Francis Hutcheson's definition of beauty as unity in variety and variety in unity and move on from there. Or I could do a dialogue like Plato's dialogues and have a group of people discussing beauty, allowing people to develop their own ideas on beauty, to see those ideas emerge, to have beauty itself demonstrated in the work itself. But even then, it is beauty discussed as an idea, even if the dialogue form and the language itself could move one beyond beauty as idea.

Or I could write a poem or two. (Of course, those poems both discuss the idea of beauty and demonstrate it, whereas most of the rest of my poems only demonstrate beauty -- when they do in fact demonstrate beauty, of course. But will you read them without links?)
Post a Comment