Beauty: A Conversation
Bryn Mawr College
January 25, 2005

"We the Creatures":
Our Responses to Dewey, Percy and Elkins

Amy: I found that alot of the reading related back to my section's discussion about the contrast between ideas of beauty- if we had found images on the survey beautiful because of a cultural construction of beauty that we buy into (i.e. appreciating Michangelo's "David" because we know it is an example of beautiful craftsmanship) or if we found things beautiful because they moved us emotionally/instinctually. It seemed that the authors of all three readings put a greater value on beauty that is discovered by oneself, and in the personal relationship between the individual and what the individual finds most beautiful. Perry writes " The highest satisfaction of the sightseer ...is that his sigh should be certified as genuine." After our discussion in seminar today, I did come away with the idea that what is most important is our gut reaction to an image - whether we choose to use the word beautiful or not. So it was interesting to me that Elkins was also saying this- that art historians may appreciate a work of art in a scholary manner, but if they are not being emotionally moved by it- their response is not as valid. I'm a little conflicted here- I think we have to go with our gut about what we find beautiful because it is such an inherently personal decision, yet I don't believe that the only way something is truly beautiful to us , is when we make that discovery without outside information. The levels of appreciation of beauty, or worthiness can come so many different places, as long as you come away with that appreciation- the experience has still been valid.

Flora: I would have liked to have seen more diversity in the choice of readings about beauty as experience. All 3 writers had similar opinions about the best way to experience art: to remove as much baggage as possible. I liked reading these 3 selections in the order they were presented in the packet because they seemed to move from a more abstact to a more specific discussion of the same theme. Dewey’s more general “creature” turned into Percy’s tourist from Boston, turned into specifically named art historians that Elkins actually talked to. I found a couple passages in Dewey’s writing to be beautiful, especially the first paragraph on pg. 5 where he discusses every day human experiences, what he later names “art in germ.” Percy’s discussion of the dogfish intrigued me. The student ready to dissect the dogfish is trying to learn not just dogfish anatomy, but also the proper way to use his lab instruments and how to record labs in his notebook. The student may not see the dogfish as well as the kid on the beach, but the kid on the beach is not going to see the standard scientific process. And I think that’s more of a loss than Percy explains. Even the brilliant researcher reaching into the dogfish with his thumbnail is well versed in basic biological procedure, otherwise he would not have a PhD. and be working at Harvard. It’s hard to find a balance between learning proper jargon, which is necessary to participate in any intellectual community, and self discovery. I found Elkins' essay very ironic. While discussing so thoroughly why art historians and intellectuals have less emotional reactions to art and maybe should, he was adding another expectation that would interfere with the experience of looking at art, much the way his beloved history would.

Brittany: I was most interested by Walker Percy's piece. In general, I agree with his argument: that it's better to experience "beauty" or have "beautiful experiences" on a personal, individual level, outside the framework of expertise; that it's better to learn about life by living it rather than reading about it. However, I do take issue with a few of his points (or at least, a few of his examples). Firstly, Percy seems to damn poetry/literature to things that somehow cripple actual experiences. For example, he writes that those who "recognize the title of the object, to return it to the appropriate expert and have it certified as a genuine find" can't really "see the thing--as Gerard Hopkins could see a rock or a cloud or a field." Maybe it's just me, but my previous experience with good poetry actually enhances my outside experiences. For example, looking out the window right now, I see the snow and think of T.H. White, who once said that the way snow *should* lie is like icing, thick and white (or something to that effect). Because of that, the snow is *more* beautiful to me. For another, I'm sure Gerard Hopkins himself didn't write his poetry in isolation. He'd probably read a few poems about, I don't know, falcons before, but that didn't make "The Windhover" any less genuine. In fact, who knows? Maybe he didn't even notice how amazing birdflight was until he read a poem that pointed it out to him; that doesn't make *his* poetry any less inspired. The second point I disagree with is Percy's insistence that educational environments stifle poetic enjoyment, and that if you read Shakespeare in a classroom you'll "recall the smell of the page and the smell of Miss Hawkins." My response: well, you've gotta read poetry *somewhere*, right? Just because we accept our role as "consumers of experience"---because we read sonnets in class instead of stumble upon itinerant poets in meadows (or dogfish on beaches)---doesn't mean we can't fully digest what we consume. In a way, it's our responsibility to take sovereignty over something we read, whether we find it on a beach or in a classroom. Percy is right in that artistic experiences should be individual ones. But because they are, it is our individual task to make a poem mean something to us. ...I would respond to some of Percy's points on the scientific side (like the dogfish thing), but I always wormed my way out of dissecting things in high school....

Catherine : All three authors seem to bring about the question whether background knowledge of the object in question of beauty enchance the object's beauty to the observer, or make the object less beautiful, or does knowledge simply have no impact. They also seem to agree that experiencing art is the only way to fully appreciate and understand it and they explore what it means to experience something. Elkins uses the criterian of how emotionally impacted one is by a work of art, which is determined by whether or not they cry as a result of observing the art, to determine whether or not that person is capable of fully appreciating art. He explores this idea aggressively by asserting that people seem to fear allowing the "picture" or work of art fully impact their emotions, and this stagnant emotional state in response to art is often amplified with increased knowledge of art. Upon first reading Elkins, I thought he was full of it. I thought the tone of his work was that of a pompous, over educated art historian who has nothing better to do with his time than write about how people cry or dont cry and didnt really understand his argument. What I have come to understand, is that he is encouraging people to interact with the art. To not let knowledge interfere with the appreciation of a work, and that sometimes, no knowledge allows one to explore the art more, draw conclusions on ones own, and dont try to overanalyze or understand the work, just appreciate the beauty of it. Percy emphasises the problems that arise when people hold expectations for the experience they are excited to encounter, and one's appreciation of an experience, or art, is heavily dependant on the medium in which the work is experienced. I fully agree with Percy. He almost seems to argue that the less knowledge one has of art, the less likely they are to have expectations, and the more of a chance they will have to learn about the work first-hand. I strongly agree with Percy's emphasis on "hands-on" learning. I spent a year of high school in France. Prior to my exchange I had spend years falling in love with the country, and culture. I knew France by the books as well as anyone could have. During my experience though, I learned that France was much more than the Eiffel Tower and that, in fact, the Eiffel Tower really is not that beautiful.... but the cheese is more beautiful than I could have ever imagined from the books I had read. It is important to find a balance between the books and practical experience in order to fully appreciate anything. Finally, Dewey carries the opinion that yes, flowers can be esthetically pleasing to the observer even if the observer does not know anything about flowers, but he cannot appreciate them through understanding if he knows nothing about them. I found this idea interesting. It gives both the unknowledgeable and the knowledgeable the chance to appreciate something, maybe not on the same level, but it does not make judgement as to whether one is better than the other. It is very interesting how each author had a different approach to answering the question on how to appreciate art, and how knowledge, and life experiences impact this appreciation.

Rachel: I did not like the reading by James Elkins at all. He treats aesthetics as simply a spontaneous phenomenon that one cannot experience unless one is ignorant. I found his tone overly critical of art historians in general. The reading also, to be frank, depressed me a little. If spontaneity is the criterion for a deep aesthetic experience, everyone with each passing day is becoming less and less capable of experiencing beauty because we, at least I believe, learn something everyday. Elkins also ignores the thrilling aesthetic quality of the discoveries of physics or chemistry because these discoveries can hardly be called spontaneous phenomenon. For example,gravity, if looked at from the perspective of someone unschooled in physics, is just the pulling of the earth or the falling of an apple. To a physicist, gravity is the very warping of the curvature of space and time. Which is more elegant? To me the theories of general relativity are more beautiful. That's not to say all spontaneous experiences are not beautiful, and I think Percy's article grated my nerves a little less. I can relate to his example of the Grand Canyon tourists. The article, in many ways, was a critique of present day education, and he makes a strong point that educational packaging makes independent discovery and sovereignty in learning more difficult. I found the article by Dewey most interesting. In his text I heard a reverberation from our discussion in class that need is often the seed for art or the aesthetic experience. In fact, his description of the aesthetic experience sounded alot like a discussion of its creation through a kind of evolution. I also liked his historical discussions, how the ancient Greeks viewed art and how modern industry transformed art, for example. One of my favorite points he made was his idea that aethetics is the coming out of hardship and into harmony. I do feel some of the most beautiful experiences are ones that follow hardtimes. Finally, I liked his description of the artist vs. the intellectual, how the artist and intellectual are not so very different. Both cultivate tension and disharmony. Only their emphasis is different. Where the artist cultivates tension because it has the potential for harmony, the intellectual cultivates tension because it in itself is an area of fascination. [an error occurred while processing this directive]