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Experiencing Beauty

Lauren Sweeney

"Tell me where is fancy bred,
In the heart or in the head?"
--The Merchant of Venice

When I first began considering topics for this paper, I instantly thought of my family. As the daughter of two artists, the concept of aesthetic beauty has long played a significant part in my thought processes. On the first day of class I wrote that I didn't believe in doing anything unless I found some part of it beautiful. I had never thought this before that moment, and it even still sounds a bit strange to me, but the more that I've considered it, the more I realize I honestly believe it to be true.

I feel growing up in a house practically wall-papered in oil paintings and pastels definately had a significant impact on the way that I view the world. To my parents, beauty is an essential part of life; they have devoted their lives to creating beautiful things. They have taught me that beauty is more than just skin-deep, but that there is something to be said for the power that beauty has in our lives. The fact that they have been able to support our family by essentially selling beauty proves to me that beauty has some degree of substance and validity.

Many people might think of aesthetic beauty as a frivolous concern. "Beauty school" is not something that many people think of as a practical application of one's time. "Beauty magazines" such as Cosmopolitan or Marie Claire are often written off as trashy and unfit to be read. While I do not entirely disagree, I feel that this proves a point about how our society thinks of beauty. For the most part, I feel that people do not give beauty enough credit. My parents have taught me to value and to have respect for things that are beautiful, but I do not think that the majority of the population shares this opinion. In my experience, most people subscribe to the theory that allowing beauty to determine how we think or feel about something is being shallow. I cannot help but disagree. There really is something to be said about how beautiful something is, and how it affects your attitude towards it is not necessarily a display of shallowness.

I know the old adage that "you can't judge a book by its cover," but I will openly admit to doing just that. I know that as an English major this is probably one of the worst things I could say, but this is just another example of how I feel I must justify all of my actions by identifying something beautiful about them. This is not to say that I will only read books with beautiful covers, but given the choice between two editions of the same book, one with a cover that I find ugly and one that I find beautiful, I will undoubtedly choose the more aesthetically pleasing of the two. I can cite specific experiences in libraries and bookstores when I was not satisfied with the appearance of a particular book and then going out of my way to find a prettier version of the same story. I suppose that the reason I do this is because I am more likely to want to pickup, touch, hold, something that I find beautiful rather than something that is falling apart, smells weird, or has a disturbing image on the cover.

I do not only apply this theory to books, but I feel that this particular example perfectly illustrates my point about how seriously I take beauty. The cover of a book does not necessarily have any bearing over my opinion of what it contains after I have read it, but I know for a fact that I am more likely to want to read a pretty book in the first place. In this sense, the physical beauty of the book is a galvanizing force in starting the book, but once the book is finished, I am able to form an opinion completely independent of my opinion of the cover. Also, if I find that I absolutely despise the story which the book contains, I can justify getting the book by saying to myself, "Oh, well. At least the cover is pretty to look at." As long as I am able to reap some pleasure from the experience, I do not feel that the experience was a waste.

In addition to the precepts laid out for me by my parents, I feel that the importance that I place on beauty has been influenced by the fifteen years I have spent in ballet classes. With ballet, as with all art, beauty is the ultimate goal. For a ballet dancer, how everything looks is of the upmost importance. We are told that even if the technique is perfect, if every body part is in the correct place, if the musical timing is impeccable, if the dancing isn't pleasant to look at, if it isn't beautiful, then it doesn't matter. That is the reason why there is so much competition among dancers, and why there are so many who abuse themselves in an attempt at perfection. There is a specific "ideal" body type for ballet dancers, and those whose feet are too flat, whose torsos are too long, whose shoulders are too wide, simply do not look "as beautiful" as those who fit the aesthetic ideal. While I do not agree with the dramatic practices to make oneself "perfect" I feel that I can understand why these practices are so widespread among dancers. If beauty is the ultimate goal, and a dancer's body is the means by which that beauty is created, it becomes tempting, (and for many necessary,) to do whatever it takes to become "perfectly beautiful."

Granted, the balletic "ideal" of beauty is a social construction with which many disagree, but it creates an interesing point about the subjectivity of beauty. Dancers learn to see things as they are taught and for the most part share a collective vision of what type of body is "most beautiful." They come to respect feet with hich arches, long limbs and short torsos, and often feel very strongly about these convictions. I know of one dancer who admitted that she could never marry a man with flat feet. Though I found this funny at first, I have thought about it considerably and realized that I do make a point of noticing men's feet and know that I openly compliment and express envy of friends with beautifully high arches. I don't think the shape of someone's feet would effect the state of our relationship, but it is something of which I take note.

The fact that I know being a ballet dancer has seriously influenced certain aspects of my perception helps me to realize the other ways in which I respond to outside forces which tell me what is beautiful. My perception of my mother is another example of this phenomenon. I have always been told that I look like my mother, but when I was younger I figured that was just something that people say. I never thought anything of it, and I certainly didn't agree. She was a grown woman, and I was a little girl. How could we possibly look alike? As I grew older, my girlfriends would tell me that my mother was beautiful. This was another concept which I had trouble grasping. "She can't be beautiful," I thought to myself. "She's my mom. I've looked at her face everyday of my life. If she was beautiful, don't you think that I would have noticed by now?" I thought that my friends were just being nice.

It wasn't until after years of consideration that I actually came to see that my friends were being genuine. I remember the exact moment in eighth grade when one of the boys in my class said to me "Your mom's hot." As horrified as I was, I realized that he must be telling the truth. Boys don't say things like that about your mom just to be nice. It was only then that I came to see her not as "my mom" but as a beautiful woman. At this very moment I'm looking at a picture of her and wonder how I ever could have thought otherwise. I see now why my grandmother thinks my mom looks like Audrey Hepburn and why my aunt said her nickname was "Sophia Loren." My friends still tell me that my mom is beautiful after they meet her, and I openly agree with them. And now when people tell me that I look like my mom, I still don't entirely believe them, but I take this as a sincere compliment.

My shifted perception of my mother proves another important point that beauty cannot always be based on a first impression. I remember reading a fairytale in gradeschool about two girls, one who was conventionally beautiful but mean, and the other who was very plain-looking but sincere and kind-hearted. By the end of the story, (and I'm pretty sure that this was the point,) the mean pretty girl didn't seem so pretty to me, and the other girl, though still plain, became more pleasant to look at. I don't think that I ever believed that just because someone was beautiful it meant that they were nice, but the idea that something that I could come to appreciate something as beautiful because of non-visual aspects is something that I whole-heartedly believe. In last Thursday's class, when people shared what they found beautiful, I realized that I was doing this a lot. Several people procured objects that I might not call beautiful strictly based upon their physical appearance, but after hearing why the individuals called the objects beautiful, I could better understand why they could be considered beautiful.
Though this view of beauty seems to be in direct disagreement with the writings of Dewey, Percy and Elkins, I cannot help but wonder if there isn't some theory which lies between these two extremes. I have a hard time believing that something can be considered beautiful without any prior knowledge of it. When I studied music in highschool, we learned that different intervals of notes sound "more beautiful" to people of different cultures. This cannot be because people in Asia leave the womb with a different idea of what sounds beautiful from people in Europe or Africa.; it is something which is socially constructed. Music composed in different areas in the world sounds different as a result of centuries of cultural tradition. The perception of beauty is not intrinsic, but learned. Though the three theorists argue that too much learning can ruin how one experiences beauty, I believe that it is impossible to determine whether or not something is beautiful without knowing anything about it.

I know that the perception of beauty is entirely subjective, but I also know that I find certain things (people, events, objects) beautiful because of what I have been told about them. I know that I would not have cried at the Pennsylvania Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty if I had no prior knowledge or appreciation of the spectacle. If I didn't know the story, if the music didn't have such a nostalgic effect on me, if I didn't realize how much effort goes into each dance, I would have most likely fallen asleep (as my mom did.) Being able to recognize beauty requires a certain amount of knowledge, but I agree that too much knowledge can ruin the experience. Returning to my ballet school to watch a recital after a year away at college, I didn't enjoy the performance and wasn't moved by it in the same way that I was by the Pennsylvania Ballet's Sleeping Beauty. I was constantly thinking to myself "oh, I know that Courtney isn't good at jumps" or "Daniella missed her cue in that last piece." Because I knew the girls, I knew their strengths and weaknesses, I knew what to expect of the choreography, I couldn't find the performance beautiful because I was too busy finding the faults. After writing this paper, I have come to the conclusion that a beautiful experience comes as the result of a perception of what is good about a certain thing while being willingly blind to what is unpleasant about it, but one requires a certain amount of knowledge about the subject at hand in order to be able to tell the difference.

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