In the middle ages, Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), one of the greatest of the medieval Christian theologians, commented on what he thought were the elements of Beauty. What was an offhanded comment in his monumental Summa Theologica has become for many lovers of beauty, a model of evaluation and appreciation based on three concepts: wholeness, balance, and radiance.
If a work of art contains all the three elements, then the observer may be reasonably assured that the work is beautiful. Should one of these three components be found deficient then the work will be deficient; and though it may gain acceptance as a work of art, it will never be considered beautiful.
But before I propose my own opinions about beauty, let me do a bit of history:
The ancient Greeks’ word for beauty was kalos, a word that owned other connotations such as “what is proper,” of “what is good;” and as a result the Greeks didn’t leave us a clear cut model of beauty. And incidentally, though Plato’s theory of forms leads to an absolute beauty, which is transcendental, I am interested in beauty that is of this world. What transcends our senses and understanding is a different topic: it is called ‘the sublime,’ something that because it is ineffable produces astonishment.
John Keats in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” tells us that:
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,-that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
And Clive Bell:
In each, lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colours, these aesthetically moving forms, I call “Significant Form”; and “Significant Form” is the one quality common to all works of visual art.
Clive Bell as well as Plotinus both think of beauty as “human form.” But ever since Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher, published his Dehumanization of Art book, no one thinks any longer that art and beauty must deal exclusively with the human. In fact Hans Hoffman, the American expressionist, tells us that painting doesn’t even have to tell a story at all. The conclusion is that dehumanized arts can still be beautiful.
When I was a young man and saw Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” for the first time, I was left in awe of the work for many years. Later, I came to appreciate works by Braque, Klee, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Miro, Matisse, Picasso, and Cezanne; and yet, I could not get a handle on that elusive feeling of aesthetic emotion. Edmund Burke in his treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, says that smoothness is “A quality so essential to beauty, that I do not now recollect any thing beautiful that is not smooth.” And after citing examples such as the smooth skin in fine women, ornamental furniture, and polished surfaces, he concludes: “For take any beautiful object, and give it a broken and rugged surface, and however well formed it may be in other respects, it pleases no longer.” Then, how do we explain Cubism, Picasso’s sharp angles, Mondrian’s broken lines, and the ruggedness of VanGogh’s brush strokes?
And what was one to make of Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades? Or can Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans be considered beautiful?
In a re-read of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I was gripped by Stephen Dedalus translation of Aquinas model of beauty: wholeness, balance, and radiance. “This is the model I like! This is a model I can understand, and that I can apply to all the arts.”
When I begin to read a work of literature, if anywhere in the book I find wholeness and harmony or well balanced sentences-I read on. When I finish the book I ask myself: Is there wholeness, continuity, or is the work choppy and fragmentary? Does this book have radiance or an aura that is discernible and transferable to one’s life enrichment? If your answer is yes, then I’d say without reservations, “What a beautiful book!”
However, if the aura is weak, then the work will be weak.
Try the model: take a look at Henry Moore’s statues, or Julian Schnabel mixed media. See if you can discern wholeness, balance, and radiance.