Why can’t life always be beautiful?

Hans Baldung Grien - Three Ages of Woman and Death (1510)

[A blog post from friend of PEL Phillip C.  It's a bit longer than our normal posts and is heavy with the name drops but I'm going to let it go because it's on art, is related to a discussion group and I make the editing decisions around here - Seth]

“What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn't everyone's life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?” —Michel Foucault [1]

If life is beautiful, why can't we always experience it as such? Is it not in moments of beauty that we find life most engaging? Anything could be beautiful. Beauty is an excess: the latent, frivolous, life-affirming power (eros), lurking around every corner, waiting to be noticed by anyone with the sufficient leisure to do so. And it's not even necessarily a luxury of leisure, for even (or especially) in the face of death, the reality of beauty smacks us in the face and takes us by surprise. I'm reminded of observations recorded by the holocaust survivor and psychologist, Viktor Frankl:

As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes even forgot his own frightful circumstances. If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor—or maybe because of it—we were carried away by nature's beauty, which we had missed for so long. [2]

Sometimes it's simply a matter of looking at something differently, or as the modernist art critic Clement Greenberg expresses it so aptly: "Art, coinciding with aesthetic experience in general, means simply, and yet not so simply, a twist of attitude towards your own awareness and its objects." [3] The artist's purported "function" is to recognize the overlooked beauty and to share it with society, at least fitting the role of the "sensitive artist" cliché perpetuated in movies like American Beauty. In danger of becoming a cliché, beauty is a step removed from the ridiculous—where a plastic bag swirling in the wind moves one to tears, and double rainbows induce orgasmic sighs of ecstasy—leaving open the question of intensity: "Can something be too beautiful?" asks the Apollonian, to whom the Dionysian replies, "Can something be beautiful enough?" For Nietzsche the two sides remain irreconcilable, i.e. tragic. Part of us laughs at sensitive artists while the other part envies them.


In his short essay, "Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion," Hume espouses a physiological or sensual conception of aesthetic sensibility that might seem peculiar to us today, though perhaps befitting of the aristocratic "Rococo" climate of his era. He argues that some individuals naturally possess a high "delicacy of taste," whereby they seem more sensitive to beauty than most. In light of the recent Santayana episode and my current Aesthetics discussion group, I'd like to address three particular issues raised in this essay:

1. Beauty is associated with ugliness:
Hume assumes that ugliness repels as much as beauty attracts those with delicate taste, in the same manner that both foul and pleasant odors afflict those with a keen sense of smell; thus the delicacy of taste "enlarges the sphere both of our happiness and misery, and makes us sensible to pains as well as pleasures, which escape the rest of mankind." [4]

Around 38-39 min into the Santayana episode, Seth addresses Santayana's notion of ugliness as a moral judgment rather than an aesthetic value. Ugliness does not stand in opposition to beauty. The two might even overlap, as reflected in the artist Matthew Barney's remark: "I consider all the things I work with attractive to me. Whether they repulse me or not, I'm still very attracted to them." [5] [my own emphasis]

I'm being a bit unfair to Hume with my anachronistic comparison, but I suspect that most of us today would probably incline more towards more Santayana's view of ugliness in (non-)relation to beauty than Hume's—albeit in a much different manner than either of them would have a imagined. Though we still pit beauty against ugliness, its apparent opposition remains a connotative distinction rather than a denotative one. That is to say that the two value judgments remain independent, and that beautiful things merely tend not to look ugly or vice versa.

In contrast to the ancient Greeks who viewed beauty as an ultimate good, a sign of moral superiority or in the very least an indicator of noble birth (euphusis, εὐφυής), we generally view beauty and ugliness as superficial or "shallow" value judgments. We accept the reality that everyone has his or her own tastes as much as we'd like them to coincide. However, with admission to remaining only speculative, I would intuit that disagreement over whether or not something is ugly is generally a more serious offense than contention over whether or not something is beautiful. After all, things are arleady merely "not-beautiful" by default, and to claim them as such would not be making a exception against the norm. To claim something as ugly demands more from us, perhaps even an active avoidance of the abject thing. Santayana's odd classification of ugliness as a "moral" judgment would seem to strike a chord in this regard.

My suspicion stems in part from the prevalent (and symptomatic) desire to shun aesthetic concerns from modern art altogether: "A living art makes no distinction between beautiful and ugly because it sets no aesthetic norms. The ugly which in the art of past centuries has come to supplement the beautiful is a permanent complaint against the unnatural class society and its aesthetic virtuosity; it is a demonstration of the retarding and limiting influence of this aesthetic on the natural urge to create." [6] The quote from CoBrA artist Constant Niewenhuys typifies a critique of the social hierarchy imposed by standards of beauty. But isn't the real culprit not beauty/affirmation per se, but the ugliness/negation it supposedly implicates? Perhaps critics of the social heirarchy should have attempted to shun ugliness from aesthetic judgments instead of aesthetics from art (but of course, I'm being simplistic by omitting various other valid and invalid critiques of beauty in 20th-century art discourse.)

Like moral judgments, aesthetic judgments remain invariably regulative assessments. Ideas of beauty and ugliness (i.e. feelings of attraction and repulsion) regulate our experiences to the extent that we could never conceive of life without them; and yet (following Kant) without objective validity to base them, we can only make aesthetic judgements "as if" others should share them. Sociologists and social psychologists might use normative claims of taste explain human behavior—our revulsion to trash stems from our disgust of germs; obesity from our (hypocritical) aversion to poor health; disability and deformity from fear of facing the uncomfortable reality that life isn't always fair, [7] etcetera—but in our own subjective experience, normative claims never seem adequate to theoretically establish an empirical standard of taste. From our own perspective, aesthetic judgments feel completely "free"—that is, not determined by/for any particular purpose (thus Kant’s notion of disinterested beauty as Zweckmäßigkeit, the sense of purposefulness without purpose.)

Notice above, the examples I've listed of normative aesthetic claims all fall under the rubric of "ugliness." In my heuristic assesment, I found it much easier to provide behaviorist rationale to explain norms of ugliness than I did for conventional beauty. If my general intuition is correct that disagreements over ugliness are typically more socially divisive than disagreements in beauty, perhaps the things we find ourselves attracted to (e.g. favorite color) might seem more free and arbitrary than the things that we're repulsed by, simply because the latter offend or exclude others and thus merit futher social consent.

2. Good taste means having a better life, thus terrible taste is not to be tolerated:
In the next paragraph it becomes evident that Hume's interest in aesthetics is primarily in the potential betterment of quality of life: "delicacy of taste is to be desired and cultivated as delicacy of passion is to be lamented, and remedied if possible." [4] His reasoning seems a bit convoluted for summary explanation, but basically he assumes that (I'm very much reminded of Michel de Montaigne here) the arts serve as a sort of moderation of pleasures that keep the whims of wild hedonism at bay—somewhat analogous to a position that Arthur Schopenhauer later carried over into the next century in his own tragic way.

I've already described beauty and ugliness as regulative ideas. What I haven't yet discussed in this regulative idea is the naive, if not outright utopian notion of beauty as an ultimate good—that life should be beautiful, that we should avoid finding ugliness in life. A dialogue between Diotima to Socrates from Plato's Symposium (around 204C-206E) expresses this paradigm simply. Here's my extremely paraphrased version:

Diotima: What is the point of loving beautiful things? The lover of beautiful things has a desire; what does he desire?

Socrates: That they become his own.

D: What will this man have, when the beautiful things he wants become his own?

S: He'll have happiness.

D: Now this desire for happiness, this kind of love—do you think it is common to all human beings that everyone wants to have good things forever and ever?

S: Yes.

D: What Love wants is not beauty, as you think it is.

S: What is it then?

D: Reproduction and birth in beauty. It's because reproduction goes on forever; it is what mortals have in place of immortality. A lover must desire immortality along with the good, if what we agreed upon earlier was right, that Love wants to possess the good forever.[8]


Diotima the kallophiliac conflates beauty with desire, but in reality, our ambiguous relation to beauty seems far from simple, often arising from conflicting desires. The passage demonstrates a belief in a transitive link between ethics ("should") and aesthetics. [9] The transitive function, a natural consequence of the regulative idea, essentially tells us this:

To experience beauty is to appreciate life ∴ appreciation of beauty is appreciation of life. Life is good and should be appreciated ∴ beauty should be appreciated.

Isn't this the sole purpose of the "joie de vivre" artists like Renoir and Matisse? To paint us pretty pictures in praise of life? Bourgeoisie escapism? And this brings us back to our initial question: Why can't life always be beautiful? Should it be? I'm not even sure what that means, or what it would look like for life to always be beautiful. There is no single beauty in general, only a manifold of specific beauties. So many ways to characterize beauty, I'm not sure I buy Hume's life-in-moderation conception: maybe some devastatingly rapturous passion like The Picture of Dorian Gray, maybe fantastical images of heaven envisioned in What Dreams May Come and Dante's Paradiso, or how about that one guy who lost his testosterone and described his life as essentially laden with passive Zweckmäßigkeit? Maybe a permanent kairos, where every ecstatic moment is like the first and/or last moment of your life, and life flows in an intensity that sweeps you up like never ending music? What does it mean to "own" beautiful things forever, as Socrates said? Does ownership even apply? Whatever answer one gives turns out to be utterly utopian and/or dystopian, speculative wishful thinking.

From a psychological standpoint, the affect of beauty in abstract formalism could be seen as a sort of infantile aspiration to get beyond our sense of alienation in an environment primarily mediated (by language, technology, law, etc.) and feel sensually “present,” engaged in the seemingly "pure" phenomena of hic et nunc rather than sociopolitical or cultural concerns. Power relations that attain a sort of mystical union, "oneness," or intimacy between the subject and the environment, where the subject “consumes” or takes in the beautiful and the beautiful in turn “consumes” or captivates the subject. But I think Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe captures discourse on beauty the best: "Beauty is powerless but always exceeds what frames it, and what always frames it is discourse." [10]

Peter Paul Rubens - The Judgement of Paris (1639): a common theme and depicting beauty winning the contest over brains and family stability, resulting in calamitous war.

3. Capacity to experience beauty:
A third thought, implicit in Hume's essay and even more explicit in his later essay "Of the Standard of Taste," is the issue of whether people possess differing capacities for experiencing beauty. Hume offers an analogy by alluding to a passage from Don Quixote where two of Sancho’s kinsmen detect faint traces of iron and leather in the wine served from a hogshead, their observations later confirmed by the leathern thong and key found at the bottom of the hogshead. [11] As far as I know, Hume's proclamation that the delicacy of taste should be cultivated serves as the only indication that one might acquire a refined aesthetic sensibility. Aside from his outlining the criteria necessary for a worthy art critic (must posses: 1. strong sense, 2. delicacy of taste, 3. no prejudice, 4. must be practiced in the arts, and 5. able to make judgements by comparison), Hume never attempts to explain how one might develop a better aesthetic sensibility. The same can be said for Kant's "genius": "Genius is the inborn predisposition of the mind (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art." [12]

Personally, I'm less concerned with whether the capacity to experience beauty is innate or acquired, and more interested in the break from traditional object-oriented aesthetics it entails. This aligns Hume's aesthetics more with contemporary aesthetic theories that tend to sever the signified (beautiful experience) from the signifier (beautiful object): anything could be beautiful, since beauty functions as a physiological process without an object (stimulus) to ground it. Again,  borrowing from Greenberg, "If anything and everything can be intuited aesthetically, then anything and everything can be intuited and experienced artistically...If this is so, then there turns out to be such thing as art at large: art that is, or can be, realized anywhere at any time by anybody."[3] In some respects Hume's notion of aesthetics as a physiological capacity prefigures the now burgeoning field of neuroaesthetics, where scientists turn their attention to fMRI scans rather than conventionally beautiful objects.

With the disbelief in culturally fixed beautiful objects, much of contemporary art attempts to push our capacity of beauty to its limit. Art signals a freedom to turn away from the trite regurgitation of conventional taste and instead challenge individuals to gain mastery over personal taste—or to word it more favorably, to wake us up from the boredom of everyday life and allow us to notice how beautiful it really is. An austere white cube or a plastic bag swirling in the wind doesn't immediately strike one as beautiful the way a sunset might. It requires mental discipline to suppress one's initial feelings, to attend to an object and effectively project new affective properties onto it. By transitive function of authority the art institution serves as one avenue through which to attain this goal. I'm reminded of Yoko Ono's conceptual "events" that demand participants to project their inner imaginations onto experiences, like Ono's "Blue Room" (1966), a installation painted monochrome white that viewers were supposed to remain in until the place "turned blue." [13] Beauty internalized essentially becomes a placebo effect, the power of institution as simply another power of suggestion. Thus at around 1:09 into the Santayana episode, Seth raises the question of "whether or not your experiences can be overdetermined by your knowledge beforehand of an experience."

There are several problems with the notion of "challenging beauty," too many to discuss in this blog. Clement Greenberg tackles perhaps the most obvious issue: "art at large is realized inadvertently and solipsistically, as art that cannot be communicated adequately by the person who realizes or 'creates' it." [3] The accusation of solipsism seems like a direct attack on Fluxus amateurs like Ono and George Brecht, who proclaimed "My art is the result of a deeply personal, infinitely complex, and still essentially mysterious, exploration of experience. No words will ever touch it." [14] Art museums once served an authoritative role of telling viewers where to find beauty. With the disestablishment of the art institution goes a reliable go-to place to challenge the privacy and intimacy of one's own aesthetic experiences (or so Greenberg feared.)

Contemporary art subsists so long as it finds new relevant ways respond to the regulative idea that life should be beautiful. But of course, the neuroaesthetician will demonstrate that experiencing beauty requires physiological energy, and it can be exhausting. Like falling in love, we can only attend so much energy to a single object at a time, just as monogamy appeals to those who wish to devote their lives to one lover. I don't know if we're capable of the burden and responsibility of calling everything art. It's something aporetic to drive towards but never fully attain, like justice, or freedom.


[1] Foucault, Michel. "On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress" in The Foucault Reader, ed. P. Rabinow, (p. 350.)

[2] Frankl, Viktor. Man's Search for Meaning. Ratna Sagar, 1966 (p. 43.)

[3]  Greenberg, Clement. "Seminar One" (p. 44).

[4] Hume, David. "Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion" in Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1985 (p. 5).

[5] Barney, Matthew, interview from PBS series Art21: Art in the Twenty-First Century, season 1 (2001), episode 4: "consumption" (video clip)

[6] Niewenhuys, Constant. "Manifesto (1948)" in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings. Eds. Stiles, Kristine and Peter Selz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. (p. 2o7)

[7] "It is fear and denial of the frailty, vulnerability, mortality and arbitrariness of human experience that deters us from confronting such realities. Fear and denial prompt the isolation of those who are disabled, ill or old as 'other,' and as 'not like us.'" — Jennie Morris qtd. in Wilson, Robert. "(Dis)ability" in Cultural Geography. London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, 2007. (p. 117)

[8] Plato. Symposium. Trans. Nehemas, Alexander and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989. (pp. 49-54, paraphrased)

[9] A term I've borrowed from Thierry de Duve, though I've taken it way out of context: "To those directly political alliances should be added the innumerable idealistic or materialistic, utopian or pragmatic variations of artistic practices whose fate was linked to the aspirations of material, cultural, or spiritual revolution. I need not go any further. This very phenomenon defines the very notion of an artistic avant-garde. Its essential ideological purport is the transitive link it establishes between ethics and aesthetics. Accordingly, aesthetic liberation or revolution might be seen as announcing, preparing, provoking, or accompanying ethical liberation or revolution, or the other way around. In any case the implication is transitive: if aesthetic freedom, then moral freedom; or vice-versa." de Duve, Thierry. Kant After Duchamp. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996. (p. 431)

[10] Hume, David. "Of the Standard of Taste" in Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1985. (pp. 234-5)

[11] Gilbert-Rolfe, Jeremy. Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime. New York: Allworth Press, 1999. (p. 48)

[12] Kant, Immanuel. Critique of the Power of Judgment. Ed. Paul Guyer. Trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews. Cambridge: Cambridge Universtiy Press, 2000. (p. 278)

[13] source

[14] Brecht, George. "Project in Multiple Dimensions (1957-8)" in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings. Eds. Stiles, Kristine and Peter Selz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. (p. 335)


  1. dmf says

    “In History of Beauty Umberto Eco explored the ways in which notions of attractiveness shift from culture to culture and era to era. With ON UGLINESS, a collection of images and written excerpts from ancient times to the present, he asks: Is repulsiveness, too, in the eye of the beholder? And what do we learn about that beholder when we delve into his aversions? Selecting stark visual images of gore, deformity, moral turpitude and malice, and quotations from sources ranging from Plato to radical feminists, Eco unfurls a taxonomy of ugliness. As gross-out contests go, it’s both absorbing and highbrow”

  2. says

    Very well done, fantastic essay. I would add that people only accept our different tastes of beauty nowadays because people got used to seeing extreme or out of the ordinary examples. I feel that beauty has never been as important as it is today, due to mankind’s extended lifespan. We have more time judging and thinking about beauty, if you will.

    • Profile photo of Philip C. says

      Much obliged for the compliments and the insights Audrey,

      You raise two very interesting points that I think merit further discussion. The first—the notion that we become more accustomed eclectic tastes in beauty due to exposure to more extreme or out of the ordinary experiences—I think deals with a term in postmodern theory called “pluralism” (what I consider the “tame” version of postmodernism.) Atomization of taste over the general population results in the blasé acceptance of beauty remaining “in the eye of the beholder.” You-say-tomato-I-say-tomotto, kind of thing. Anyways, two interrelated thoughts come to mind:

      1.) In first world countries, more experiences have become available humans. Technological development has made it possible (e.g.) to take a plane to Nepal and see the Himalayas in a day (or photos of it on the Internet in a few seconds.)New technologies mean new ways of seeing and taking in the world. In his book, The Shock of the New Robert Hughes does a pretty good job describing the ways artists took on new technologies: Delauny’s paintings of the Eiffel Towers, Picasso influenced by cinema and x-ray photography, impressionists influenced by the camera and by the train.

      2.) In art, cinema, television, and various other media, the “new” has become commonplace. Van Gogh paintings so shocking in during their time have been reduced to popular calendars and desktop wallpaper. Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring caused a riot of angry mobs the first time it was performed, and then the second time a more than enthusiastic standing ovation. We’ve pretty much seen it all. Beauty becomes more boring and less stimulating as novelty has worn out into banality. And so, back to your original point, it was more bohemian to find the abject beautiful than it is today.

      We live in an age where everything is mediated, especially beauty. Of course there’s the issue of “authenticity,” or “aura” in W. Benjamin’s essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”—that je ne sais quoi quality in works of art. Beauty feels more real and fulfilling when it seems authentic. Authentic beauty often hits me by surprise, sometimes inconveniently. At the same time, I’ve been “primed” to experience beauty when I pay to see flower arrangements at an arboretum. Every unfolding scene (and I deliberately use this word “scene” instead of “moment”) feels framed as if determined for the camera’s gaze. This is not an entirely novel concept either. It was Kant who originally stated that beautiful nature looks like a work of art, and a beautiful work of art looks like nature.

      The relationship between boredom and beauty is something that is very difficult to parse out, and it’s a topic I reflect upon often. I often draw a distinction between stimulating beauty and boring or “passive” beauty. Both involve desire, but the latter mere eye-candy with the former more stirring fixation.

      I’m not sure I correctly understand the second issue you address, the relationship between the importance of beauty and longer lifespan. I’m reminded of a book by Elaine Scarry entitled On Beauty and Being Just, where she distinguishes two errors in judgments of beauty: one where you realize that something you have loved is no longer desirable, and the other involves the discovery of beauty in something you’ve formerly ignored. They’re both retrospective error assessments, as such I personally don’t find them very valid. In my personal experience, I’m too absorbed in the present moment of beauty to make retrospective comparisons. I’m not sure how longer lifespan would make beauty seem more important. To me beauty seems too fleeting and specific to a singular experience for me to make assessments about its overall importance to life as a whole. In other words, it’s non-generalizable. Discursively, beauty important today than it used to be, for topics such as the beauty industry and feminism. But that’s an entirely different discussion. Are you referring to the rise in leisure that makes beauty more accessible and thus more relevant (but I’m not sure beauty has any relation to leisure)? Or perhaps longer lifespan allowing us more time to cultivate tastes? Or is beauty like wine, and our sense of beauty gets better as we age? Is it a question of sustaining beauty?

      Anyways, thanks for the post. It gave me more to think about.

  3. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    Awesome Phillip:

    Your alertness to yourself and your environment makes for a beautiful life. However, you may have noticed that others are not on the same wave length (that does need to not be your problem, of course). One of the greatest contributors to beauty, in my understanding, is the non-normativizing of society (some call it postmodern, but that is a fuzzy concept).

    When the norms of society dropped as a given of how to think, feel and act, that leaves us to scramble and rely on our own sensitivities (who would have guessed?). Everyone is crying fowl and feeling up in the air about the future, but the future is now. Sociologically it has never been more now than now, and that is why people have more opportunity to tune into beauty (ok, the aesthetic) than ever before.

    These are the worst of times, these are the best of times. Phillip–you have a great sense of life–go for it–Wayne.

  4. Profile photo of Tammy says

    Very elegant post, Philip. There are so many ways to think about what you have written that it reminds me of a daily mediation–you know the kind of small book you can fit in your back pocket–that I could engage with all summer. So much you have given us to think about in this blog that I don’t know much about–academically speaking–in any depth. I sometimes don’t know if I want to. That may sound ignorant of me, I just don’t know.

    Yesterday, I for the first time thanked a group of young men I’m growing fond of the more I get to know them (thinking about the link in your blog[Mom reflecting on her observations of her son and daughter’s differences]) for expanding my thoughts and fears re a topic we disagree about. It was a nice experience, one that surprised me, ending with one young man asking me to get in a group picture, throwing me off–that he asked–and I did.

    Anyway, thanks for this blog and its timing.

  5. Profile photo of Philip C. says

    Thanks Wayne and Tammy for the kind words (and I promise, I’ll get right back on with Deleuze now that my life is finally getting less busy). I’m glad you’re getting things out of this post, but I hope it’s not simply “oh he is so much more in touch with beauty than I am.”

    I just wanted to post one more link that I intended to post originally, when I stated: “To claim something as ugly demands more from us, perhaps even an active avoidance of the abject thing.” That is our tendency to idealize the world by making the abject invisible, in ecological terms, not taking responsibility for it. I’m reminded of the President of O.N.A.N. in David Foster Wallace’s satirical novel Infinite Jest who would simply catapult trash into a giant landfill between New York and Canada, so that it’s out of the public’s sight and no longer perceived as a “problem.” Honest confrontation of the ugly is a major preoccupation of Slavoj Žižek’s:


    I think the clip really demonstrates how the regulative function of ugliness has real impact on the world that can be measured in terms of human labor and social relations. We’re not simply ignoring ugliness, we’re actively avoiding it. I just watched the documentary Pruitt-Igoe Myth which dealt with a similar theme, where public housing fell to dilapidation that could have been avoided with a little maintenance and aesthetic upkeep. The opposite occurred in Friedrichshain district, Berlin, which transformed from an shoddy industrial district to one of the most fashionable areas in Berlin. All they need to do was paint the buildings, plant some trees, and build a few children’s playgrounds.

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