Pleasure, Transcendence, and the Problem of Beauty

“Beauty” is an unusual term. According to Webster dictionary, beauty is defined as “the qualities of a person or a thing that give pleasure to the senses or to the mind.”However, pleasure is also a problematic term. Eating a tub of ice cream might bring someone pleasure, but is it beautiful? Perhaps so. Serial killers might also find pleasure from murder, but most reasonable people certainly wouldn’t define that as a form of “beauty.” If it’s simply a matter of positive sensory experiences, the term beauty becomes void and meaningless due to the endless variability of taste, opinion, experience and perspective. If it’s only about pleasure, “beauty” becomes an ideal that is neither distinguishable nor reasonably sought after.

There’s a popular idea that art, therefore, is an avenue towards the ideal or transcendent, intended to be beautiful or masterfully executed. The English philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, created a documentary in 2009 called Why Beauty Matters, which proclaims his own stance on the topic. According to Scruton, since the twentieth century, art has become degenerate, degraded from the likes of Michelangelo or Rembrandt into art that is meaningless, unnecessarily crude or outrageous. He cites modern art examples such as Marcel Duchamp, who presented a urinal in an art exhibition in 1917, or Piero Manzoni, who submitted a can of his own feces to a similar venue. Scruton demands a call back towards art that exemplifies the human form in its full, representational glory. He insists that art’s truest form is art that is pure, Christian, inspiring and wholesome.2

The problem with this frame of thought centers around the same issue that made modernism flop and postmodernism take root. Call it Satan’s wiles as much as you like, but postmodernism called attention to the fact that the utopias modernism obsessed so much over were determined by white and privileged men. Their concepts of the ideal or of perfection failed to consider the views of the marginalized. Those of a different gender, race, sexual orientation, economic status, nationality or religion would have had a far more different picture of “beautiful” that, unfortunately, is not found in the history books. What is considered pure and inspiring does not take the same visible or audible form as westernized tradition might suggest. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the old saying goes, but if one eye is doing all the beholding, then I’m not so sure who would like to stay a part of that convention.

Therein lies my issue with critics such as Scruton who continually insist on a singular mode of thought and goes so far to authoritatively assume criticism over such a broad issue as what art should and shouldn’t be. As any art student soon learns a few weeks into art theory, nearly everything has been done within the art world and nearly everything can be considered “art” if done with the appropriate context and intent. There’s a myriad of different forms, shapes, colors and sizes that has been labeled as art and rightly so. Conceptual art, minimalism, performance art, installation work, afrofuturism, land art, bio art, digital art—the list goes on and on.

You don’t even need to get that contemporary to realize that art, or creative expression, never can stay in its patterns for too long. Nineteenth-century realism put critics on their toes by depicting ordinary workers instead of the aristocratic or wealthy. Fast forward a few years, and Monet is lighting fuses when he dares to leave visible brush strokes in his paintings. Of course, some still consider impressionism (and the more radical might even include the likes of Matisse) beautiful, but as soon as you stick an ordinary chair in a gallery, next to a picture of a chair, by the printed definition of a chair, then you have crossed the line. This assumption that there even need be a line to distinguish what is acceptable or not is based on a pretense wholly unsustainable.

This line is an imaginary one. It is simply drawn from a prejudiced collective tradition and the accumulated biases of narrow thinking.

My point being, it defies creative nature to remain so limited.

As an artist and member of the church, my work has unfortunately never manifested itself in the form of Jesus paintings or reproductions of the first vision. That type of artwork exists and serves a different purpose, neither better nor worse than other artistic avenues.

There’s merit in the beautiful, but there is also similar merit found in the ugly, the disturbing, the mundane, the ordinary, and the nonsensical. Art has the ability to expose all the layered facets of diverse experience found in the human condition. Whether or not you understand or even like it, at the very least, I implore you to consider it.

This post was written by Dalila Sanabria, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.

[1] “Beauty.” Miriam-Webster Online Dictionary,

[2] Why Beauty Matters. Directed by Louise Lockwood, written by Roger Scruton, BBC Two, 2009. Vimeo,

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