The Notion of Beauty
Rachel Smith Althof

   Beauty is a slippery concept.  In an attempt to capture the essence of beauty, I surround the concept in a
simple, journalistic style with these basic questions: Who?  What?  When?  Where?  Why?  How?



Who is beautiful?  

People can be considered to be beautiful on the inside, or beautiful.  It is interesting that people don’t say, “She’s beautiful on
the outside.”  It is assumed that when on states that someone is “beautiful,” they are speaking of this person’s looks.  Beauty is
assumed to be of the visual, and needs specification when using it to describe something other than the visual.  

What is beauty?  

Dave Hickey presumes that the institution, whether it is the market or the academic institution is denying our direct appeal to
beauty to sustain the jobs of bureaucrats (1993).  Could this be a perspective that only allows for utopian ideals?  It may be
that the institution plays a role in defining beauty, and perhaps even persuades through beauty.  Yet, we all still hold the right
to our individual perspective on beauty.  The “institution,” whatever institution we are discussing, should be responsible for
defining collective beauty.  The institution should also be held to the moral obligation of reflecting democratic values, just as
much as it is the moral obligation of the individual in a democratic society to defend his or her individual perspective.

When does beauty exist?  

Beauty is timeless, with the exception of 20th century art: art for art’s sake.  Art was, and could only be, art – beauty was
extrapolated for the purists.  Also significant, was the rise of Conceptual Art, artists were interested in expanding the notion of
beauty beyond the visual.  They explored the beautiful concept.  Ideas, or concepts, have always had the potential to be
beautiful, but it was the genre of Conceptual Art that secured a place for the beautiful concept in our collective, institutional
perception of beauty.

Where is beauty?  

Beauty lurks, and beauty is prevalent.  Beauty is defined by the individual, and also socially constructed.   It is both nature and
nurture.  The nature and nurture debate is not really a debate; nature and nurture are not mutually exclusive.  This applies to
the perception of beauty, as well.  Depending on the individual, it is possible that it is more the influence of nature or nurture,
but I just cannot think that any individual is able to be fully independent of social influence, nor deny the influence of the
biological disposition that they have inherited.  If beauty is individually perceived, it lurks in the strangest of places.  The
socially constructed perception of beauty is obviously prolific.  

Why the beautiful?  

Beauty attracts and engages the viewer to look further into images, people, dance, food and nature, among other things.
Things other than the visual can also be beautiful – ideas, sounds, gestures, etc.  Beauty attracts and engages one to look,
think, listen, feel, touch and taste further.  

How does beauty function?

    Beauty stirs people to engage.  The beautiful, although ineffable, is an attractive virtue for most.  Seduction could be
considered to be manipulation, or at the very least, it is persuasion.  Beauty is the seductive, the sexy, and appeals to an
emotional response that is directly tied to the rudimentary nature of humanity: sex.
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Photo: Rachel Smith Althof