5.1. The esthetic property

The preceding two chapters spoke of esthetic facts and their relation to the esthetic experience; but they did not say much about the property in the object that gives rise to the esthetic fact. That is what this chapter is about.

You will recall that a fact, as a relation among objects, implies that there is something in each object by which each is related to the others; thus, if grass is similar to emeralds and leaves, there is the greenness in each of them by which each is related to the others as similar. This "something" is the property.

DEFINITION: An esthetic property is whatever it is that an object possesses by which it is related to some other object (or within itself) through an esthetic fact.

Thus, the "smilingness" of the meadow is its esthetic property; the "pleasantness" of Frank is his esthetic property; the "snakeliness" of John is his esthetic property, and so on.

The first thing to note about the esthetic property is, as has been stressed in the preceding chapters, that it is a real property, but that it is a different property from any perceptible property or any sum of perceptible properties.

This is very hard to accept, so consider it again. It is absurd to say that the sunny meadow is not really like a smiling face--because in fact it does make a normal person feel the way he feels when a person smiles at him. But if that is true, then there must be something objectively in common between the meadow and a smiling face, such that a stormy field does not have it. That is the property.

Put it this way: the meadow has the power to affect us emotionally the way a smile does. but that is what any property, perceptible or esthetic is: the power to affect our minds in a certain way. We tend to think of perceptible powers as distinct "forms of energy," as if they were not abstractions, but as it were "tangible" somethings; but in fact, all this "form of energy" really means (when you get down to the physics of it) is that the object in question has the power to affect some instrument in a certain way. It is fully as much an abstraction as the "smilingness" we are talking about, because in fact it is a way in which the thing as a whole behaves, and is not really some "part" of it. The greenness of the grass is not one of its elements; it is the way the elements that make up the grass behave because they are united into the particular unity that exists.

What I am saying is that the perceptible property only seems less mysterious and abstract than the esthetic one, because we are more familiar with perceptible properties, and so have ignored the mystery, falsifying it into something our minds are more able to cope with. In this sense, esthetics is a good corrective to science, because it makes us realize (by wierd concepts like "smilingness") just what we are dealing with when we talk of properties.

5.2. Esthetic truth

I think that it will shortly become clear why I waited until now to talk about esthetic truth. It looks perfectly straightforward, but it has some rather peculiar implications.

DEFINITION: Esthetic truth occurs when the relationship understood esthetically corresponds with an actual relationship among the objects.

Can a person actually make an esthetic mistake? That is, can a person think some object is affecting him emotionally in a certain way, and it is not actually doing this?

The answer is, Yes, it is possible. I mentioned in talking about esthetic distance that if you are involved in a strong emotion, there is a spillover from it that affects all your consciousness; and you might think that the object is giving you the emotion when in fact the object itself has nothing to do with it.

For example, a person in love thinks everyone is friendly to him, and that those who are being nasty to him are just joking. If he were not in the grip of the emotion, he would realize that the people were in fact affecting him in all sorts of esthetic ways; but now they all seem the same. A depressed person thinks that objects are making him depressed, when in fact it is his mood that invests what the objects are doing with an emotional overtone that does not come from them.

The first level of esthetic error occurs when the present emotional state of the person is responsible for the emotional overtone of some perception, and the person thinks that the emotional overtone was due to an esthetic property in the object.

You will notice that this mistake is one where the first level of esthetic objectivity has not been reached. The person has failed to circumvent his present bodily condition.

A second level of esthetic error occurs when a person mistakes a habitual disposition of his for something produced by external objects. He then thinks that things have esthetic properties that they don't have.

For instance, the paranoid person thinks that everyone hates him; and if you try to convince him to the contrary, then you are just another one of the haters out to "get" him. He is assuming that his emotional condition is externally caused when it isn't.

But you don't have to be insane to commit this type of error, which essentially is a failure to achieve the third level of objectivity. It is, in fact, all too common to hear people say that there is nothing to some form of art that does not speak to them--assuming that if they are affected in a certain way, everyone is, and if they are not affected, no one "really" is. They assume that their reactions are always the "normal human" reactions, and if someone else is not affected the way they are, then this is because he is the oddball.

I don't think there is any way you can make a mistake on the second level of objectivity, in which you are affected in the same way even though you have different emotional predispositions; this would have to be due to a sameness in the esthetic property.

But what esthetic error amounts to is saying that there is a certain esthetic property in the object when in fact the particular emotional overtone of the perception was internally rather than externally caused; and the esthetic property in the object is either not there at all or is different from what it is thought to be.

5.3. Beauty

Now in discussing the truth-relation a couple of chapters ago, I said that there was a different way of looking at it--whether the fact corresponded to what we understood that it "ought" to be--and that this wasn't called truth and error, but goodness and badness. What is the esthetic counterpart of this?

DEFINITION: Beauty is the presence of an expected esthetic property in an object.

Beauty, then, is esthetic goodness, as it were. We expect an object to affect us emotionally in a certain way, and in fact it does affect us emotionally in this way. We don't then say that the object is good, but that it is beautiful. It has the esthetic property we expected to find in it.

Thus, a man expects to find women attractive to him; he looks at a woman who attracts him, and he says, "She's beautiful." A person expects that the sunset will give him emotions of peace and awe. He sees a sunset that affects him in this way and calls it beautiful.

Beauty, then, is in one sense the esthetic property, and in another sense it isn't. If the esthetic property is one you don't expect to find, you don't call the object beautiful.

5.3.1. The eye of the beholder

Now it can be seen in what sense "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." It isn't that the esthetic property is in the person who says that something is beautiful; the esthetic property is either in the object or it's not; it's there whether the person responds to it or doesn't, or even (because of his bodily condition) can't. And we saw that you can think you are responding to a property that just plain is not there in the object. So the esthetic property itself doesn't depend on the observer.

But the beauty does, because it is the discovery of an expected esthetic property. So that, if a a person hears a voice over the telephone and pictures the one speaking as a voluptuous blonde, and then sees her as a short brunette, he might think she is not beautiful, because he gets an esthetic reaction different from what he was expecting to get.

That is, the esthetic property is different from the expected one, and so the beauty is not there as such. However, it is there for a person who either was expecting to find it or had no particular expectations. It is also there for someone who has an open mind (in the true sense), and who is willing to accept whatever esthetic property he finds in the object. Beauty and prettiness

Notice that what is beautiful is not the same as what is pretty. Most people expect things to be pretty, and so confuse beauty and prettiness; but they are not the same.

DEFINITION: Prettiness is an esthetic property that causes a pleasant emotion.

Obviously, what is pretty can be beautiful--if you are expecting the object to be pretty in the way in which it is in fact pretty. In fact, people call a pretty thing beautiful (and not just pretty) if it is more pretty than they expect.

However, there can be prettiness that is out of place. A pretty funeral march, for instance, would probably not be beautiful to many people; neither would a pretty tragedy with pretty deaths in it. A pretty portrayal of battles and a war would probably be regarded by any knowledgeable person as an esthetic lie, and so would not be beautiful.

And conversely, many unpleasant things can be beautiful. I know of no more horible situation to have to watch than Desdemona's murder by Shakespeare's Othello; yet the emotions of pity and terror, rage (at Iago) and disgust make sense: to one who knows, they are what should be there. It is a beautiful play. Learning to appreciate beauty

But wait. If beauty depends on what you expect to find, then why can I say that Othello is beautiful "to one who knows"? Isn't all this "education" in art a waste of time? Not at all. Just because beauty as such depends on expectations, it doesn't mean that you can't learn to find esthetic properties that are there but might escape your notice if you didn't know what to look for. And when you find them, then the objects are recognized as beautiful, even though you wouldn't have called them beautiful before.

There are several senses in which we can learn to appreciate beauty. First of all, there is emotional training. People tend to put emotions out of their consciousness; and so in order to appreciate beauty, we have to learn to recognize and be aware of our emotional responses to things. I said, remember, that absolutely every act of consciousness we have, whether it is a perception, an act of imagination, memory, or understanding, has an emotional overtone. Most of the time, however, we are paying attention to something else, and ignore the emotion altogether. In the second place, we need to be trained to be more sensitive to what the emotion is. If comparisons based on emotions are the basis of esthetic understanding, then we have to pay attention to slight shades of similarity and difference in emotional tones. Does the fear when you imagine a lion exactly resemble the fear when you imagine a tiger or a leopard? What is the difference?

In the third place, we have to learn how to have the emotion--even a strong one--and not act upon it; otherwise we get into the ethical and out of the esthetic realm. No one can appreciate the beauty of, say, Michelangelo's David if even the statue of a naked male body arouses sexual desire to the point of wanting satisfaction of it.

In the fourth place, we have to know what to look for in the object itself. A person may be able to respond emotionally to the colors and lines of a painting; but if he looks at Jackson Pollock's "drip" paintings only to find "what they look like," then he won't notice the interplay of colors and shapes, and he will miss the beauty. If a person is waiting for the melodies and rhythms in music, then if he listens to Karkheinz Stockhausen, whose music is often a progression of tone colors, he will only be confused.

So yes, study is necessary for any kind of complex esthetic property to be recognized. The uneducated will say that it is not beautiful, because they can't find what is there, and are looking for something simpler; but the lack of beauty is their fault, as it were, not the object's.

5.3.2. Ugliness

The opposite of beauty, of course, is ugliness; which, in this theory of esthetics is esthetic badness--not a terribly surprising-sounding phrase. We certainly talk of bad art, and think of it as ugly.

DEFINITION: We say that an object is ugly if it fails to agree with our esthetic expectations of it.

There are several ways in which something can be ugly. First, it is regarded as ugly if it lacks an esthetic property we expect to find in it. For instance, an old woman is apt to be thought ugly by a young man, because he expects women to attract him, and her appearance is not sexually attractive.

But an object can also be thought to be ugly because it has an esthetic property the person doesn't expect to find, and therefore in some sense contradicts his idea of what it "ought" to be esthetically. A good deal of modern art and music, which is based on unpleasant emotional overtones (dissonances, muddy colors, erratic shapes) is thought ugly by many people, because they expect to be soothed and pleased by art.

If natural objects are thought ugly, this is always due to unrealistic expectations on the part of the observer. The reason is simple. Natural objects were not designed to have a certain emotional effect on people. The fact that most sunsets have one type of effect does not mean that the next one can't produce sadness or despair, because of the arrangements of the clouds and so on; but if the observer thinks it ugly, that is because he was expecting awesome calmness, and he is refusing to conform his mind to reality. If he did, he would find the sunset beautiful, but in a different way from normal.

We have no right, in other words, to expect natural reality to conform to our expectations; when something seems ugly, the way to fix it is to change our expectations and learn something new about the way things are.

But art was made by human beings to express an esthetic fact; and as we will see in a later chapter, there are various ways in which the artist can fail in saying what he wants to say. He can, for instance, contradict himself esthetically; and if he does, what he produces is objectively ugly, however pretty it might be, and however much the people who couldn't spot the contradiction think that it is beautiful.

So art can be thought ugly because the person doesn't understand it, or because in fact it is ugly, and the person who says it is knows what he is talking about.

But it must be kept in mind that ugliness is not really the opposite of prettiness. What is not pretty is ugly only to those people who expect the object to be pretty. For instance, there are many people who would say that Ethel Merman had an ugly voice (For those under sixty, she was a singer in musicals of the thirties, forties, and fifties--consult your late-late show). Her voice certainly was strident and not pretty; but it fit; and if you "rode with it," it was exciting.

Things out of context can be pretty or not pretty; they can only really be beautiful or ugly in context.