This past weekend David Brooks, the conservative columnist at the New York Times, left behind his contrarian punditry for a bit and tried his hand at writing on beauty. Titled “When Beauty Strikes,” it’s a meandering meditation on some concept of “beauty” and, apparently, its relationship to the world and spirit (and, presumably, world spirit!), and, also, longing, and how that connects to walking, dancing, painting, and even art criticism. The piece reads like a masters-level essay on classical aesthetics cribbed from a bunch of wrongheaded Wikipedia entries. Far from his wheelhouse, it’s clear he doesn’t know what he’s going on about.
At turns tumid and failed poetic, the piece relies on the usual suspects: a micro-survey in praise of Greek thought, which in the hands of a more knowledgeable writer could have pointed at the tension between Plato and Aristotle’s views on beauty; and a passage on eros, striving, and longing, that really needed to reference Aristophanes, Virgil, and Bernini. Then, trying to disavow eros as only relating to sex, Brooks quotes Georgia O’Keeffe, inviting the reasonable inference that he hasn’t seen a lot of O’Keeffe’s work. He arrives at the unremarkable conclusion that beauty in the world is nice, that it makes people more noble — except, surely, those unfortunate, miserable people who hate beautiful places, people, and things.
Far too many artists within my social media cluster shared the piece, commenting as if Brooks had finally voiced their bated whispers, that, yes, absolutely, yes, beauty, like the beautiful art they make, is morally edifying. Others reacted with indignation bordering on satire: the best of the bunch was critic Ben Davis’s bizarro annotated response that picked up on Brooks’s paean to a golden age that never was, that contrary to his own claims Brooks is really more interested in transcendental takes on beauty, and that humanism is to him little else than a complaint about the contemporary scene. In short, Davis left no one in doubt that Brooks really needs to work out some stuff. I’m certain Davis’s response has goosed up Brooks’s page views — you really do need to read the two side by side — but also no doubt some adjunct somewhere will assign the original and Davis’s piece for an art writing assignment.
But, really, there’s a lot to commend in Brooks’s piece, mostly because to make any sense of what he means, his readers have to consider their own account of beauty. That strikes me as a good thing, even though I wish Brooks had been a bit more specific about the ontology behind his concept of beauty, the loss of which he so bemoans. My own take on what Brooks is banging on about is that he thinks beauty can help us foster and commit to a certain relationship with the world. Beauty — however understood — helps one become attached to the parts of the world she scans day in and out, and that attachment is then cashed out in her commitments.
This view looks a lot like Elaine Scarry’s evocative take in her book-length essay “On Beauty and Being Just.” Scarry writes:
At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering … It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.
Connecting her work on beauty to Iris Murdoch’s Platonist ethics, she claims:
[Murdoch’s] subject is goodness, not beauty. Ethics, wrote Murdoch, should not be merely an analysis of ordinary mediocre conduct, it should be a hypothesis about good conduct and about how this can be achieved … Murdoch then speciﬁes the single best or most ‘obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for ‘unselﬁng’ and that is what is popularly called beauty.
Scarry thinks beauty is a mapping device that course-corrects us by providing a worldview best described as a well-fitting web of ethical beliefs and values. But, beauty also helps us to become more empathetic: for if we were wrong and now we are less so, then we can stand in radical solidarity with those who stand in opposition to our views, for they too can be unmoored from their given views. Beauty is a force that arcs toward justice, and, much like John Dewey’s view, it helps commit us to democratic citizenship.
If all this really is part of what Brooks means to offer his readers, then, great. He will have done us all a service by placing the conversation about beauty and the world into a larger, more public frame than the one used in art academe. If, on the other hand, his piece is just another riff on why every bobo is bowling alone, then screw it — let’s wait on someone else to pen a better-written sequel think piece, “When Beauty Strikes Back.”