Aesthetics / Civilization / Ecology / Philosophy / Thoughts

The Dark Side of Beauty

File:Gardenstown, harbour pollution - geograph.org.uk - 945452.jpg

There seems to be something like purely structural beauty. Some things, like an oil spill, can look beautiful as long as you don’t know or don’t think of what they are and what they mean. This is a beauty that arises on a low level of perception before interpretation sets in.

Once you understand what you are seeing, the feeling of beauty may be pushed to the background by other feelings like disgust, anger, or grief. Mostly such things make me sad. Some give me a feeling of horror. However, I am still able to access this feeling of beauty underneath the other feelings, so yes, beauty is still there because that part of my brain that produces this feeling does not know what it is seeing, it is only doing lower level processing of visual structures, like discovering lines, triangles and circles or color patterns.

The same is true for art. In purely abstract art, you only have this structural aspect. When the artist adds meaning, what he or she is expressing might be totally horrible.

The beautiful and the good, it seems, are not the same nor are they necessarily closely connected. There seem to be good things that are not beautiful and beautiful things that are not good. There is a dark side of beauty. It is morally neutral and silent. Some people who have witnessed atomic bomb explosions have noticed that the glowing mushroom clouds can be quite beautiful.

We are used to thinking of beauty as something good – and the tradition of western philosophy since Plato connected the two – but maybe that is not so. Beauty is low-level, pre-semantic and therefore it lacks empathy. The beautiful and the good may be independent dimensions, perpendicular to each other. Beauty may have a potential of being cold. In itself, outside the mind of an empathic human being, it might still exist. A psychopath might be able to feel beauty although there is no empathy in such a person.

So the positive ideas and the warmth of the hart is something we have to add.

(The picture is from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gardenstown,_harbour_pollution_-_geograph.org.uk_-_945452.jpg.

This article is a reworked version of a comment to http://ekostories.com/2013/10/10/burtynsky-manufactured-landscapes/)

14 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Beauty

    • In societies with power, beauty and empathy often seem to go separate ways. Just an example, since I mentioned Plato: the same Plato who put forward the theory that there were, as the highest forms or ideas, the good, the true and the beautiful, this same Plato was part of a merciless slaving society. Some of the remains of this ancient culture are great works of art. Empathy is not on Plato’s list. There is a lot of discussion about “the god”, but he did not mean empathy, it seems.
      We have to connect the two, beauty and empathy. Otherwise, you will have the rich and powerful monopolizing beauty. The platonic idea that they belong together may then even be a means to blind people, so they will not notice the ugly face of power.

  1. We do often judge beautiful people favorably and plain ones not so nicely. That is something that somehow always comes to mind to me when people discuss beauty.

    Many beautiful plants are poisonous.

    Don’t know how this all connects, but it’s what ocurred to me when I read this. It’s given me something to think about. Thanks for posting.

    • An interesting aspect I had not thought of. Thank you.
      The topic has more aspects than I realized originally. I will think about it some more.
      I am just looking at the postcard you sent me. A meteor can be a very beautiful thing, unless it hits you. 🙂

      • This is why it is so hard to know what to think about almost anything, because there always seems to be a perspective from which the beautiful thing is not beautiful, or the other way around. And in the end, it becomes difficult or impossible to judge, just to accept, unless the beauty or lack of it is so cleary weighted in one direction.Or so it has seemed to me.

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