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Beauty is a beast

A conversation with Elaine Scarry

Elaine Scarry, an essayist and English professor at Harvard University, dives deep into questions of aesthetics as a moral guide in her book On Beauty and Being Just. This past spring, Mark Pasnik AIA met with Scarry in her office on campus for a conversation on the topic.

Long Gallery (2010). Three book pages cut and folded, 52.5 cm × 43 cm.

Image: Abigail Reynolds

Mark Pasnik: I thought we could talk a little bit about the values that you see in beauty. What are the kinds of core, functional values that it brings to us?

Elaine Scarry: There are many values that beauty brings to us. It certainly brings to us the immediate experience of acute pleasure. In this case, it’s acute pleasure in a way that is simultaneously somewhat decentering. A number of 20th-century, midcentury philosophers, Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch, have talked about the fact that when we come into the presence of something beautiful, we undergo an unselfing, or what Weil called a “radical decentering.” That’s crucial because there are lots of things in the world that bring about an opiated state, and there are lots of things that make you feel marginal or secondary. But there’s almost nothing else that does both of those things at once, that makes you feel marginal at the very moment that you feel acute pleasure. That seems a kind of preparation or a rehearsal for caring about the injuries of the world or caring to repair injustices. Many people — my colleagues, your colleagues, artists, architects — believe that beauty for its own sake is a good thing.

Pasnik: You would agree with that view?

Scarry: I don’t agree with it. I think that beauty may well be responsible for pressing us into concern with justice and pressing us into concern with the truth.

Pasnik: It creates action, essentially? That’s one of its powerful tools?

Scarry: It does cause action. It’s not as though you see something beautiful and then you shrug it off as though nothing happened. It prepares you for other things. It’s not that I think we can be sure that an individual or an era that cared a lot about beauty also cared a lot about justice. I don’t mean it to be quite that strict. It’s much more supple. When you think of all the cruelty in the world, sometimes I’m astonished when you go back 10 or 20 centuries. On the one hand you find great instances of civilization, but on the other you often find the kind of violence we see today. Where in the midst of all this cruelty did the concern for equality and justice come from? Where did the idea come from that there has to be symmetry among individuals? That there is equality? I think where it came from is beauty.

Pasnik: Could you elaborate on the term “symmetry”? That’s such a strongly used word in architecture, and I think you’re talking more about equality and balance than geometric symmetry.

Scarry: I’m also talking about geometric symmetry. Symmetry is a word that you often hear being discredited, like it’s something we’re tired of. Yet symmetry is so crucial to many instances of beauty. It doesn’t have to be a bilateral symmetry. It can be octahedrons inside of dodecahedrons and so on. Whether you’re looking at a Japanese moss garden or a Greek temple or a vase or a child’s face, it’s going to be primarily characterized by symmetry. Sometimes people will cite instances of, let’s say, somebody’s face that isn’t symmetrical, some ravishing beauty, but it’s a tiny, tiny, fraction of asymmetry in the midst of great symmetry. If you have asymmetry in a face, it’s when a soldier in Iraq has had his face blown up or somebody has bone cancer, and nobody confuses that with beauty. If you look at any account of justice, it always involves some definition of balance, equilibrium, beauty.

Centrepoint (2008). Book pages cut and folded, 25 cm × 18 cm.

Image: Abigail Reynolds

Pasnik: Do you find that to be more of a classical notion than a Modernist one? There are many architects who would argue against symmetry and look for dynamics that reflect our current society. I can think of a romantic beauty of a leaning, ancient barn; its lack of symmetry is actually one of its enduring, beautiful qualities. So I’m curious — you feel like it’s a strong driving force?

Scarry: I do. Sometimes when we’re talking about beauty, we’re talking about the beautiful object itself, whether a person or a thing, and sometimes we’re talking about the response to beauty. With symmetry we’re talking about one of its features. Whenever I’m talking about other features of beauty, people tend not to challenge me; they say, “Well, yes, of course.” But symmetry, they say, “No.”

Pasnik: For me, trained as an architect, it was the word in your book that I had the most trouble agreeing with.

Scarry: Right. Once I was at a conference where a philosopher said, “Look, you don’t need it. You’ve got all these other things that make your case. Why even bring it up?” I just had to bring it up because I think it’s true. In the realm of architecture, it has to be symmetrical enough that it stands up, that it’s safe, that it works. The thrill of it may be that there are ways of designing it so that the dynamism is outpacing the equilibrium. But still it’s symmetrical.

Pasnik: Paul Rudolph, a midcentury Modernist who built a lot of concrete buildings, said that any architect who designs symmetrically should only get half the fee! I’m curious that symmetry is so challenged. It’s interesting to hear how often you’ve heard it challenged as well.

There were other concepts that you pulled out in your book that resonated closely with architecture but were less precisely descriptive, like the quality of “generous sensory availability.” The decentering that you’ve talked about — I think of walking into a building and [being] profoundly thrown off your feet — and proportion, and symmetry as in ethical fairness; I found some allegiance in those points. But it is more challenging for me to embrace the word symmetry in its geometric meaning.

Scarry: All the things you mention are things that I believe very strongly. Plato talks about how beauty is bound up with truth and justice, but those things you only find in the other world. Or you find it in this world, but it isn’t in the sensory environment.

Pasnik: How does beauty turn us toward justice?

Scarry: It does it in two ways. It doesn’t seem like there’s an inherent pressure for equal distribution in the realm of justice; otherwise, we could have figured all this out a long time ago. But with beauty, absolutely, it’s there in so many different instances, whether it’s the Fibonacci series, the arrangement of seeds in the sunflower, or many other things. First of all, that it’s in the world to keep reminding us that there is this way of being that involves symmetry and balance. I think of the example of Augustine and De Musica, where he’s writing a whole section on the godliness of equality, how God is equality and music is equal measure. The godly is in the symmetry of dance steps, he says. It’s in the smoothness of rose petals. It’s even in the smoothness of cakes. It’s in the iteration of a single color, like the blue of the sky, symmetrical across a patch or an expanse of color. He’s not talking about political equality.

Pasnik: It’s not a social issue.

Scarry: It’s not, yet it’s fine that it’s not yet a social issue, as far as I know, for Augustine. He’s already saying that equality is godly. If you take the fact that many people, starting from the Greeks and probably much earlier, talk about how you have to have punishment symmetrical to crimes, yet here we are, centuries later, and we don’t have it figured out at all. We’ve got mass incarceration, no relation between crimes and punishment. This is all to say that it’s aspired to in every definition of justice there is, whether you’re talking about equal pay for equal work or about crimes and punishments or about a symmetry in everyone’s relation with one another. The idea is there, but the instantiation of it isn’t. We even argue about what the instantiation of it would look like; whereas with beauty, we’re just flooded with examples, whether it’s a bird in flight or one of your dynamic buildings or a staircase or whatever.

Pasnik: Do they call us to be more just?

Scarry: I think definitely, in part through that process of unselfing.

Pasnik: Because we’re decentered, we sort of remove ourselves?

Scarry: Yes.

The Music Room (2008). Book pages cut and folded, 49 cm × 29.5 cm.

Image: Abigail Reynolds

Pasnik: There was an interesting structure that I saw in your book, in terms of the relationship of beauty, beginning with a beautiful object, moving to the perceiver’s cognitive act of beholding, and ending with a creative act that is prompted by it. And that seems like a recipe for positive things in the world to grow. There is a beautiful act. It triggers something, decenters us, and then encourages us —

Scarry: To create. Socrates’ teacher Diotima told him that when you see something beautiful or someone beautiful, it gives rise to a desire to have children. But, she said, it also gives rise to the desire to make poems and philosophic treatises and good laws. Wittgenstein says when your eyes see something beautiful, your hand wants to draw it. And that impulse you can see, even for people who don’t think of themselves as artists or architects or creators. They want to replicate it.

Pasnik: Is there a biological imperative in this process of beauty? Or do you see it as more cultural?

Scarry: I think of it as cultural, but you can see in people wanting generations to go on; at times, when there are very depressed circumstances, birth levels go down. So it may well be biological. People in the natural sciences keep pointing out that when insects and birds choose mates, they’re often going by what they perceive as aesthetic qualities, including symmetry and color. They say that symmetry wins out over everything, that it’s taken as a sign of well-being and health. Mario Livio, who is an astrophysicist at the Hubble Institute, points out this amazing thing, that in the Y chromosome there are more than 50 million sequences, 6 million of which are palindromes: the letters read the same way forward as backwards. He says the reason for that, they think, is to ensure survivability, so that if it’s damaged in one direction, it can still be read in the opposite direction.

Pasnik: Fascinating. Yet I can’t think of the last time, on a design review in a school that I’ve been to, somebody used the word beauty as a driving concept or way of thinking. I’m curious how that happened and if you have a defense of beauty or a rallying cry for beauty; is it reemerging in discourse?

Scarry: I think it is, but it was certainly absent in the ’80s and ’90s. I started teaching a graduate course called “On Beauty” in the early 1990s; it’s not that the objects of beauty had no longer been in the literature departments or art history departments, because Keats’ poetry is, for sure, beautiful.

Pasnik: It just wasn’t discussed with that term.

Scarry: The formal features of the thing tended not to be discussed. I was addressing a problem in the university because that’s the area I occupy, but museum directors told me that they had also suffered from decades of this being a taboo. Jim Cuno, who’s now [president and CEO] of the Getty [Museum] — he used to be at the Fogg — held sessions with museum directors from all over the country, where we would talk about beauty. Quite a few of them said they felt they had been under a taboo. Then I would speak at architecture schools, and they would say they had been under a taboo. Moshe Safdie FAIA, who’s an architect I like very much, once said he felt that it was a vocabulary that had been eliminated. He certainly seems to me somebody who has always been very celebratory of beauty as a life pact. Individual artists, painters would say that it was a kind of banished word.

Red Library (2010). Book pages cut and folded, 33 cm × 58.5 cm.

Image: Abigail Reynolds

Pasnik: Why was beauty evicted from so much discourse?

Scarry: Well, the ostensible reasons that were given often took a form that was manifestly incoherent, in my view. One idea was that “the gaze” was something destructive. For sure, there are instances where somebody looks at somebody and it’s predatory, and it’s going to lead to something bad in the same way that an eagle looks at its prey. But that is not —

Pasnik: Not the reason to eliminate it.

Scarry: Exactly. The bizarre thing is, you’d be at seminars and everybody would be sitting around looking at each other, talking about how bad the gaze was. And yet, if you didn’t look at anybody, you couldn’t have a seminar. The even more bizarre thing is that it started getting transferred to things that weren’t even human, so that I remember once hearing a lecture where somebody was talking about Keats’ reifying flowers by the gaze. And people talk about destroying a painting by the gaze. You think, really? The painting isn’t even there for us to look at?

Pasnik: So that’s one side of the argument. In your writing, you display that there are competing arguments that almost disprove that.

Scarry: Because the other one was that beauty will distract us from important things. There’s always a danger of that. I would rather sit there looking at flowers in my garden than writing about nuclear weapons. Yet it’s my belief that doing the one helps you with the other. At the very least we can say that to argue that beautiful things distract, that you’re actually hurting things if you fail to give them your regard, that’s absolutely contrary to the idea that if you are gazing at the thing you are causing it injury.

There are other things that were equally incoherent. There was one idea — and I think that many people might still say this today — that beauty is middle class, it’s bourgeois. That’s crazy. Very rich people are very often attentive to beauty, and very poor people are attentive to beauty. I like very much [Sebastião] Salgado’s photographs of migrations, which had an accompanying volume called The Children. The reason he did that second volume was because whenever he was taking pictures of 4,000 people in Rwanda or a refugee camp in Tanzania — and those photographs, by the way, were often criticized for being beautiful, even though nobody had been thinking about how many people are just moving over the face of the Earth until Salgado started photographing them — these little children would get in the way of his camera. So he would buy them off by saying, “If you just stay out of my camera, I’ll take a portrait of you.” So in the accompanying volume, the individual portraits show that no matter how poor, no matter what country they’re from — and they’re from all different countries — they’ll often have an exquisite little necklace on, or . . .

Pasnik: Some object of beauty.

Scarry: Some object of beauty. Or a beautiful head scarf. The idea that the people in their world and they themselves don’t care about beauty is just insane.

Pasnik: What are your thoughts on beauty’s role as a construct: Do we invent beauty? Do we observe it? Are there things that are determinative, or is it driven by culture? Does it change from era to era, or are there things that you see that are resonant across eras?

Scarry: Sometimes people think that it’s a problem that different cultures revere different objects of beauty or discover different sites of beauty. I never understand why people think that’s a problem. One of the features of beauty is its plurality. Just think of the problem we’d have if each of us took the same spouse or if each of us wanted to live in an identical house — we would never imagine that. Yet we somehow think it’s a problem that there could be these disparate ideas.

Pasnik: So for you, beauty is more malleable and changing.

Scarry: Not only do I think that, but I think people who try to hammer it into a universal that we all have to agree to have a big problem making the argument because it’s wrong.

Pasnik: That seemed like a fault in the argument.

Scarry: On the other hand, I do have to say that there are certain objects of beauty that I believe are held in common, such as children’s faces and sunrises and sunsets and birds and the beauty of the blue sky. I’m not by any means ruling out the idea that there are shared objects of beauty. But there are huge variations.

Pasnik: You use this great phrase, “the reciprocal, life-giving pact between perceiver and the object.” You mention beauty as a perceptual event, all of which seems to limit its time span. It’s not necessarily something inherent to an object, but it might be an experience. Something might be fleeting or it might be long term, but there is a sense of time and agreement between, say, a set of parties.

Scarry: There are two different questions in what you’re saying. One is the time duration, and the other is the pact. The endurance of the event can be just a matter of seconds, or it can be so enduring that if you come back to it three or 30 years later, it still is beautiful to you. I don’t think that the things that only last three seconds aren’t valid or real. They may not have the stamina, but I think that they continually moisten and refresh our perceptions. I think that it’s the very fact that beautiful things don’t endure — a beautiful person dies, a flower dies. One of my students said that goes together very well with the idea of creating. We keep creating because —

Pasnik: It’s impermanent.

Scarry: And we have an obligation to the next generation of people to keep it in the world. Some of us do it by teaching, like making sure that The Iliad still gets read, to the next generation. Some of us do it by creating new objects, like new buildings, to put in the world. But the life pact, the second part of the question, absolutely. That seems to me as important as talking about symmetry and explaining why beauty leads to justice. It’s because it is affirmative of our perceptual acuity. On the one hand, it makes us feel that we have a place in the world. At the same time, it’s decentering. There must be something about us in relation to the Earth that explains why it seems there couldn’t be a more perfect Earth. More important is that I think it raises the level of perceptual acuity.

Charcoal (2012). Book pages cut and folded, gold leaf, 31 cm × 43 cm.

Image: Abigail Reynolds

Pasnik: It seems to draw very closely into some of the issues of architecture, but it also seems like it’s the generosity of beauty compared to the definition of beauty that is sort of rarefied and far away from you. It’s far more powerful a reading of beauty than the arguments of why it was being evicted in the first place or why architects have trouble with it. It’s because you think beauty has standards, and codes, and these kinds of constructs. When we think about the issue of taste — I’m not sure that taste has that generosity. There’s a construct that to have good taste means it’s a structure, that there’s a wide agreement around it. What are your thoughts on the relationship between beauty and taste?

Scarry: The argument against taste is we’ve agreed that there’s plurality of beauty. If you start with people’s choosing their life partner or even their temporary partner, it would be amazing to think that anyone could prescribe the person they should choose, even in cultures where parents arrange for marriages. So I think there is a problem with taste; it’s being prescriptive in an arena where there’s plurality of taste.

And yet, remembering that there are these common objects of beauty and that one of the goals is distribution of well-being, then I think that there are lots of objects of beauty that require assistance. That’s why we have universities. Some things you have to struggle to see the beauty of.

Is the architect who’s trying to wrestle with the subject of taste, is he or she going to accommodate the plurality of taste by having a building that’s amorphous and keeps changing every time you turn around? To some extent, buildings can do that. If the Getty Museum and its surrounding grounds [were] in part based on the idea of a national park, it was in part imagining people doing different things or entering and exiting the building in lots of different ways. So there are ways of accommodating plurality, but I think that it comes down more on the side of either having principles of beauty that are already known to be widespread, or if the architects are in the vanguard of seeing some new thing, then they may have to build in a certain education process.

Pasnik: To prepare themselves for beauty, or to understand beauty?

Scarry: Both. For example, in a verbal text, the poet will often give us practice in how to read an easy version of something before we have to read a difficult version of it.

Pasnik: Let’s return to perceptual acuity. It seems that is one of the gifts that beauty gives us. It raises our awareness. In many respects it causes us to attend to things that we might not normally. How might architects, in particular, learn from that?

Scarry: Whenever we cross paths with something beautiful, it does cause this heightened awareness. It’s suddenly electrifying. When people argue that it steals, robs your attention from something else, I say: Do this experiment the next time you find yourself suddenly ravished or have your breath taken away by looking at something beautiful. What level of perception were you experiencing as you walked down the street? Were you generously looking at people, enjoying them, and thinking, How lovely? Or were you just numb? It raises the standard for what counts as perception because you feel what it is to be fully engaged. Then, either a voice in your head or a friend of yours will say, “Well, you’ve got to give that same level of perception to this over here, which you didn’t originally think was so important.” That way, that same perceptual acuity gets transferred to other things.

Pasnik: There is a shift in the language of beauty used from, let’s say, classical origins in architecture. Vitruvius talks

about firmness, commodity, and delight — delight is the beauty, firmness is the strength, and commodity is the usefulness. So beauty is the third element. Then there’s a shift in Modernism, where there’s growing distrust of the word beauty, but it’s positioned to grow out of those other characteristics. I wanted to read a quote from Marc-Antoine Laugier; in 1753 his Enlightenment-era Treatise on Architecture underpins a lot of what happens in the early 1900s with Modernist philosophy: “The parts that are essential are the cause of beauty. The parts introduced by necessity cause every license. The parts that are added by caprice cause every fault.” There’s a kind of integration of beauty with essence, with that kind of essentialness, but also a sense of function. Modernism privileges the expression of the way the building is behaving, the way it’s formed, and sees a beauty in that. While beauty in a lot of modern discourse is set aside, it’s also even more centralized in a way. It’s the kind of term from which things have to grow.

Scarry: That’s persuasive. That is really foundational.

Pasnik: It’s essentializing, I guess.

Scarry: So it’s not in the ornament, it’s in the structure.

Centrepoint 1975/1981 (2010). Book pages cut and folded, 27 cm × 15.5 cm. From The Universal Now series.

Image: Abigail Reynolds

Pasnik: For me, the task of beauty as part of architecture would not be defined only as aesthetic. It would not be separated from the task to improve society and other kinds of tasks that architecture has. That would be part of its potential for beauty. That’s one of the rich things about the way you interpret beauty in your book. The way I see it as having been banished because it’s seen as this extra layer, and Modernism pushes away ornament (but not completely). It does seem that beauty’s centrality is the argument you are making that does have a sustained practice in architecture, even with this shift away from the term beauty. That’s an interesting inversion that your book draws out.

Scarry: As you were speaking, I thought of being so struck by the St. Louis Pulitzer [Arts Foundation] Museum by [Tadao] Ando because I had never understood that poured concrete could look that way. It seemed like a pearl. Yet there was nothing about it that is removable. Even though we think the building is its structure, it’s also all its porousness to light and air and so forth, the kind of aliveness of the thing. It is, again, foundational. It is the ground of aliveness.

Pasnik: You talk about the opposite of beauty as injury. Most people think of the opposite of beauty as ugly. I wrote a book on Boston’s concrete Modernism, from the 1960s and ’70s, and ugly is a word that’s commonly used by the public for this generation of buildings, which I find to be fascinating buildings that are powerful and imaginative. They awaken me in ways that you’ve described. My perception of them, the pact between me and them, is quite different than maybe the average public version. Is ugliness difficult? Beauty, terrible beauties, how do these fit into the larger picture?

Scarry: My book might have been faulted for not using the word ugliness; I just don’t use it. I just don’t quite recognize what it is, what the word means. Whereas injury, I very much recognize what it means. Beauty presses us to justice, but the spectacle of injury, which is very close to the word for injustice, can also press us toward justice. These are examples of what I was saying earlier, that for difficult poems or paintings that don’t immediately strike every viewer as beautiful, there has to be the work of education that is carried out in a space adjacent to the beautiful thing, like a university.

Pasnik: We’re two buildings down from the Carpenter Center, which is a good example.

Scarry: Absolutely. The building itself can teach you.

Pasnik: If you’re prepared for it.

Scarry: Just like The Iliad. The 18th book is going to ask you to make incredible pictures in your mind of motion on the shield of Achilles that’s going to climax with acrobats doing handsprings. It is one thing to say the words but to actually make a picture of that? Homer gets us to do it by having these things along the way that are much easier forms of making mental images that move. Instead of saying, “The spear flew through the air,” he’ll say, “The shadow of the long spear flew through the air.” It’s easier for us to make a picture of a shadow moving through the air because it’s so rarefied and lightweight. All that is a rehearsal for Book 18, where we’re going to have to do these kinds of tour de force acts of imagining.

Pasnik: Buildings could do the same.

Scarry: Even the edge of the spiral entryway on the Carpenter Center is a way of —

Pasnik: Folding you into it.

Scarry: Staging your own entrance into it, you know? I can imagine that there might be another building in the same genre, where instead of it being done in the entryway, there could be an alcove or a corridor where people in the building get it, and then get it again when they’re back in the larger space. ■

Desert Seeds (2015). Book pages cut and folded, 30.5 cm × 18.5 cm.

Image: Abigail Reynolds