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.
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.