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On Beauty

Our changing notions of aesthetic pleasure.

It was a glorious spring day so my husband and I took the subway up to 104th Street to visit one of our favorite places in the city--the formal gardens in Central Park. They are not nearly so expansive or well known as the Brooklyn Botanic Garden or those in the Bronx, but they are particularly lovely, tucked away in that part of the park that is so far north that even many of the most ardent park lovers are unaware of their existence. But for those who do venture northward, there are few pleasures that compare with walking through the ornamented wrought-iron gates that once adorned the old Vanderbilt mansion at 58th and 5th to enter the formal central courtyard, enclosed by walls of exquisitely manicured hedges, their upper edges lined, at this time of year, with masses of tiny white flowers, like banks of freshly fallen snow.

We sat ourselves down on a stone bench near a great, blooming magnolia tree in the informal, English-style south garden. There are many magnificent magnolias there, each one encircled by daffodils, tulips, grape hyacinths--shimmering yellows against all shades of purple, some silky, some matte, backed and interspersed by leaves of the blackest green. From where we were sitting, the creamy white underside of the magnolias appeared delicate and thin, like hand-made paper, not waxy but luminous, dappled at the edges with a deep, rosy maroon that, depending on the light, sometimes took on a lavender glow. Randomly spaced within these masses of color were small bunches of intense pinkish-purple buds, only a few still remaining, loose and full, just about to open into single, distinct, pleasing flowers. We had arrived at precisely the moment when the magnolias and the spring bulbs surrounding them were at their most beautiful.

"This is what eighteenth-century thinkers must have had in mind when they tried to define beauty," I said to my husband. For a long time now, I have been trying, with little success, to grasp what the first aestheticians meant when they spoke of "the pleasures of the imagination," the most delightful, for them, being beauty--an aesthetic feeling that has lost much of its resonance over the course of the last century. I have always found Kant's account of beauty the most compelling of the early writers, even if it is also dauntingly abstract. But I don't think I ever truly grasped, before that moment under the magnolias, what he meant when he wrote that beauty is what we experience when the imagination and the understanding come together in free play--pure, "distinterested" pleasure, joy for its own sake. My delight in the optical texture filling my senses was precisely of this sort: It called up no associations whatsoever. I wanted nothing more than to continue taking in this pleasing sight. And my perception was ratified when my husband spoke of the arresting sensation of the late-afternoon light touching and coloring the tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths. Were other visitors to our refreshing spring garden also absorbed by this quiet, self-contained pleasure?

They might have been, we imagined, had they only, even for a brief moment, stopped talking to their companions (in person and on cellphones), running after their children, listening to their walkmen and iPods, snapping pictures, or reading their magazines and newspapers. It appeared to us that very few of our fellow garden visitors had the desire, let alone the habit, of attending to the delightful textures and colors, shapes and forms, that were everywhere to be seen around them. Of course American restlessness and distractedness are nothing new--Tocqueville had much to say about these distinctively American traits back in 1830. What was new, at least it seemed to me (a diehard Luddite), was the level of bombardment to which our senses are daily exposed--pounding loudspeakers in shops and restaurants and neighbors' "home-entertainment systems" and cars on the street, not to mention the quick-cut, rapid-fire, hyper sensation of music videos, computer games, and action movies.

I began to wonder if the gentle, low-keyed pleasures of gardens might simply fall below the notice of most people living today. "Could whole ways of being in the world simply disappear?" I asked my husband. Which made him think of the reams of drawings and watercolors of weather-horizons, clouds, sunsets, dawns, trees, shrubs, flowers, vines, and grasses, that were once the living embodiment of the attentive eye and sensitive hand of practiced and amateur artists alike. Constable's aerial views of the lumimous atmosphere of clouds immediately came to mind as did Ruskin's painstaking, delicate renderings of herbs, mosses, and feathers. Sunday photographers were out in full force that glorious spring afternoon, but their mechanical and instantaneous interactions with nature made the slow and absorbing pleasures of attentive looking, which had long been the province of Sunday painters, obsolete. And what, we wondered, was happening to the senses and sensibility of that new breed of frenetic observers who go through the world snapping pictures with their cellphones while hooked up to an iPod soundtrack of their own making?

I knew that the inattentiveness to the beauty of gardens that we were witnessing that day was not the consequence only of modern technologies that overwhelm and numb our senses and others that alienate us from them. It had deeper roots. One of the things that struck me most when I first began reading eighteenth-century writers on beauty was how different their notion of the arts was from ours, even though they originated so many of our commonplace ideas about aesthetics. Hume thought it the most natural thing in the world to compare the pleasures of conversation with those of painting and poetry, since both were objects of delight and occasions for the cultivation and display of refinement. And Kant placed the appreciation of painting on the same level with the appreciation of gardens, but also with the decoration of rooms and "the art of tasteful dressing." Each, he thought, was a "beautiful play of sensations" with no purpose other than pleasure. To me, this seemed a strange and unwelcome trivialization of art, but that was because I, like anyone else schooled in the modern sensibility, have come to expect far more from art--to be moved, transported, awed, even deranged, sometimes to the point of tears, or, from the opposite angle, to be shocked, or, at the very least, defamiliarized.

Yet, the quiet, contemplative pleasures of the spring garden that late afternoon in the park stopped me dead in my tracks. I became increasingly uneasy as I wondered aloud: Had our modern habit of seeking rapture, exaltation, revelation--the kind of aesthetic experience that first became possible with the sublime landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, reached its apotheosis in the transcendent, late Mont Sainte-Victoires of Cezanne, and achieved its final fulfillment in the metaphysical abstractions of Rothko--made us, like our fellow garden visitors, insensible to the more gentle, low-keyed pleasures of beauty, at least when it came to art? My husband and I, sitting on the stone bench under the cool, cerulean-blue sky, had a hard time thinking of the great painters of the eighteenth century. We were able to come up with David, Reynolds, Gainsborough, as well as those extraordinary illustrators of antiquity like Piranesi and the all-but-forgotten Giovanni Paolo Panini, who painted delightful souvenir ruins, vistas, and portraits for those who had taken the Grand Tour.

But it wasn't until we returned home to our art books that we also remembered Watteau, Fragonard, Chardin, Tiepolo. We felt especially bad about forgetting Chardin, since we had spent many delightful hours entranced by the dynamic balance of his exquisite still lifes. The astute shifts in optical vibration that bring into vision crystal-clear glass, brilliant gold, hard stone, downy peaches; the impeccable sense of form that brings into vision the ideal pitcher, bowl, cherry, egg; the perfectly spaced intervals between these ideal forms revealing hidden geometric harmonies--I now realize that Chardin's still lifes exemplify the Kantian notion of beauty as the free play of the understanding and the imagination with no purpose other than delight. As we looked at reproductions of these truly beautiful paintings, I felt something approaching gratitude that I could still be touched by the beauty of gardens, as I was earlier that day. But, then, as I was putting the book away, I began to worry about paintings like Chardin's--and also Fragonard, Watteau, and Tiepolo--which seem to have only the most tenuous place in my own imagination, enthralled as it is by the modern spell of aesthetic intensity.

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang). 

By Rochelle Gurstein