A Plea for Purposeless Beauty
A romantic ideal has it that the highest forms of beauty are purposeless. Recognition and appreciation of beauty, in its most proper form, is attained independently from any knowledge of how the object of experience originated. Michelangelo’s David will overcome you with its beauty regardless of your knowledge of where the marble was coming from or who sponsored the artwork or what were the sources of inspiration and the specific aims of Michelangelo. Training into the recognition of beauty is here conceived as an observational or spiritual exercise independent of the historical accidents that lead to the existence of your object of experience.
This view can easily be applied also to the appreciation of beauty among human beings. To see the beauty of a person you need not know about her or his life story. No need to learn about family origins, education, occupation, how the day has been going so far, and so on. Beauty may reveal itself in a person simply by observing that person or through a casual conversation.
A corollary that suggests itself to this view is that beauty is a universal quality. Beauty recurs, one and the same, in different experiences. How do we know that? Well, one of the main indicators is that specific form of pleasure that accompanies the experience of beauty. It is purposeless pleasure.
Against Purposeless Beauty
Purposeless beauty, however, may lead to deep misunderstandings. You may believe that you are indeed appreciating the beauty of Michelangelo’s David, but because of your ignorance of its historical details you are deeply misunderstanding the values that it expresses.
It often happens with people too. What at first sight appears as an intelligent and deep thought would result, under closer scrutiny, as an idea that has only the appearance of depth. What appears as a beautiful face is but the product of a sophisticated makeup, or of fortunate lighting, or of your altered state of mind.
Precisely because of misunderstandings of these varieties, it seems sensible to think that an appreciation of beauty cannot take place without a full consideration of the circumstances under which the aesthetic experience takes place. If so, however, it seems that one cannot really appreciate beauty outside of those aims that brought it about.
Beauty and Expertise
Let’s make some specific examples. Suppose you are taking a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and that you do so in order to be pleased, aesthetically, by the encounter with the artworks there exposed. The purposeless theory of beauty maintains that, even if your knowledge of art history is quite limited, and even if your Museum visit is in no way guided, you may still appreciate the Museum masterpieces. The opponents of this view would instead argue that your experience is ultimately skewed by your ignorance, so that you end up misunderstanding the masterpieces in ways that prevent you from fully appreciating what the author was trying to, and did , achieve.
Analogous disputes may be found among those who argue that a full appreciation of the beauty of Beethoven’s ninth symphony can occur even if you know nothing about musical technicalities, such as notation, the history of symphony as a typical musical structure, conducting styles, etc. To some, this is nonsense. Amateurs will never be able to fully grasp the beauty of a state of the art execution of the ninth symphony.
Yet another case is the one of wine appreciation. Does it take a wine expert to be able to tell that a wine is excellent? I would tend to say that it does, since only an expert is able to locate the specific qualities of a particular wine. And those, most likely, will contain some reference to the intentions of the winemaker, to her interpretation of the extant practices for producing that type of wine.