I recently purchased a used book online. This was the result of a late night shopping spree, for which I’m not particularly proud. See, Amazon.com has this nifty little “1-Click-To-Buy” option, it’s all too easy for me to get “click-click-clicking” away and next thing you know I’ve got twenty used books sitting on my doorstep. I’ve even gone so far as to write personalized message on the delivery label to myself in the future.
What made this purchase particularly awful was that when my book arrived, I found it was the wrong book. I’d ordered a famous novel by an author that had lived in my town. What I received was a book of the same title but was, in fact, a children’s book. Not just any children’s book, but a children’s book with a faded cover that appeared as though it may have been used as motivation for potty training. I’m not entirely sure how this happened, but if there’s some Amazon.com intern guffawing halfway across the country, lemme jus say this:
I was presented with a series of options: I could return the book, but I’d paid so little for it that just the shipping would double my losses. I could use it as toilet paper (from whence it came) but that would surely blacken some corner of my soul. Seeing as I’m a good liberal arts student, I didn’t have it in my heart to throw the book away without at least giving it a read. Children’s literature is still literature, and as a student of the topic I am a firm believer in giving all of it a fair chance. Besides, I was taking a flight that evening and it would give me an excellent way to avoid conversation with my fellow passengers: “Sorry to be so rude, but I’m about to ‘see Spot run’. Now, good day, sir.”
As it turns out, the book was awful. God-awful. Terrible. The characters were plastic, the illustrations depressing and the moral of the story was, well, awful. I’m sorry to use the same adjective several times, but this book seems to have zapped all my creative energy. It was just
Which brought me to thinking about the idea of beauty.
One of the most valid critiques of the study of literature is that it is a subjective study; a book may be good to me and awful to you. Similarly, a book could be awful to me and good thousands of screaming female masses.
The problem is any good student of literature (or any form of art for that matter) must accept some form of universal standard for beauty. Is it vague? Yes. Ridiculous? To me, at times. But existent? Absolutely.
This is why there’s a difference between art:
…and what a three-year-old draws when they’ve had too many Capri Suns:
Because there are certain standards by which beauty gets cheated. Specifically, any standard that claims to be subjective to anyone’s notions of reality cheats beauty of itself. Because when we subject beauty, we enslave it to our whimsical notions and desires. If beauty is a standard that’s fluid, then I can claim that something is beautiful to me, even if it’s ugly to everyone else. While this may suit our lovely tolerance-is-king worldview, we fail to realize that this cheats our world of something much greater than affirmation. When we claim to understand something that is incomprehensible, we fail to acknowledge it or value it properly and instead cheat it like hell.
Inasmuch, beauty is not subjective, it is not in the eye of the beholder. Because honestly who trusts anyone that spends their days around bees?
Because when we place beauty in the eye of the beholder we empower the beholder and disgrace the beauty. We claim that the beholder has the power to dictate what beauty is or isn’t, and therefore beauty has suddenly been put into a box in which it will inevitably die. Just as light cannot be light to me and darkness to you, so beauty has to have an objective standard, otherwise it cannot be beauty.
You say (with a British accent). “Surely this can not be true of physical beauty! This is why we hate Hollywood, model agencies and Abercrombie and Fitch. They proclaim objective standards of ‘ugly’ and ‘beautiful’ and leave us to the try and meet them. Surely beauty must fluctuate between what they perceive and what I am!”
In fact the exact opposite is true. Physical beauty is not subjective, there is beautiful and there is ugly. Plain and simple, black and white. Beauty does not exist in the eye of the beholder and we should thank God for that. Because every human being is beautiful, not to one person but to a grand objective scale. There may be varying degrees of beauty or preferences within the world, but to attach such variances to the word “beautiful” are terrible abuses of the adjective. It’s like calling the New York Jets a football team; the entire sport is offended.
This truth is what makes the recent comments of Abercrombie and Fitch’s CEO, Mike Jeffries, so utterly repulsive:
“We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends,” Jeffries said. “A lot of people don’t belong in our clothes, and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely?”
Who exactly does Jeffries say doesn’t belong in their clothes? Well any female above a size 10 for starters. One glance at the company’s magazine will a) make my grandmother blush b) confirm that their notion of beautiful is airbrushed, dieted and usually throwing Abercrombie’s products to the wind.
But here’s where we find ourselves at conundrum of double standards: if beauty if subjective, then how on earth can we be upset with Jeffries’ comment? If what’s beautiful to you isn’t just something that’s beautiful to me, then why do I have to adhere to that standard? Why can’t Jeffries say this?
Marriages fall apart due to subjective beauty. And why wouldn’t they? If beauty is determined by the whims and desires of the spouse, then what’s to say that someone won’t be beautiful to me in fifteen years? Furthermore, what’s to say there’s anything in this world worth saving? If my idea of beauty consists of treating the world like an old tissue, only to bow to my desires and deluded needs, then who’s to say that’s wrong? Households are wrecked and the world becomes boring and dull when we hold up our own measuring stick in place of the Divine’s. The Grand Canyon becomes a photograph in a family album that’s divided down the middle.
If, on the other hand, we find absurd standards for physical beauty repulsive, then we have to acknowledge the reality behind our reactions. Beauty cannot fit to a subjective standard and it was never meant to, not in literature, film, photography, music or physical standards. There will always be beautiful and there will always be ugly and we will always have to acknowledge certain truths. One of these is that every human being is beautiful because they are made by the hands of True Beauty. If we can just remove our subjective lenses and look closely enough we will find not more imperfections (as we are brought to believe) but rather greater miracles and more beauty than the most magnificent sunset or intricate painting.
I’m not saying we go off and burn vampire novels in front of sobbing teenage girls (but don’t tempt me). I’m not saying that we suddenly pretend that everyone we meet is someone we are personally attracted too. What I’m saying is we need to stop holding beauty to our own standard and accept that it generates from One who is outside of us, the Beauty of all Beauty and the origin of Goodness Itself. What I’m advocating is that we begin to see beauty as something that cannot be put into words and certainly cannot be confined to our understanding or declarations. This is when artwork ceases to be a statement and instead becomes a proposal, a timid and humble move forward into the vast unknown, an exploration of wonder and a dance of grace. When this occurs, we will spend less time elevating our own egos and more time appreciating beautiful parts of our world and each other for what we are: creations crafted by the mysterious hand of Beauty Itself. Only then do we have the hope of knowing beauty when we say it, of hearing the words “it is good” and realizing that it is.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to see if Spot will run.