Beauty and Nature

Is there beauty “in Nature” (out there, objectively, in the world, etc.)? If so, is there also ugly?

And if there is ugly in nature, what things are ugly . . . in Nature? Creepy crawling things? Slimy things? Dull dun brown stuff? Why would those things (or whatever one might call “ugly”)—why would those things be ugly?

As far as I can discern, there are no ugly colors. Nor are there any ugly beasts, or plants, or landscapes, or textures. Can something be ugly in smell? or sound? or touch? or taste? Is ugly, and concomitantly beauty, only a property of vision?

Can there be beauty without ugly? Isn’t that like light (luminance), which is only perceived by comparison with dark?

Beauty is a property of things perceived by humans, who can judge and evaluate abstractly. And since beauty is considered to be a culmination or perfection of specific qualities or characteristics, there is also ugly, the deficiency of those qualities. But these qualities are socially valued. Remember: there are no ugly things in Nature.

Artworks embody, make concrete in one way or another, these qualities of beauty and thus isolate them, as it were, from the demands of utility, so that beauty, grace, radiance, quiddity even, can be contemplated. That’s what Aristotle means by catharsis and vicarious violence.

Because artworks do not need to be denotatively truthful—because works of art are fictions, because they do not have to have a utilitarian purpose, because they are free creations—the maker can concentrate on the accidental qualities of appearances, in order to manipulate the degree to which beauty or formal wholeness or another property can exhibit itself.

Art moralizes nature. The artist takes the material qualities of things and forms and arranges them in such a way to produce an order to these qualities. Canons and rules and guidelines and other prescriptions are the socializing of the raw, unordered, un-beauty and un-ugly of nature, the making of preferences for and against ways of perceiving these qualities. Art is a social endeavor, and by being social, it subjects its materials (the stuff of Nature) to the mores of the group, of the society. Art moralizes nature, imposing preferences on colors and shapes and forms that, in the wild, occur for other reasons and purposes.

And Nature, which precedes art, is indifferent to these moral rules of Art. From time to time, Nature rebuffs art, Nature supersedes art, Nature is superabundantly more than art, defeating the rules of art: There are no binding canons of portrayal in Nature. Ultimately, Nature demoralizes art–i.e., Nature de-moralizes art.

Art moralizes Nature.
Nature demoralizes Art.

Copyright 1988–2018 by Michael Brady or the publishers