From time to time we are struck with something we may deem "beautiful". We see a work of art, a landscape, or a face that speaks to an almost ephemeral ideal which demands our attention, acknowledgement and contemplation. But why does this occur? What is it that we, as individuals, are perceiving as beautiful? And what exactly is beauty anyway? In exploring this largely taken for granted dimension to human experience we ask: What place should it hold in our lives, and what value do we hold for it - and it for us?

This week on MindMatters we explore and expand on some common conceptions of things beautiful - from the mundane to the sublime. And we see how noticing and arranging things to be beautiful can be an invocation of our greatest ideals and values. In a time and place where we are surrounded by ugliness, the gifts and astonishment that may be found in beauty may be one more key in connecting to the highest part of the Universe, and to ourselves.

Running Time: 01:04:28

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Here's the transcript:

Elan: Hello and welcome back to another Mind Matters. Today we'll be discussing the subject of beauty. What is beauty? How do we perceive beauty? What is it about something that makes it, to our minds, beautiful? What value does beauty have in our lives? There are so many different distinctions that one can make in describing beauty in nature, in art, in the everyday that it's rather a pretty broad subject. But we're going to look into the subject today and describe what we think beauty is, what place it holds for us, why we appreciate the beautiful things in our lives, and at a time when we're preoccupied with a lot of let's say, worldly events and concerns, how beauty might serve us to elevate ourselves and feed that part of ourselves that yearns for nurturing and reminds us of those things that are higher, of a larger, more meaningful order of things, an aesthetic, a part of our minds and our souls that almost requires as a type of nourishment and food, those things that appeal to our aesthetic, higher sensibilities, if you will.

So I thought I'd just begin by speaking about an experience I've had with beauty about a year-and-a-half to two years ago. I was looking for bedroom furniture online and went to a few websites that had Mission furniture which is this American style furniture made with wood and leather upholstery in many cases and it had a solid, functional feeling to it that for some reason raised my heartbeat. The more I looked at it, the more I found I was excited by these pictures of furniture.

Now I've never owned a piece of Mission furniture. They're quite expensive. I've been in homes where I have experienced Mission furniture. I did own a couple of pieces of furniture that were relatively inexpensive that were, I would say, in some ways inspired by this style. But something happened when I looked at these pictures. I was quite surprised by it. I was uplifted. I was excited. I was left wondering why I was feeling these emotions about pieces of furniture. I knew that they were beautiful to my mind. I perceived them as beautiful and functional and I was also quite puzzled as to why I would have such a reaction to it.

I think part of the reason is because I had been so focused on other elements of day-to-day living that there was a part of me, let's say, that hadn't been nourished or hadn't experienced this, for me, elevated feeling that was inspired by these pictures. This is separate even from pictures of art or paintings or sculptures because I hadn't felt that excited or interested in anything visual for quite a while. I've recently been reading this book by Roger Scruton called Beauty: A Very Short Introduction. It's quite interesting. It doesn't make any definitive claims but it does make a lot of distinctions about what beauty is or may be and provides a lot of frameworks by which an individual can describe beauty to themselves.

It's been quite useful to me in some ways in thinking on this subject. There are a couple of passages here that I think in some ways was the beginning of an answer as to why I got excited by the Mission furniture. So this is a short section called Purposiveness Without Purpose. Scruton writes,
"The discussion in this chapter has brought us to a crux. I began from the suggestion that aesthetic judgment, like the pleasure that motivates it, is disinterested and this seemed to imply that beauty and utility are independent values so that appreciating something for its beauty is quite distinct from appreciating it as a means to some practical purpose. However, purpose, interest and practical reason keep finding their way back into this judgment from which I began by excluding them.

The experience of beauty in architecture, for example, cannot be detached from knowledge of the functions that a building must serve. The experience of human beauty cannot be easily detached from the profoundly interested desire which stems from it. The experience of beauty in art is intimately connected with the sense of artistic intention and even the experience of natural beauty points in the direction of a purposiveness without purpose. The awareness of purpose, whether in the object or in ourselves, everywhere conditions the judgment of beauty. And when we turn this judgment on the natural world it is hardly surprising if it raises for us, the root question of theology - namely, what purpose does this beauty serve. And if we say that it serves no purpose but itself, then what purpose is that?

Once again we recognize that the beautiful and the sacred are adjacent in our experience and that our feelings for the one are constantly spilling over into the territory claimed by the other."
So there is this overlap he seems to be saying, between the objects that we make that a designer would intend to be beautiful and such things that we might find in nature that are beautiful in and of themselves and there's something about the experience of something beautiful, whether it's through something that's designed purposefully or something that's naturally occurring, that in either way - and I haven't made all of the distinctions clear to myself quite yet - but in either case it serves to appeal to a certain part of ourselves that goes beyond the mundane, that goes beyond the mechanical acts and tasks and chores and things that we do in the everyday. It's a kind of reminder that there are things in this world that attain to or intend to a higher order, if you will, that have an appeal to our sensibilities.

This is difficult to articulate when you try and put it into words and that's why this book is so helpful. It helps to make these distinctions. Before I ramble too much, is there any part of that that made sense to either of you guys?

Harrison: Yeah. I'll get into a little battle of the philosophers first, to take off on some of those points. You've got Scruton and I've got R.G. Collingwood-Principles of Art. I'm just going to read a sentence from here. But I think one of the distinctions to make first of all, because one of the words that Scruton used was 'aesthetic' and there were hints and allusions to art for instance.

So just to take art off of the table, this book is entirely about art except Collingwood has three or four pages on beauty and then doesn't mention beauty for the rest of the book because he divorces the idea of beauty from art. When he's talking about art he's talking about something almost completely different than what we'd think about beauty. Art can be beautiful but beauty is something of which art only encompasses a small portion.

So out of all the beautiful things, some of those beautiful things will be art and the rest are just beautiful in other categories. He goes back to Plato for whom he says, "The beauty of anything is, for him, that in it which compels us to admire and desire it." He agrees with this view. He says it's perfectly reasonable to just stick with that definition of beauty because that's how everyone uses it. I'll give some examples in a minute. He writes,

"The word beauty wherever and however it is used, connotes that in things by virtue of which we love them, admire them or desire them."

He gives all kinds of examples of things that we can call beautiful that fall into those categories of things, something about a thing that we love or admire. He says a steak can be beautiful. A barbecued steak can be beautiful. Anything like that can be beautiful. You can have a beautiful move in sports, a beautiful basketball shot, a beautiful goalie block or whatever. You can have a beautiful telescope. Anything that not only fulfils its purpose - so you get to that utilitarian aspect - you have something that fulfils a purpose but doesn't just fulfil its purpose, it's extremely well done. You can have a telescope that just does the job and then you can have a beautiful telescope that not only does the job but there's something more to it.

I'll approach it from this direction, that as beings that are conscious to some degree, there is always a scale of valuation that's going on at every moment on multiple levels in our function. That is what attracts us to things, makes us move, makes us move towards or move away from something. It makes us strive for certain goals and avoid other paths of action. There is a constant scale of valuation going on, pushing and pulling and valuing up and valuing down, seeing one thing as important and one thing as less important. That automatically creates, strictly in our own consciousness, a scale of values, a hierarchy of values where some things are just valued more.

So keeping it on that subject side of the equation within the conscious subject, conscious having any degree of awareness whatsoever, there's going to be a scale established. And if you take the average of humans and you were somehow able to measure all this you'd be able to find certain more or less universal standards. Of course there will never be one standard for everyone but you might be able to find an average, however useful that is, maybe not very much at all.

That's one side of the equation. I think that there are always two sides to the equation and that the sender and the receiver are equally important. So a materialist or a realist aesthetician might argue that beauty is only in the eye of the beholder. It's completely subjective and there's nothing in the thing itself that is beautiful. But I'd argue that it's actually both. There is a degree of subjectivity and objectivity in beauty. I might get into some examples in a bit. I'll leave that there for a second, that there is an objective account of beauty and a subjective account.

Of course we experience it subjectively. We see something beautiful and we have that reaction to the beauty. As inspired by Plato, we might say that fulfils a desire. That provokes an emotion that is pleasing or that fulfils a certain function that gives me satisfaction. All of those are values that have been fulfilled in some way. We are striving or desiring something and we see it and there's that consummation of that desire in the seeing of the thing or in the doing of it or just in the experiencing of it and that is rooted in that hierarchy of values, in that scale of values.

So I guess the point I want to make on the subjective end of it is because of the nature of consciousness and that we are always pushed or pulled towards or away from certain things in us that creates an ideal at ends of the scale, for each of us there is an infinitude of ugly things and beautiful things and there is the epitome of beautiful things where we might say that is the perfectly beautiful telescope. You can't make a telescope better than that. That might just be a subjective feeling. Maybe you actually could. If you saw it then you would say, "This is the best telescope." But in our minds that creates an ideal experience to which some part of us is striving and desiring to come to, to approach.

And that will apply on all different levels of our being. So it might just be when we're searching for furniture, or looking for a telescope or when we're trying to cook a meal, we're trying to cook a steak and every once in a while either through pure luck or through skill, we create a beautiful steak, a beautiful meal. So those are all in the mundane world, but I think what Scruton was hinting at is that there are higher levels on which this something operates. There seems to be an almost religious element to it, or something. I think that also comes down to this scale of values because we don't just see beauty in objects, or at least some people don't. Some people do. For some people, the only beauty they probably see is in objects.

I'll get to this a bit further on in the discussion too. just as there is a hierarchy of values, there's a hierarchy of beauties, let's say, of things in which you can see beauty and recognize beauty. There can be a beautiful action, a beautiful way of being, a moral action. When you're watching a movie or you see an interaction with someone you know or a family member, friends, or you hear a story about an action that is in its essence beautiful, a decision that's beautiful - not necessarily a decision that is manifested in action - that is probably one of the most beautiful things, I think, in humanity.

I'll go further than that because it's not just a perfectly or beautifully executed action because, like I said earlier, that can be a goal in some sport. It can be really beautiful, but there's still something higher than that. That's why I think that a moral action is even higher than that. That's really when you get down to the basic developmental level of humanity, that there is something in us to which we're striving. There is a version of us to which we're striving that is higher than the version of us that we are now and the achievement of that ideal, again that ideal that has been formed in us even through the tendency of our being to seek for better things, that on the level of our self as a whole there is an ideal.

There is an ideal self, an ideal version of ourselves to which we can strive and which would be, I would say, objectively beautiful; not only beautiful for ourselves in order to see it in others and in order to experience it in ourselves, but objectively beautiful in the sense of having significance and meaning, not just for us but for the cosmos, for the mind that encompasses our minds and from which our mind comes, basically beauty from the cosmic perspective and again, if we go to this definition based on Plato, "The word beauty connotes that in things by virtue of which we love them, admire them or desire them."

So to use religious language, it would be the things in humanity, in us, by virtue of which god or the absolute or the cosmic mind, loves us, admires us or desires us, or just whatever it is on that higher level, whether it's a higher self or an oversoul or the totality of all consciousness in the universe. It's that by virtue of which makes us serve our purpose and do the right thing essentially, in our lives, in our context for the purpose of a wider and higher goal.

Corey: I like that idea, especially the religious. You were talking about the oversoul and I'm thinking more in terms of the collective mating choices that are made at the macro level throughout human history and how beauty plays such an important role in attraction and having an accurate judgment of beauty, of what makes people actually beautiful is such a critical part of healthy choices in that sense. Nowadays our values are so warped that a lot of people make choices that they regret and then the divorce rate skyrockets and it destabilizes society because we don't really know what is beautiful or how to try and attain what is beautiful and what is beautiful is, like you said, those things that would make us admired by god, by an abstract maybe in the abstract sense, something that is so virtuous and so perfect that we pale in comparison.

We sinners are just mortal beings and yet we should strive to attain some sort of status in the eyes of god and having a system like that can help to sustain healthy choices. Many political scientists have put forth the idea that the disruption in this fundamental system has led to the breakdown of the family and the rise in crime and many other pathologies that continue to spread.

So that's one argument for why beauty is important but I also wanted to get back to what you were talking about when you were making the distinction between subject and object in beauty because Plato's description is heavily towards the subjective. But to me it seems like on the objective level, there's always something of a revelation that occurs in beauty. It's something that you can't really put your finger on, as we were discussing in a previous show on the fourth dimension. You can't explain to a square that there's a cube but there's something, but this flash of light that comes through when this cube is moving through two dimensional space that signifies that there's something bigger there. There's something beyond just your limited perspective.

Like you said, there's a number of different ways that beauty can manifest but it always seems to have some revelatory thing that it teaches you, that it instructs you on some emotional level about what you value and how to go about valuing or feeling correctly or properly. It gives you sustenance. As you were saying, with the example of beautifying your room, that simple act of bringing something that is beautiful to your living space was a sustenance of some kind.

Beauty manifests in so many different ways. Just think of a couple of examples. I'm thinking of ancient monuments in Greece or Turkey. What's the name Göbekli Tepe? Or in Tibet or these magnificent monuments that are eroded by time and yet there's still something fundamentally beautiful about them. Then you go downtown Philadelphia or something {laughter} and you see a rundown building. In principle it's similar. It's a building that's been rundown, but there's something about the magnificence and the creative transformation and the vision of these people that instructs you in some way. The beauty in it is something you don't see with your eyes, you don't hear with your ears if it's a beautiful piece of music and if it's a beautiful idea you don't see it with your eyes or your ears or your senses. It imparts its beauty on you in some other way.

So there's something about this whole topic that has rightfully plagued philosophers and all of us and it's difficult to touch because it is so comprehensive and it's so hard to verbalize because like I said, it's always something of a revelation. A lot of mystics get in trouble whenever they try to discuss their experience because it's trying to take the sacred and bringing it into the profane using logic or algebra or something like Plato.

Elan: When you were saying that I was thinking about the beautiful names of god, the term that we find in Sufism. When one reads religious texts one isn't usually used to thinking of the beautiful things. One is used to terms like morals and values or words of that ilk. But there is a suggestion that there is a value, however ephemeral, that is alluding to something that is difficult to put one's finger on but nonetheless has a spiritual level all of its own and that isn't mundane at all, that isn't superficial in the sense that we might ordinarily think of when we look at an object and say "Well gee that's beautiful."

I started this off with a discussion of furniture and how that made me feel. {laughter} But yes, there is such a thing as a beautiful act or a beautiful intent or gesture. All of these things work on a level that we're just now working to describe for ourselves and make sense of. And part of this process is also developing the language and the words out of which we can describe these things to ourselves because we're not used to making sense of what the beautiful things or beautiful names are and how they affect us and how they might exist as a reflection of something that already exists on another level.

You mentioned the ancient statue and how even as worn down and weather-worn it may be after many centuries of not being maintained, its idea, its inspiration, the vision of the creator might have had a better handle on what's beautiful than some modern piece of architecture in downtown Philly. And that speaks to us even in its decrepit form.

So it remains for each of us to develop a criteria for beauty in all things, if we want to and find the language to describe it to ourselves in such a way that includes the emotional, as you were saying, because it's not merely something to be contemplated. It's not merely this dry critique of something's virtues as a work of art. It is something to be experienced and contemplated and thought about so that we have a greater criteria from which to decide what things are beautiful and what things may in fact be ugly.

Harrison: I want to get a little bit deeper into what might be the objective nature of beauty because I think one of the problems that comes up, and it's largely a result of modern philosophy, that there are no objective values, for instance. This has been one of the primary conflicts between the religious mindset and the modern scientific materialist mindset - that there is no objective scale of values because the people who say that reject the religious point of view associated with all of the specific dogmas of certain religions, in the west primarily Christianity - that it is god and the atheists' conception of the Christians' conception of god who creates these values by fiat and says, "These things are good and right and moral and these things aren't and here, I wrote on these tablets for you", which is a very simplistic and low level of religious thought in my point of view.

But they reject that and then they throw the baby out with the bath water to the point where there are no objective values. I reject that from the get-go based on reasons. {laughter} But as a way into the objectivity of a certain sense of values, I think a good analogy to get there from the side is through music. Music has been mentioned a couple of times before because there's a mathematical nature to music and if you have a three-note chord, do, mi, so, and you take any one of those notes and you digitally shift that note down, you'll get an out-of-tune chord. If you get another one you'll get it even more out of tune and it will stop sounding harmonious because it's not. It's not following the laws of harmony.

But when you shift them back into tune, like when you're tuning a guitar or a violin or any stringed instrument, they come into harmony and there's a pure sound that sounds right. Part of that rightness is culturally conditioned because we are raised with music and harmony. So there is a subjective element, but there is also the objective element, there is an objectivity towards notes being in tune with each other, according to various sets of mathematical, vibrational rules but I'd argue there is.

Pythagoras or whoever it was - it wasn't Pythagoras, it was someone very much earlier than him, discovered those primitive harmonies for the first time. It was truly a discovery. It wasn't an invention of harmony. It was a discovery of it. It was something latent in the structure of the cosmos that was uncovered, that was unveiled and discovered and now we have music.

So I think that can be an analogy for the objectivity of values, from something very simple. It's just a chord. It's not a song. It's not a piece of music, it's just a simple chord. There it is, no musicality whatsoever to it, just three notes. But that's almost like a holograph of the whole of music, that there are compositions to which composers strive, that they're fishing from out of the imagination to put down on paper and to be performed, just like that chord was first fished out of the ether of these vibrations to find those correspondences and those relationships between those notes to find that perfect harmony. So I'd say that just like there is harmony implicit in the cosmos, that there are values and there is beauty implicit in the cosmos and those are the ideals to which we strive.

But to come back to the subjective element and the multi-levelness of the cosmos and of people, there will be conflicts and there will be a subjectivity to beauty, for instance. The image that comes to mind when I think of that is a path up a mountain. The summit is the goal. That is the ideal. That is the beautiful, if you can encompass all the beautiful in that point. Let's say that you're on the south end of the mountain; the direction is north. Well in order to get up that mountain you're going to have to be going west/east. You're going to have to fall back south sometimes and make your way there. At any given moment you're not going north. The analogy would be you're not seeing the beautiful as it is on that summit. You're seeing something else that you find beautiful at the moment because that's the direction you have to head in to get there. Someone else on a different part of the path might see something else, be going in a different direction, and find beauty in that other thing. They might be completely at odds with each other but they are both suitable to the context of that person in their position and at their place on the path.

So this can relate to the multi-levelness of human development in the sense that a person at a very low level of development will find certain things beautiful that may be ugly to another person. It's because they're not on the same path. They have different lessons to learn. Dabrowski has a section in his last book on the aesthetic experience and the different perceptions of beauty. One example he gives is for the lowest level of beauty in his mind there is an attraction to what he calls primitive realism, hard to find shapes. This would be the equivalent of the pinnacle of your aesthetic experience and your perception of beauty being having a cheap bust of George Washington in your office. "That's a beautiful sculpture." Well no, it's a pretty cheap sculpture. It's well done but there's nothing really great about it.

Or on an interpersonal level it's like looking for a partner who is physically attractive, sexually attractive. The pinnacle of beauty might be you get lucky and find the most beautiful woman or man and get them to be your partner. "Okay, that's beautiful. You've got a beautiful partner." That's a certain level of beauty and it is true. In a second I'll talk a bit about that level of beauty, but let's go with that example with the partner. You might have the most stunningly attractive person who is totally ugly on the inside.

Elan: Right.

Harrison: But I would say that there still is an objective beauty on that physical level. It just loses its importance at a higher level of development where other things become more important than the physical beauty. Now it's what kind of person are you? Are you actually a beautiful person? A beautiful soul? Do you perform beautiful actions, right action? Then for that person who does, that is another form of beauty.

To come back to something you said earlier Corey, I'll paraphrase, that people can't see the beauty or they're striving for the beauty but they can't really see it at the moment. I think in that moment what you were talking about was higher beauty, ideal beauty. I'd just add to that, that everyone I think does recognize beauty but they only recognize the beauty that they can perceive on their level. Your perception of beauty is almost like some kind of viewfinder where it can be really narrow or you only see a tiny spot of reality and the wider your perception you gets and the more you know and the more you see, the more beauty you see on multiple levels and in areas where previously you hadn't been able to see any beauty.

I forget what my next point was going to be. It was a really good one. It'll end it there. Do you guys have anything to say based on that?

Elan: Well it stuck out in my mind as well that there are dimensions to people that are beautiful that may not be apparent unless you're already kind of aware and awake to what those dimensions may be, how they speak or sing or what informs their thoughts in conversation. These are things that we can perceive as beautiful and experience as beautiful and that completely transform someone who might otherwise be not especially gorgeous but they might take on a completely different visage, presence. being and experience in another person because of how they relate to reality, because of how they relate to other people.

So this is a dimension to beauty that I think makes one fall in love with another person. There's something of an ideal that we experience in that other person when we're talking about the beauty of the object of one's love, that causes us to fall, to see another face of god, if you will. So there's that element that I think awakens something in us that we might already have awareness of that expands our view of what another person can be and what they manifest as individuals, as faces of god, as representatives of beautiful traits in the world.

So there's that element. I did want to add something about your music analogy Harrison because when you were talking about the cords that were discovered that were already in fact there, it reminded me a little bit of dissonant music in what we would find in the compositions of Béla Bartók or Igor Stravinsky. These modernists, cacophonic, dissonant pieces of music that ushered in a whole new understanding of what music could be and that on their surface might be considered ugly, but if I'm to understand Scruton correctly, has such an understanding of music in its composition that it reaches what he might call a sublime level of beauty.

One analogy he gives is the art you'd find in a portrait or a painting that's beautiful next to say a photograph of a rugged, jagged mountain that you would find by the work of photographer Ansel Adams. Yes, in one respect it's raw and it's powerful and almost overwhelming in its depiction of nature, but it reaches the sublime. It's a very accurate description of something that is on one level ugly, but on another level, almost overwhelmingly beautiful in its ugliness, if that makes any sense whatsoever.

Harrison: Yeah. That leads me to what was going to be my next point. {laughter} I might read something from Dąbrowski on that. We've talked about Dąbrowski before and his levels of development. I gave one example he gives of level one is the purely utilitarian beauty of the bust of George Washington as opposed to a Rembrandt that has a level of perception and an avocation of a greater depth of emotion than just a stock piece of what was and is political propaganda, which can be good. I like political propaganda every once in a while but it's not the epitome of beauty or anything like that, for some people.

Then the second level of Dąbrowski would be where things start to clash, where there isn't this rigid, rock-like personality structure which knows what it is, knows what it wants and there's no perception, desire nor striving for anything higher. That structure starts to break down in level two where you get a conflict, a push and pull in different directions. This is actually where Dąbrowski would put most dissonant music, like 12 tone series, that kind of stuff. I'll read a little bit of what he said here. First of all, in an aesthetic experience of this sort at this level, according to Dąbrowski, there is an absence of recognition and of connection between aesthetic sensitivity and self perfection.

So that implies at higher levels there's going to be a connection with this idea of self perfection in art. It won't be strictly art for art's sake but it will be integrally linked with one's own spiritual development and self perfection. That's lacking at level two. Because of these pushes and pulls, level two is like an ambivalence towards the world. The ugly will be, as you said, as beautiful as the beautiful because there's no differentiation between the two. It's pretty much a smorgasbord of reality where everything is on the same level, all equal and because everything's on the same level, there's nothing to rise up in opposition to something below because they're on the same level. Things stay on that level. So what he writes is that,
"A hierarchical experiencing is manifested in search for disintegration and decay in art, breakdown in harmony without hierarchization, expression of pathological breakdown depicting special pathological symptoms and syndromes. This can be seen in that type of modern art which is preoccupied with fragmentation of faces, figures displacement of limbs and features, of visual disorientation, as pathological anatomy and physiology depicted in art or film, as the art of the negative delimited by typology and biological constitution, no transcending of one's type,..." (That's some Dąbrowski jargon.) "...rebellion against norms and harmony with concentration on abnormality, contrasts of the positive and the negative of equal strength and equal attraction, equi-potentiality of good and evil 'heaven and hell burn with the same fire'."
So there is an ambivalence and ambitendency where you can focus on pure decay and find that beautiful and focus on something that's more conventionally beautiful and find that beautiful. But there's almost a focus on the disjointedness of that. Again, this is a waystation on the path to the beautiful summit where everything is seen equally and there's a pull towards all these different faces of god with no distinction and no differentiation. This is where you might find an artist who's just pathologically fascinated with the ugly, the decay, the deformation. He doesn't mention music but you see the same tendencies in 20th century composition where it's a fascination with the breakdown of harmony. But like he says in some of these sentences, there's the preoccupation with and the concentration on - there's some part of that person's being that is focused on that without the thing that would reconcile those contradictions or that would bring life out of the decay; just focus on the decay.

So like I said, it's like a pathological obsession with the negative, ugly faces of god. Then when you move on to the higher levels in the Dąbrowski system, he writes,
"...the need to introduce and comprehend pathology in art, not as a source of fascination but in a larger hierarchical context of human experience."
So it's not that there's no place for ugliness in art, but for Dąbrowski who's focused on development which is transcending of lower levels to achieve higher levels, that element of self-perfection has to be present in that art for it to be on that level or perhaps more accurately, has to be present in the aesthetic experience of the individual for that level to be present, that along with the ugliness should either come the redemption and the ascension out of the ugliness or even just to imply its presence or its need. I can think of examples, and this is where it really gets hairy when you get into art criticism, but when you're looking at a movie or a poem or something that's focused on the ugly and you say, "What's the purpose of that? Is it just strictly this glamorization of the ugly for the sake of its ugliness or is it saying something about the need to transcend this ugliness?"

I think there are both. I think there are artists who are just genuinely fascinated with the dregs of human experience and the absolute bottom of human experience. I would put that filmmaker in there, the guy who did Dogville and that nymphomaniac movie. But anyways, from everything I've seen of him and everything I've read about him, he just seems like a scummy human being - not to judge - but {laughter} he's one of those artists, and not the only one, that I just see has that fascination with the pure ugliness.

But then you can get some amazing works of art with the ugliest things. Think about the most ugly things you can think of in terms of human experience. Speaking in generalities, think of a good war movie where you see the absolute depths of backstabbing, murder and torture, and yet a really simple example of a bad example would be horror movies that are just torture porn, for instance that just show...

Elan: Nothing redeeming.

Harrison: Yeah, there's nothing redeeming about them. It's not like, "Oh here's the sublime tragedy of the human experience and torture." No, "Here's just some torture to get your jollies on" and it's not hinting at anything being repulsive about it. It's just repulsion for the sake of repulsion. There's a good example of a movie I saw years ago, the one about the Irish resistance guy Bobby Sands. What's the name of the movie? [Hunger-2008]

Elan: Oh, with Michael Fassbender.

Harrison: Yeah. That movie is about his experience in prison and being tortured but it's a beautiful movie because there is something else to it. There is the clear experience of this being not only an example of a supreme injustice and of torture, literal torture, but also there is that hint in the kernel of something to strive towards and by its absence, the good and the noble is recognizable and tangible by its absence in the experience of the characters in the film. You see a beauty of spirit as portrayed in the film that experiencing this, that isn't present in just some torture porn horror movie.

As these levels of aesthetic experience get higher and higher, I think there would be more of an integration like that, an integration of experiences where the most important and the most beautiful thing becomes development itself and self-perfection and an approach and realization of that personal ideal, of that ideal self that we are striving to achieve in ourselves that we are so far away from in our ordinary lives. That, I think, would approach an almost religious aesthetic and sensibility which might have something to do with, as Corey was talking about, ancient monuments.

If you look at the great cathedrals from the 1200s and later on and a lot of religious art from all over the world, there is something about it that isn't just propaganda like a bust of George Washington. There's something that calls towards something inside and almost acts as a magnet from above to raise us up a bit and to maybe inspire us to aid the process along and do a little bit of work ourselves to approach that level.

Elan: Well getting to your analogies ...

Harrison: Hunger is the name of the movie.

Elan: Hunger, yes. I think the value of ugliness would seem to me to be just having a reference point from which to appreciate beauty in that case because if, like you were saying, there is torture porn and all kinds of bad films and for that matter bad music, and if you want to talk about painting, there are the black velvet paintings with dogs playing pool...

Harrison: Beautiful! {laughter}

Elan: When we know those things and we can say to ourselves - and I'm just pulling these examples - when we can assign ugliness to them, when we experience the aversion to them, when we look at them and decide that they're not worthy of our extra moment of consideration, of taking it in, of perceiving it, of contemplation, then we have I think, at least a benchmark from which to, within ourselves, develop our own faculties or standards and valuations of what is beautiful.

So I guess there is something to be said for knowing what ugly is for one's self, knowing what ugly behaviour is.

Corey: I was just going to say, you were talking about determining the value of these things and ugliness is pretty cheap. It's pretty easy. It's so easy to be an ugly person. It's pretty much the default. You go around and you see all sorts of ugliness. It's cheap. But beauty is very expensive. Actually it literally costs money to get beautiful things. But even more important than that, more in tune with our conversation, it costs energy. It costs effort to create beautiful things or to act in a way that is beautiful for other people. It takes time and patience, diligence and the practicing of many virtues, all sorts of different virtues, in order to create a beautiful person, to practice temperance and to practice tranquility, industriousness and being organized.

This value imprints itself on you in the form of character over time. That's what distinguishes men more than anything else is the character. When you know what you value, usually it's because of periods of great suffering when you know what it's like to be without something like beauty and to live in a very ugly world or to go through history and to find times where ugliness is monolithic.

I'm thinking specifically in terms of that one man with his arms crossed in that Nazi rally. It's kind of like a work of art in some ways. People appreciate it. It has some beauty. It's just one man with his arms crossed in a sea of people. I don't know if the picture is even real or not but it has been around for so long...

Harrison: It's a good image.

Corey: ...but it's a good image and it's just one guy with his arms crossed in this sea of people giving the Sieg Heil (Hail Victory), Nazi salute. It's beautiful, just that one thing. It's tragic. You know it's terrifying and like you were talking about, there's the ugliness there.

Harrison: It can also be funny if you imagined that he was just daydreaming and forgot to give the salute and then a second after the photo was taken he puts his arm up. {chuckle}

Corey: It would also be funny if he wasn't wearing any pants. {laughter} But the point is that beauty can be just about anything. In the absence of anything else beautiful, something as beautiful as that is stunningly gorgeous in many ways. But to decide what you value is not easy and it's not cheap but that's also the fun part of building that hierarchy of values because that's what makes life meaningful. Without it, everything is banal.

Elan: This gets me thinking. You said that having beauty in one's life is an expensive venture. It costs a lot, especially to develop in one's character or actions a lot of one's self, time and energy to evoke the beautiful, evoke the good life, what's higher in ourselves. And yet on a more mundane level, separate from that, there's something to be said I think for cleaning one's room, for the basic good taste, for hospitality, for the order and the cleanliness and the good sense that's required of someone to just run a household where you have just enough objects of art to be appreciated and very little clutter and clean floors and everything in its right place and a lawn that gets regularly mowed.

All of these things are a value. All of these things are reminders of beauty and higher values as well, I think and we needn't get too wrapped up in philosophy or art criticism to appreciate those things and what we can do to evoke them to remind ourselves of the beautiful, of order out of chaos.

So that's I think a point that brings this conversation down to the everyday and the useful as well. And I think it's from that point that we can add on to other values and higher values. It's a baseline. If that's everything guys, we're going to call it a day. We hope you enjoyed the show. We hope you are doing well and thanks for listening, everybody.