Gianluca Garelli

An Idea of Beauty

The following text is an excerpt from the catalogue “An Idea of Beauty”, edited by CCC Strozzina, Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and published by Mandragora (


Gianluca Garelli

An Idea of Freedom

The word “beauty” seems to evoke a familiar concept. Every day, in the most varied contexts, we formulate judgments such as “this is beautiful”, or “that’s ugly”. We commonly speak of it as a self-evident experience, albeit appearing to different degrees in a wide variety of forms and gradations. It is no coincidence that das Schöne, the adjective used as a noun that means “beauty”, in German has the same root as the verb scheinen (to appear) and Schein (appearance). And similar considerations could be made for the ancient world. To the extent that beauty (tò kalón) is basically a visual phenomenon (phainómenon), it is related to terms such as phaínomai (to appear), phôs (light) and even to the faculty of representing things, phantasía. Beautiful is, for the Greek, that which appears, that which shines in the light (Carchia 1999).

And yet the concept of beauty, like few others, eludes any satisfactory explanation. We may try to ask its meaning of the “experts” (and who should they be, if not those thought to have “experienced” it more than others?). Or we can search for its definition in a dictionary or encyclopaedia. We may easily be disappointed, however. The definition will seem either too scanty and generic, or on the contrary too complicated and detailed, often wavering between stiffness, arbitrary convention and unsubstantiated opinion.

In confronting this quandary, one of the greatest historians of aesthetics of the last century, the Polish philosopher Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz, noted that the word “beauty” has an ambiguous meaning that calls for explanation. In a first, broader sense, “beauty” designates, in ordinary language, anything that causes pleasure due to its innate characteristics, regardless of whether it is real or a product of the imagination. In a second, narrower meaning, it should instead be viewed as an aesthetic category proper. In this sense it is a technical term, and as such must be analyzed in its application to various kinds of experience, duly subdivided and arranged in classes (Tatarkiewicz 1976). Almost implying that, as concerns beauty, philosophy―aesthetics―is involved only in passing from the first to the second of these two meanings, the technical one.

But not even this attempt to impose order on the question is entirely satisfactory. Because history teaches us, for instance, that in Greek culture beauty (tò kalón, literally, that which exerts kaleîn: an appeal, an attraction to itself) is an irremediably polysemous word, in which aesthetic appreciation is, moreover, inseparable from moral judgment. Already the Sophists had emphasized, in the wake of Heraclitus, the relativity of any judgment linked to the individual nature of perception. A thing that pleases is pleasing in different ways to different people, and even, perhaps, to the same person at different times. With this extreme phenomenalism, even the so-called “Great Theory” (as Tatarkiewicz defines the concept, predominant in the ancient world, of beauty as harmony and proportion among parts) would have encountered the most radical contestation.

Such problems are well known to classical thought. Plato devoted a dialogue, Hippias Major, to discussion of the question. Not without reason, its conclusion was aporetic, leaving substantially unanswered the question of what beauty really is. Kalepá tà kalá (beautiful things are difficult) (304e8) is the quotation from Solon used by Socrates to end his argument with the Sophist Hippias.

It would be illusory to maintain that, in the following centuries, the history of thought managed to answer once and for all the question of what beauty really is. Certainly, it has left us remarkable considerations not only on the relationship of beauty to truth and goodness (called by medieval scholastics “transcendental”, that is, the characteristics proper to the ens qua ens subject of metaphysics and theology) but also―on the anthropological level―on the relationship between beauty and pleasure in its various manifestations. So much that aesthetics itself, viewed as an established sphere of philosophical investigation, would claim to form a discipline of its own only through a precise distinction between those concepts.

As always, however, the issue eludes any over-simplification; so that―as Remo Bodei (1995) has explained―for those who come, as we do today, from a certain tradition, it seems only too obvious to suppose that beauty has by nature, so to say, a reference to art; although we must remember that the so-called “fine arts” became independent of craftsmen’s techniques and the mechanical arts only at a relatively late stage. Moreover, it seems equally natural to take for granted a link between beauty and the perceptible dimension of its manifestation. And this is true, as long as we remember that, for centuries, perception was not considered as pertaining exclusively to the province of truth and beauty, but as the first rung in a ladder leading to the intelligible. The very word “aesthetics” was coined by Alexander G. Baumgarten in the mid-eighteenth century, although modeled on the Greek aísthesis, perception.

For these reasons too, in the heart of the modern era, the aporiae of beauty have appeared in another form, no less radical than that of the dialogue between Socrates and Hippia. In Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790)―the work that constitutes a decisive moment for the birth of aesthetics proper―they assume, in fact, the exemplary form of an antinomy (§ 56), a conflict between principles that both appear to be true, yet are totally irreconcilable. To what extent, asks Kant, is it licit and sensible to dispute the judgment of taste? Certainly, if aesthetic judgment were based on concepts (which means: if the universality of beauty were logically affirmed and valid for everyone), it would make sense to “decide through tests” what is beautiful, distinguishing it once and for all from what is not. Such an exigency is, moreover, easily comprehensible, considering that we are all led to defend our taste as if it alone were reliable and correct. But this clashes with the fact that what appears beautiful aspires to general validity without being able to justify its universality through formal reasoning. Hence in the attempt to resolve the opposition between rationalists (advocates of the objectivity of beauty) and empiricists (sustainers of the subjectivity of aesthetic appreciation), Kant seems to have introduced a new idea: beauty is not any cognizable quality of a certain object, but it is the feeling of pleasure aroused in the subject by its mere representation; a pure representation, free from the desire to possess or consume it typical, instead, of other characteristics of things (goodness, utility, pleasantness, etc.).

Kant’s attempt was not without its costs, most notably insofar as it conflicted with the “erotic” dimension linked to the philosophy of beauty since the time of Plato. Many subsequent philosophers―think of the sarcasm of a Nietzsche―were to contest expressly this claim to purity. Certainly Kant, while poised on the boundary line of the romantic-idealistic treatment of beauty, could still constitute a radical alternative to it. And yet, with the hindsight of today, we can see continuity between his theorizing on taste and the subsequent systematic historicizing of beauty which, according to Hegel, should be sought for in the various forms manifested by the absolute in the cultural ventures of mankind. Hegel’s move consigned art to its definitive demise; to the destiny that was to confer on it, in prosaic bourgeois modernity, an irremediably obsolete nature. Testifying to the truth of the spirit was a task to be inherited by philosophy, that is to say, by scientific knowledge in the form of the concept.

Proceeding along the way opened up by Kant and Hegel and taking it to its extreme consequences, others were then to claim the need to take leave of ideal beauty. And how can we call them wrong―at least, entirely wrong―before a reality where ugliness now seems a category more suitable than beauty to encompass the products of modernity: industrial urban sprawl, merchandise, the stultifying work of mass production, the conditions of extreme degradation prevailing in human life and the environment. In a world where beauty is increasingly reduced to the object of a nostalgic backward glance to what has been lost, even art becomes intolerant of standards, styles, qualitative definitions and rules. Moreover, to recall Hegel again, the “classical” is by no means the canonical form of timeless beauty, but the result of historical developments, as has been explicitly shown by the work of the spirit, by its struggle against the negative. With this awareness, any claim to defend and reproduce the aesthetic forms consecrated by tradition seems a gesture destined to result only in kitsch.

As has been noted (Vercellone 2008), the 20th century’s experience with beauty could thus be termed a ghost-story, if not actually proof of the explicit desire of artists to “destroy beauty” (in the words of Barnett Newman, 1948), as if it were an oppressive, unbearable legacy. And all of this just when, in the sphere of philosophy as well, suspicion is being cast on the various attempts to rethink reality (and with it, aesthetic experience) in terms of recomposition and reconciliation, after the appalling violence perpetrated by mankind over the course of the twentieth century.

It is on these bases, then, that the process called by the American philosopher Arthur C. Danto―in the title of one of his most important works―The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (Danto 1986) is definitively consummated. In this expression it is important to note the ambiguity of the genitive, both subjective and objective. As if, in addition to the denial of legitimation carried out by philosophy, starting with Plato, art itself had finally responded not only by ceasing to seek its legitimacy in philosophy, but by opposing to the philosophical logos, in a sort of double bind, a conceptuality of its own, particular and immovable. Nor should we forget that, starting at least from the second half of the 20th century, the obsession with appearance of our global media-dominated epoch has ended by turning beauty into its contrary, divesting its surface of any real ontological significance. We will briefly touch on this point again, in concluding. Certainly, Odo Marquard’s diagnosis of the transformation of aesthetics into anaesthetics is rooted in the conviction that the blurring of the difference between being and appearing is only the extreme consequence, in late modernity, of the change of direction inaugurated by Kant (Marquard 1989).

Should we conclude, on these bases, that the historical course of beauty can lead only to failure―or, alternatively, that it is the story of a triumph now long past, confirming the radical relativity of taste? All things considered, that sounds somewhat paradoxical today, at a time of emphatic calls for a return to realism, when scientific knowledge would, it seems, be able to offer even scholars of aesthetics tools to define, at last in strict terms, the nature of beauty. We should think, in this sense, not only and not so much of the development of the human and social sciences, as of the investigation conducted by the neurosciences. In offering the neurobiological approach for analyzing the processes of production and appreciation of works of art, they are opening out to aesthetics fascinating interdisciplinary horizons. The study of mirror neurons, for instance, seems to restore validity to the ancient paradigm of mimesis in the defining of representation, underlining among other things its intersubjective and shared dimension.

This path too, however, turns out to be both promising and slippery. Let’s think for a moment. Disposing of a scientific method and satisfactory models for examining, for instance, the areas of the brain that are active in defining aesthetic qualities and their appreciation, we would have a formidable tool for understanding the experience of beauty, in its most diverse manifestations. In a certain sense―if historical paradox is allowed here―we will have found a way to eliminate Kant’s distinction between determinant judgment (the operation of the mind, as has been seen, that establishes the properties of an object, and whose function is at the basis of scientific knowledge) and reflective judgment (responsible, as we have said, for expressing subjective feelings of pure pleasure and displeasure in regard to a given representation). But this obliteration cannot justify reductionism of any kind. And in fact, by consigning Kant’s distinction to a prescientific past, so to say, would we not risk losing its most authentic sense? Could we really find, in this way, an answer to the enigma of beauty? Or will this enigma not punctually reappear, instead, whenever―as the three great philosophers, Plato, Kant and Hegel had intuitively grasped, each in his own way―the concrete, individual and intersubjective “experience” of beauty suggests not only a question of the link between nature and culture, but above all a more radical question of sense?

In this framework it may be helpful to remember Bodei’s observation that no simple preliminary definitions are possible, because the modes of expression of beauty are complex, stratified concepts, belonging to symbolic and cultural spheres that are not entirely comparable, grandiose reflections of the dramas and desires that have moved the men and women of all times. Words that should be weighed carefully, if we do not wish to categorize beauty, in the final analysis, as the fruit of an accidental historical process, or the mere product of a convention. On the one hand, it is certainly appropriate today to relinquish any claim of formulating a dogmatic definition of beauty, in favor of an open concept, encompassing the greatest possible number of experiences. On the other hand, however, if the word that comprises such experiences is not to be reduced to an empty linguistic convention, on beauty we must start to examine all over again, by observing it in its ambivalent relationship with the theme of desire.

Beauty is by its nature erotic, taught Plato; that is, it refers to an original lack. Accordingly, it can be perceived everywhere and by anyone. Nonetheless―rebuts Kant―it is not a mere subjective or arbitrary impulse. If it were, all desire would in fact be the desire for beauty―which conflicts with our not entirely trivial concept of it. Of this experience, something that we realize “in collaboration with the world” (Sartwell 2004), we have no choice but to explore its most diverse forms: even in what eludes any cliché (and this includes, obviously, the idea of beauty that is still acceptable, at least to some sectors of contemporary art). Different spheres and cultures will thus have different sensitivities and “thousands names” to express them. This does not necessarily imply conventionalism or radical nominalism, as long as a concrete horizon of common sense emerges, through the hermeneutic work of translation of the different sensitivities involved in this experience.

Hence we find that speaking of the “relevance of the beautiful”, to paraphrase the title of a famous essay by Hans-Georg Gadamer (1977), is meaningful not in exclusive or primary reference to our own epoch and its mores, but rather in the context of the etymology according to which the Aktualität (actuality) of beauty―which has always distinguished human civilization―is in fact not only its relevance, but firstly its entelécheia: the coming into being of its concrete occurrence. Its temporal dimension cannot be reduced to the future of the not-yet―that is, of an unattainable end (télos)―nor to a past whose historicized forms are viewed with the nostalgia of the no-longer. On the contrary, the epiphany of beauty is the present of its manifestation―albeit a present mindful of the past and fecund with the new. In this sense, to return once more to Plato, aesthetics and erotics are one and the same: the search for what belongs to us as the horizon of promising possibilities, and that we nonetheless feel to be essentially ours only in the anamnesis of an origin (Givone 2003).

For this reason (and thus without contradicting the warning of one who, like Adorno, taught us to mistrust any facile aesthetic healing of the fractures that lacerate the contemporary world), it can still make sense to speak of beauty after Auschwitz; because the negation of beauty is a sign of the negation of humanity. In beauty, what is principally at stake is not in fact an abstract value, a refined but non-essential pleasure, a luxury, but expressly what which, by its very essence, rejects any abstraction: the proprium of the human being.

Somewhere in Plato’s Symposium, Socrates, through the mouth of the priestess Diotima, speaks among other things of the ascent of the scala amoris as the transition from love of a certain beautiful body to love of all that is beautiful in itself (210a6-b8). That this discourse on beauty does not treat of hollow aestheticism, but of what is most concrete for us, is shown also in the interpretation of this famous passage, since the dialogue is not an attempt to establish a theory of beauty, that is, an abstract ideology, but rather an invitation to reflect on the concrete universal in the paradoxes of its incarnation, freedom. The proof may be found, once again, in common experience. Did we not start, in fact, by noting that beauty is both evident and resistant to any definition, to any constraint that would destroy its original and gratuitous manifestation?

Certainly, in an epoch that seems bent on frantically, almost compulsively pursuing the imperative of beauty, the latter is exposed to the risk of turning into the falsehood of its own total negation, of seeing itself transformed into a media image, an advertising stunt, a shell as empty as it is capable of appearing smooth, sleek, glossy, always artificially young, and implacable in its claim to dictate laws governing both souls and bodies. And yet, like Alcibiades on the night of the Symposium, beauty can break in exaíphnes (suddenly), where it is least expected. Even in things that seem the roughest and most ordinary: in the unabashedly bright colors of a house, in an unusual arrangement of fragments, the posture of a body, a gesture, a series of reflexes, a profile standing out against a luminous blue sky, or a line that in the shadow faintly reveals a surprising truth. Eros, says Socrates, is the demon child of Poverty and Expedient. And so is the idea that sometimes makes us feel grateful to art.



Remo Bodei, Le forme del bello, Il Mulino, Bologna 1995.
Gianni Carchia, L’estetica antica, Laterza, Roma–Bari 1999.
Arthur C. Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, Columbia University Press, New York 1986.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, Die Aktualität des Schönen, Reclam, Stuttgart 1977.
Sergio Givone, Prima lezione di estetica, Laterza, Romea–Bari 2003.
Odo Marquard, Aesthetica und Anaesthetica. Philosophische Überlegungen, Schöning, Paderborn 1989.
Crispin Sartwell, Six Names of Beauty, Routledge, London 2004.
Władysław Tatarkiewicz, A History of Six Ideas, M. Nijhoff, Den Haag 1980.
Federico Vercellone, Oltre la bellezza, Il Mulino, Bologna 2008.
Federico Vercellone, Alessandro Bertinetto, Gianluca Garelli, Lineamenti di storia dell’estetica. La filosofia dell’arte da Kant al XXI secolo, Il Mulino, Bologna 2008.

Gianluca Garelli (1969, Turin) teaches history of aesthetics at the University of Florence. He studied in Turin, Bologna, Heidelberg and Berlin. His work focuses on classical German philosophy and its reception in contemporary thought, on ancient aesthetics, on the theory of tragedy, on philosophical hermeneutics and on the theory of responsibility. Among his works, in addition to the recently published Italian edition of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Einaudi, Turin 2008) and a translation of Kant’s Anthropology (Einaudi, Turin 2010), can be included: Lettura della Critica della ragion pura di Kant (with M. Ravera, UTET Universitaria, Turin 1997); La teleologia secondo Kant (Pendragon, Bologna 1999); Filosofie del tragico (B. Mondadori, Milan 2001); Storia dell’estetica moderna e contemporanea (with F. Vercellone and A. Bertinetto, Il Mulino, Bologna 2008); Il cosmo dell’ingiustizia (Il Melangolo, Genoa 2005); Letture kantiane. L’apparente e il contingente (Bulzoni, Rome 2006); Lineamenti di storia dell’estetica. La filosofia dell’arte da Kant al XXI secolo (with F. Vercellone and A. Bertinetto, Il Mulino, Bologna 2008); Il tragico (with C. Gentili, Il Mulino, Bologna 2010); Lo spirito in figura (Il Mulino, Bologna 2010); Hegel e le incertezze del senso (Edizioni ETS, Pisa 2012). For the publisher Einaudi he is currently working on the Italian edition of A New History of Western Philosophy (Oxford U.P.) written by Sir Anthony Kenny, of which the first two volumes have been released. He is the Vice-Director of the magazine Estetica. Studi e ricerche. In 2009-2010 he was an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at Humboldt University of Berlin.

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