Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.03.24

Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2007.  Pp. 186.  ISBN 978-0-691-09521-9.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Erik Schmidt, Gonzaga University (
Word count: 2407 words

Table of Contents

Only a Promise of Happiness rejects the modern association of beauty with a special category of aesthetic judgment or experience in favor of an account that aligns beauty with human interests, desires and needs. After locating the origin of aesthetic accounts of beauty in Kant and Schopenhauer and the origin of desire-based accounts of beauty in Plato and Nietzsche, Nehamas argues that a desire-based account reestablishes beauty as an important dimension of human life by avoiding recent discussions among artists and philosophers that have all but discredited it as a relevant concern. The book is divided into four chapters that are lavishly illustrated with 13 color plates and 79 black and white reproductions of various artworks discussed in the text. The inclusion of the images is essential to the success of the book since much of the argument depends on a close examination of various features of those works, ranging from photographs by Sabastiao Salgado to paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Domenico Ghirlandaio. In this review I outline the basic argument of each chapter before offering a few comments on how this book fits into recent discussions about beauty.

Chapter 1 surveys the account of beauty Nehamas hopes to reject. Starting with Kant and concluding with more contemporary figures like Danto, Nehamas argues that the most important feature of an aesthetic account of beauty is the way it isolates beauty from the concerns of everyday life, relegating it to the domain of appearance and perception. Kant introduced this division between aesthetic concerns and human interests with his claim that judgments of beauty are disinterested. Schopenhauer extended it by describing what he saw as an unbridgeable chasm between beauty and the will, and Nehamas suggests that over time this divide between beauty and life led modern artists and philosophers to discredit beauty as an unimportant feature of attractive appearance. This can be seen among artists, for example, through an increasing emphasis on what is powerful or challenging rather than on what is attractive. It can also be seen within a broader distinction between high and low art, where low art pleases our senses or appeals to our sentiments and high art challenges our minds or confronts our ethical or political commitments. Finally, Nehamas suggests that the rejection of beauty can be seen in the increasing importance of critics who are charged with the task of revealing the deeper meaning or significance of an artist's work through careful acts of interpretation.

Nehamas illustrates all three of these modern trends by tracing the history of the female nude in works by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Pablo Picasso, Edouard Manet, and Henri Matisse. Each step of that history gradually reveals a move away from works that might be categorized as beautiful or attractive toward works that are self-consciously difficult and that confront or challenge the viewer's gaze. Nehamas concludes the first chapter by suggesting that we question the modernist tendency to isolate beauty to the domain of appearance and perception, suggesting, "Beauty is part of the everyday world of purpose and desire, history and contingency, subjectivity and incompleteness. That is the only world there is, and nothing, not even the highest of the high arts can move beyond it" (35).

Chapter 2 develops that conclusion by distinguishing between two approaches to art criticism. The first, based largely on Kant's account of beauty, offers a juridical mode of criticism that focuses on offering a verdict on the relative merit of a work of art. The second, based largely on Plato's account of beauty in the Symposium, offers an invitation to engage a work of art more fully by highlighting those features of the work that are worthy of investigation. The problem with the Kantian mode of criticism, Nehamas argues, is not that it takes an evaluative stance or that it focuses on ranking or comparing works. The problem is that it isolates the evaluation to the perceptual features of a work, such as its delicacy, balance, eloquence, or power. Nehamas argues that such aesthetic terms are not sufficiently general to count as reasons for a judgment. Features of a work that suggest delicacy to me may suggest repetition to you and the presence of certain properties, like an attention to social detail, may explain why someone loves one work, Proust's In Search of Lost Time for example, but equally explain why he despises another work, like Goncourt's Diary.

Using the example of a prominent streak of red paint found in Edouard Manet's Execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, Nehamas argues that criticism ought to pull us into the painting to wrestle with the significance of its various elements. In the case of Manet's painting, for example, further investigation of his preliminary studies suggests that we see the anomalous streak as something that resists becoming a part of a final representation of the execution and therefore stands as a reminder that such events resist closure. Nehamas argues that the important point to recognize here is that this more Platonic mode of criticism does not limit itself to aesthetic terms that describe features of our perception or experience of a work. Rather, it draws our attention instead to the way that a work invites us to engage other areas of our life. Criticism developed along the lines of the Symposium, therefore, can be read as an invitation to spend time with a work of art and pursue the ways that it engages the concerns that shape our life. We must resist the temptation to see art or beauty as divorced from those concerns.

In Chapter 3 Nehamas develops his characterization of beauty as a form of desire by focusing on the pleasure we associate with an experience of beauty. He distinguishes his account from the aesthetic account offered by Kant, Hume and others by observing that the pleasure we associate with beauty is the pleasure of anticipation rather than the pleasure of accomplishment. It is essentially communal or relational rather than subjective and private. Like telling a joke, calling something beautiful offers an invitation to enter into a community oriented by a common set of attractions and attachments. Drawing on the experience of attraction to everything from television shows, like Frasier or St. Elmo's Fire, to classical compositions, like Brahms' string quartets, Nehamas observes that the sources of our interest or attraction are not limited to features of the way something appears. We focus instead on the properties that distinguish it from other individuals. "Aesthetic value depends on very particular features that differ from others in subtle ways and give their bearers a character that is distinctly their own" (90). Aesthetic features are the individuating properties of an object because it is those features or properties that serve as the irreplaceable source of human attachment. What Kant observed to be the expectation of universal agreement with one's judgment of beauty, therefore, can be better understood to be the hope that other people will join you in your interest or attachment to whatever you find beautiful and the pleasure of finding something beautiful is pleasure we find in the anticipation of that common attachment.

In Chapter 4 Nehamas explores the suggestion that beauty provokes forms of attention and attachment that resemble human love or attraction more than a judgment about the way something appears by pointing to the way our response to beauty often leads us out into the world. He opens the chapter by suggesting that coming to regard something as beautiful is not unlike Aschenbach's falling in love with Tadzio in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, an attachment that ultimately leads to Aschenbach's premature death. He develops this analogy by offering an extended account of his own relationship with Edouard Manet's Olympia. That relationship motivated Nehamas to explore the historical context of prostitution in 19th-century France, the history of female nudes in French painting, the conventions of Byzantine iconography, and the impact that the rise of photography had on 19th-century French painting.

He concludes the book with an extended reflection on the moral dimension of beauty by reflecting on the impact of the sort of engagement with the world that resulted from his encounter with Manet's Olympia. Like Plato and Nietzsche, Nehamas argues that beauty has a direct impact on our lives. But unlike those two thinkers, Nehamas disagrees that beauty offers us any guarantee of virtue or happiness. Beauty and morality, he argues, can conflict both in individuals and in works of art. As a result, it carries with it an ineliminable element of risk. It offers us only the promise that if we incorporate relationships with things we find beautiful it will make a valuable difference in our lives. What beauty and art offer us, therefore, is a promise of happiness.

It is difficult to place this book within the current literature on beauty since Nehamas offers not only a novel account of beauty but also an alternative approach to doing philosophy given the way he uses art criticism to drive arguments about the concept of beauty. Indeed, the best arguments in the book devote considerable attention to the details found in various works of art. His extended argument, for example, that the more bizarre features of Manet's Olympia can be explained by the way that painting both captures and confronts the visual impact of the photographs that prostitutes used as advertisements functions both as a contribution to art criticism and as a demonstration of his larger thesis about the way beauty draws us out into the world. Following such arguments and spending time with the beautiful color reproduction provides a wonderful model for how one might conduct an engaging argument in aesthetics.

At the same time, this approach can be frustrating for readers with a background in the philosophy of art since it sidesteps several important issues and debates. There are at least three sorts of omissions I have in mind. First, the book passes over historical material that is relevant to the case Nehamas is making. Nehamas, for example, does not discuss the important distinction Kant makes between dependent and free beauty. Judgments of dependent beauty always fall under the concept of something's function while judgments of free beauty are independent of a concept of its function. A beautiful building or a beautiful representational painting, therefore, falls into the category of dependent beauty. We judge them to be beautiful as buildings or as paintings. But if a painting's beauty is an instance of dependent beauty, then the sort of investigation into history, context and artistic process that Nehamas uses to distinguish his desire-based accounts would be equally motivated by a Kantian account, since the concept of a thing's function cannot be separated from its history or context. It's not clear, therefore, whether the historical account Nehamas develops should begin with Kant or whether it should be traced back to figures like Erigena or Aquinas who sharply distinguish between the pleasures associated with contemplation and the pleasures associated with physical desire.

Nehamas also passes over relatively recent discussions in the philosophy of art. For example, many contemporary aestheticians discount beauty as a central concern of aesthetics not because they associate it with appearance, as Nehamas alleges, but because they are skeptical that there is any non-arbitrary way to distinguish aesthetic from non-aesthetic properties. Over the past four decades, arguments offered by George Dickie, Peter Kivey, Ted Cohen and others have led to a wide-shared agreement that we cannot defend a general distinction between aesthetic and non-aesthetic properties, concepts, or responses. But if there is no useful distinction between aesthetic and non-aesthetic concepts, responses or properties, then there is no longer a reason to treat beauty, or any other aesthetic quality, as the central aesthetic concept, response or property in discussions about art. Nehamas appears to share this suspicion when he argues, for example, that aesthetic properties are nothing more than the properties that individuate an object or event. Yet at the same time he wishes to retain the centrality of beauty as a concept. Without any discussion of the recent debate over the status of aesthetic concepts, it becomes difficult to understand what that wish entails. If beauty is, as he argues, a form of attraction, in what ways does it differ from other forms of desire such that it counts as beauty? Why should we distinguish this form of attraction to the individuating properties of an object or event from other kinds of attraction, and if we can't offer such a distinction then why should we distinguish this form of attraction with the title of beauty? Nehamas appears to face a basic dilemma that can only be fully addressed by engaging the recent literature on the status of aesthetic concept.

Finally, Nehamas passes over any mention of the role of surrealism or the influence of figures like André Breton on the rejection of traditional European standards of beauty in the history of modern art. One way to understand the move away from traditional conceptions of beauty can be found in the increasing interest among European artists in moving beyond pleasant or beautiful appearances by exploring human instincts and the unconscious mind. The move toward abstraction and confrontation in the history of 20th-century art, therefore, was motivated by an interest in primitivism and depth psychology as much as it was influenced by the move toward formalism which is the focus of Nehamas's account. Often these two movements came together, as we see, for example, in Picasso's 1907 work, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Nehamas's book is refreshing and innovative for the way it incorporates art history to illustrate a conceptual argument about beauty. It would be even stronger if it engaged a broader range of influences. Without that discussion, it's difficult to determine how much influence a Kantian approach to beauty and aesthetics had on the general move we find in modern art away from more traditional models of beauty.

Overall this book makes an exciting contribution to the recent debate on beauty; perhaps the best thing about it is the way it offers a different way of doing aesthetics. It offers us a range of arguments that are fully engaged in specific works of art. And given Nehamas' thesis about beauty, it seems appropriate to end by pointing out that he offers us a book that attracts the reader into the very process of pursuing our interests that he places at the core of the concept of beauty.

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