Eye of the Beholder, My Eye

There are two cliches that inevitably arise in the course of my senior seminar, a class in which students review the meaning, use and significance of their liberal arts education. The first concerns history.

Without fail, someone will utter the old saw that "those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Yeesh. Aside from being demonstrably false, it imputes a special wisdom to historians, who--let's face it--are a fractious, disagreeable lot. To make matters worse, this commonplace is almost always offered by a student who loathes studying history.

The second teeth-gnasher arises when we begin to discuss aesthetics. Ten minutes into the conversation I am guaranteed to hear that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I should note that this banality is never offered as a philosophical statement. The speaker is not seeking to establish the inherent subjectivity of the aesthetic experience.

Rather, it's put forth as a kind of cruise missile defense of bad taste: since no one can agree on the essence of beauty, I'm freed from having to make any effort to understand art beyond saying it sucks or I like it. Hey, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? In short, it's the justification for remaining an ignorant boob. Why seek to understand the genius of Mozart's Don Giovanni, Brueghel's religious symbolism, or Yeats' gyres? "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, dude. That's just not my thing."

So I asked my class to journal on the following prompt:
A building or a house is in one sense utilitarian. It creates a space protected from the elements in which people can work or reside. A structure does not have to be beautiful or pleasing to accomplish this function. Yet we are not indifferent to the aesthetic qualities of buildings. Given a choice between a structure that is soundly built but ugly and one that is soundly built but beautiful, most people choose the latter (and a few might even sacrifice some structural soundness for beauty). Why do you think this is?
The answer in most of the responses was "Beauty is in the eye... "

Once an educated person was considered to have educated tastes, but that day has long passed. And in the view of this grumpy old snob, more's the pity.


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