Beastly Beauty Baseline


celadon teabowl by Kathryn McBride


So, I enrolled in a Philosophy class.  With a taunting title like “Beastly Beauty: The Value That Astounds, Confounds, Perplexes and Vexes Us” how could I not?  It’s basically an Aesthetics course taught by a scary smart über-organized professor. (Uh Oh…she means it and students must too.) And a lyrical comedienne. (Whew, we can relax and be real.)

It’s an interesting hybrid of lecture, Q&A, readings, pop-quizzes, exams and all that old-school jazz meshed with an online portal where the whole affair flies paperless and textbook-free. It’s additionally livelied-up with group writing prompts, required responses to the postings of other students, and even a few virtual discussions – called “Philosophy in the Real World in Real Time” – instead of sitting in class that day. Whoa Nellie! Bring it.

I’ll know more in a month or so. In the meantime I gotta go read Plato, who is sounding more and more like Jim Bob Duggar to me, in that lovable fundamental purist kind of way.

So, on to our first online Discussion topic:  “What makes something beautiful to you?”

I figured I would start with what I know. Ceramics. I was tempted to use one of my own pieces, but instead preferred the safer psychic distance that a piece by someone else affords. I wrote about the sweet Kathryn McBride cup given to me out of the blue that I have mentioned here before:

This porcelain teabowl is beautiful to me in three ways.

  1. As a classic Japanese-style chawan, it is generously proportioned yet subtly shaped. The glowing aquamarine celadon glaze augments the exterior textures and pools pleasingly in the fingerprints inside. As a work of visual art it feels resolved and autonomous, creating a presence unto itself.
  2. In use it functions beautifully. It sits level and provides a reliable surface to grasp. Neither too chunky nor too thin, it feels balanced to hold. It delivers liquid cleanly to the lips, a crucial but often overlooked intimacy of the drinking vessel.
  3. It is personally beautiful to me because it evokes the lovely sensibilities of its maker, my longtime ceramic mentor who died in 2012.

I was happy to find in the process of writing this response that beauty, for me, not only comes from appearance, but also from motion, perception and association.  I did not know that so clearly before.

I am still waiting for a few more of the 28 or so other students to post their thoughts so I have a wider choice of whose posts I write my two required responses to.  This is a great way to take a class. Not everyone wants to ask questions, express opinions or discuss slippery concepts out loud on the fly. And writing papers for only the instructor’s eyes has other unrealistic limits.

Let’s get this Pretty Ugly Art Party started. Bring on the Beautiful Beasts and let the wild rumpus begin!

–Liz Crain, who never really knows what to say right away. Unless she’s mad.



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6 thoughts on “Beastly Beauty Baseline

  1. Wish I could be a fly on the wall of that class! Thanks for sharing this part 🙂

    One of the questions that interests me these days is the respect in which something is being measured (Why something counts as beautiful) and the respect in which it is doing the measuring (What things do we find beautiful). There is a difference that I’m not sure we account for as often as we could.

    When we look at it as a case of needing to measure to find the beautiful we are looking for the ingredients that add up to something beautiful. We can make a checklist of the attributes that compose beautiful things. We get to say “This is *why* its beautiful”.

    On the other hand, beauty also acts as a measure for us, and we apply it out in the world without first needing to find its ingredients or qualifications. Sometimes beauty is the axis about which our judgments turn. We have this sense of the beautiful and we go out in the world and discover where it finds a home. We judge things AS beautiful not by doing an inventory of its various qualities but by seeing beauty FIRST and then accepting that these things measure up.

    The difference is between using something as a measure and using it as a thing to be measured. If it seems like an inconsequential distinction, think of how we use a ruler to determine length. The ruler measures length. Now go ahead and measure the ruler. Do you see where I’m going with this? Some things operate axiomatically for us, and as in the case of beauty, we are not always clear what those things are and when its right to do so. When we don’t see the difference it can seem as if beauty needs to be justified. And you know where that attitude has gotten the arts……

    Those are my thoughts, if I can add to the discussion. I just think we make a mistake when we imagine that beauty needs to be justified by some other quality. While its true that if we occasionally removed certain qualities from an object they would no longer strike us as beautiful, that does not mean beauty is an aggregate of qualities. There is no formula for beauty that holds for everyone universally. Is it strange that everyone carries their own sense of what things measure as beautiful? No more than that some use meters and others yards, and most of us at various times also approximations of near and far, inside and outside, etc.

    We need to learn to recognize beauty as the thing that justifies our appreciation rather than feeling our judgment itself needs justification. We have as much right to see things as beautiful as we do in using a ruler to measure lengths.

    Oops! starting to ramble!

    1. Oh Carter, I wish you and I could sit next to each other in these wonderful lecture/discussions and then dig in deep in these online assignments! (Am I recalling it right that you studied Philosophy, and have a degree or two in it?) I appreciate your articulate observations.

      That said, I completely agree with you that our experience of beauty is probably inchoate and ineffable and IS seen first and does not need justification, explanation, or measuring of any sort to make it more real or true. And being wowed first and then – only maybe – wondering exactly how and why is a natural order. (This makes me think of that gobsmacked Double Rainbow guy from a couple of years back!)

      Plunk ourselves down in a class tasked with finding something – anything – beautiful and then explaining it to a bunch of strangers (not clay people!) of all ages who will most certainly not be familiar with our ruler, nor us with theirs, and then throw in some brain-scrunching readings of Plato and Aristotle for starters, make it college for a grade (not that I care about that!) and, to me, we have nearly left the spirit of Beauty in the dust for our machinations about the letter of it.

      Hold on tight! I do plan to write more here about this course and I DID get some interesting responses to my class posting: lots of curiosity about the appearance/function/association triad, for example.

      And you can ramble all you want – at least with me…

  2. I find clarity in anger as well.
    The cup is exquisite.
    I think we all put ourselves into our art and what a beautiful, lovely way to hold your friend and mentor close to you.

    1. Yeah, Lisa, I literally drink her in when I use this one! And even better is the fact that it was sent to me out of the blue by someone who learned from her and loved her as well but just thought I should have it. All of that makes me cry sometimes.

  3. Liz you constantly amaze me … you amaze me because you are always trying and doing new things, you share ‘your things’ in a very pleasing and informative manner and you are so thoughtful and interesting. Keep going woman! Keep sharing!

    1. OK, Bonnie, now I’m blushing. But since you’re egging me on, I will keep sharing! Ya know sometimes I might have a few doubts (!?!) and knowing that you and others give a care eases them. Thank you.

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