Why I Said I Don’t Care About the Notre Dame Fire, Who (Understandably) Criticized Me, and Who (Surprisingly) Was Supportive

by Akim Reinhardt

Image: BBC

First things first. Am I happy that Notre Dame Cathedral burned?
Don’t be silly. Of course not.

Do I wish it hadn’t burned?
Absolutely.

If I could wave a wand and undo the fire, would I?
Without hesitation.

This isn’t about my intellectual understanding of the building’s historical or architectural significance, it’s beauty, or what it has meant and continues to mean to millions of people. Rather, It’s about my emotional response, or more specifically, lack thereof, and the surprising reactions I received.

I learned about the fire when I texted a friend about a completely unrelated issue. Coincidentally, she happens to be a Medieval European Art Historian. As you might expect, she was very upset. I was sympathetic to her pain. Yet my own emotional response to the fire was largely nonexistent. I felt nothing.

Then, much as the flames engulfed the church, the story of Notre Dame’s burning engulfed the media. This came about for reasons I understand and really have no problem with. I did not resent the press coverage at all, but it did bring my own emotionless response into even starker relief.

The day continued. I met an old friend who was in from out of town. We had dinner and a couple of drinks. We caught up and talked for about three hours. Neither of us mentioned the fire. I went home and got online. The story was still all over my Facebook and Twitter feeds. At about 11:00 PM, I posted the following self-deprecating joke:

More proof that I’m a horrible person: Don’t really give a shit about Notre Dame.

Despite the late hour, the posting got many responses. Most of it was what I expected. One friend quipped: This is why we need fewer opinions. Others were more aghast. They wanted to know how it is I could feel this way? Some of their comments reflected a sense of betrayal. I get it. I understand that people were deeply touched by the structure and hurt by its burning, and I was sorry for their pain. I just couldn’t find it within myself to care about the building despite understanding its beauty and history. Read more »

Beauty is Not Skin Deep

by Dwight Furrow

Turner the fighting temeraire

Turner's The Fighting Temeraire

Beauty is not solely in the eye of the beholder so I argued last month. This month I can't resist taking on the other platitude that harms our understanding of beauty—that beauty is only skin deep.

The word "beauty" has fallen on hard times in the art world despite occasional signs of a revival. Yet, in everyday conversation the word "beauty" is so ubiquitous it has fallen into cliché. Perhaps these two phenomena are related. It is routine to say a flower is beautiful; and almost all flowers would seem to qualify regardless of how ordinary. But that just reduces the concept of "beauty" to meaninglessness. I want to rescue the term by arguing that to grasp the nature of beauty we need an aesthetics of depth, not of surfaces, which is to say that beauty is not skin deep.

There is, it would seem, an obvious counter example to my thesis. I suspect the word "beauty" is most often applied to women largely because throughout history most people who publicly wrote about or depicted beauty were men. And this seems to apply to physical features especially in the way the beauty industry uses the term. But this is not because beauty is superficial; it is because beauty is an object of longing, especially the kind of "ideal", unattainable beauty portrayed by the beauty industry. It's the depth of something out of reach, illusive, a consummate idealization, of satisfaction infinitely deferred that is at work in this form of allure. The whole process of cosmetics is to make something desirable and is thus no longer only about appearances but rather something more subterranean.

The idea that beauty is about superficial qualities readily apparent in our experience is an assumption adopted by much of modern aesthetics since Kant and Hume. Aesthetic experience is made possible by a bundle of qualities and if the qualities are alluring enough we call the object beautiful. Yet to report that a painting is red, rectangular, depicting figures of a certain shape, and suitable for hanging tells us nothing about its aesthetic appeal.

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Beauty is Not (Entirely) in the Eye of the Beholder

by Dwight Furrow

SunsetIn philosophy the most important development in the last 300 years has been the idea that what can be intelligibly said about reality is constructed out of our subjective responses, suitably constrained by social norms and intersubjective communication. This is the essence of Immanuel Kant's so-called Copernican Revolution in philosophy which converted us from naïve realists who took reality at face value to sophisticated anti-realists constructing reality via the structures of consciousness and language.

Kant's argument is sound but preposterous. One would have thought that reality's stubborn resistance to our ideas and expectations and the fact we are often surprised by this resistance might lead us to take the idea of a real world more seriously. The performative contradiction of claiming all reality is a social construction while traipsing off to the doctor when ill renders truth and knowledge the exclusive purview of scientists who have never shown much inclination toward anti-realism. But once these "naïve" realist thoughts are cast out in favor of Kant's fastidious, critical skepticism, common sense can't find a way back in. And so for 300 years we have been denying what to non-philosophers seems obvious—there is a real world out there with which our senses put us into contact.

In light of this revolution in thought we were, by now, supposed to be basking in the friendly solidarities of intersubjective agreement, a consequence that unfortunately appears to be increasingly remote. This idea that reality is a social construction ebbs and flows outside the philosophy class but in today's "post-truth" society it seems ascendant. Perhaps a new way must be found to anchor truth in something more substantial than contingent, collective agreements.

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