In our final look at the 50th Anniversary of Daedalus, Susan Sontag contemplates beauty. Originally published in 2002, "An Argument about Beauty" looks at the history of beauty—finding that there is no real definition of “beauty” in a strict sense. Sontag tackes physical beauty, beauty in art (Gertrude Stein said that “to call a work of art beautiful means that it is dead.”), beauty-lovers in literature like Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare, Pope John Paul II’s use of the work beauty in his comments on the abuse scandals in the Catholic church, the politics of beauty, the debate between that which is beautiful and that which is interesting, and even a look at the un-beautiful. Sontag ultimately finds that we look to what we think is beautiful to remind us of the vast world around us—and our place within that world:
Responding at last, in April of 2002, to the scandal created by the revelation of innumerable cover-ups of sexually predatory priests, Pope John Paul II told the American cardinals summoned to the Vatican, “A great work of art may be blemished, but its beauty remains; and this is a truth which any intellectually honest critic will recognize.” Is it too odd that the Pope likens the Catholic Church to a great–that is, beautiful–work of art? Perhaps not, since the inane comparison allows him to turn abhorrent misdeeds into something like the scratches in the print of a silent film or craquelure covering the surface of an Old Master painting, blemishes that we reflexively screen out or see past. The Pope likes venerable ideas. And beauty, as a term signifying (like health) an indisputable excellence, has been a perennial resource in the issuing of peremptory evaluations. Permanence, however, is not one of beauty’s more obvious attributes; and the contemplation of beauty, when it is expert, may be wreathed in pathos, the drama on which Shakespeare elaborates in many of the Sonnets. Traditional celebrations of beauty in Japan, like the annual rite of cherry-blossom viewing, are keenly elegiac; the most stirring beauty is the most evanescent. To make beauty in some sense imperishable required a lot of conceptual tinkering and transposing, but the idea was simply too alluring, too potent, to be squandered on the praise of superior embodiments. The aim was to multiply the notion, to allow for kinds of beauty, beauty with adjectives, arranged on a scale of ascending value and incorruptibility, with the metaphorized uses (‘intellectual beauty,’ ‘spiritual beauty’) taking precedence over what ordinary language extols as beautiful–a gladness to the senses.