Thomas Aquinas defined beauty as : id quod visum placet: that which pleases merely by being seen… Visum means to be seen (appearance, sight vision). Placet means ‘it is agreed’ (it is resolved, it seems good). This sounds nice but when elaborated Aquinas’ definition of beauty gets iffy: In order to be beautiful an object needs integrity (it’s not mutilated), it has due proportion (harmony) and brilliance (brightness). With these standards in place a painting or a sunset might seem beautiful but the rest of us – you and me – are left out. Who among us is not mutilated in some way? Who of us is in perfect ‘harmony’ – all of our “parts” being a perfect size and shape? Who among us is always bright? And what about the world?
Yesterday I had the privilege of touring “Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. It’s a phenomenal show featuring two and three-dimensional portraiture by mid-century artists reinventing portraiture. In these beautiful images one doesn’t find integrity, due proportion and brilliance but rather fragility, asymmetry and (while often depicted in bright color), juxtaposition. And yet, beauty abounds. Beauty abounds in Larry River’s mutilated portrait of Jack Kerouac with one eye, in Chuck Close’s monumental image of Nancy Graves, in Willem De Kooning’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe and in Benny Andrew’s portrait of his mother. Seeing these honest and beautiful portraits I cried, as I often do, because I saw id quod visum placet.
In the midst of asymmetry, fragility and juxtaposition, can you see beauty?