Beauty and Objectification




Beauty and Objectification



Beauty can be found in both people and things. In the case of people it is connected to sexual desire, while not so in the case of things. One finds the object of one’s desire beautiful, but one doesn’t desire all the things one finds beautiful. I may desire a certain woman, but I don’t desire a painting of her, however beautiful it may be. Thus beauty can be connected to two sorts of attitude: the erotic attitude and the aesthetic attitude. These attitudes differ markedly: they entail different dispositions on the part of the onlooker and different wishes as to the behavior of the beautiful object. The erotic attitude entails a desire to have sex (of some sort) with the object, not so for the aesthetic attitude. The erotic attitude is physically active, while the aesthetic attitude is contemplative.

            It is sometimes supposed that the erotic attitude is inherently objectifying, since its focus is the embodied self: one desires that body. Thus we hear talk of “sex objects”—the other is the object of desire. The other is reduced to her (or his) body. By contrast, the aesthetic attitude regards the other as more than a mere physical thing with which to cavort: it regards the other as belonging to the realm of disinterested contemplation and valued for its intrinsic character. The other is not merely an instrument of gratification, analogous to food, but a valuable being in its own right, like a work of art. Desire is objectifying while aesthetic contemplation is edifying. A person can enjoy being admired for her beauty but not being treated as a mere thing for someone else’s carnal pleasure. To be found beautiful in the erotic way is to be treated as a mere object, while to be found beautiful in the aesthetic way is to be elevated to the level of art (possibly the divine).

            But this way of thinking is the opposite of the truth: the erotic attitude to beauty is subjectifying while the aesthetic attitude is objectifying (and potentially morally suspect). This is because sexual desire contains in its intentionality the wish that the other should behave as a sexual agent: that is, should actively engage in sexual interractions with the one doing the desiring. It is the desire for desire, and hence action. It is the desire that the other should will what we ourselves will. Of course, the desired action is the action of an embodied being, but it is essential to the desire that its object be an agent endowed with volition. One does not desire the other qua inert body but qua active self. The “object” of sexual desire is a conscious willing agent with whom one desires a certain sort of cooperation. One wishes to engage in a joint project, as it were, i.e. sexual interaction. The beauty of the other is conceived under that aspect—as an aid to the erotic project. At the moment of desire what is wished for is the agency of the other to manifest itself in a particular way.

            It is quite otherwise with the aesthetic attitude. Here beauty does not excite any desire for the beautiful object to act in a certain way—it does not inspire a desire for active cooperation. On the contrary, the object of contemplation is regarded as just that—a passive object to be gazed at and appreciated. You don’t want Mona Lisa’s picture to kiss you, though you may well want Mona Lisa herself to. The enraptured gaze is caught up in the qualities of the object qua object without regard for any actions it might undertake. Thus a woman’s face can be regarded as a purely aesthetic object: not something to be kissed and adored but to be admired for its formal beauty. In this attitude the object is dwelt on as on a beautiful painting—in an attitude of disinterested aesthetic analysis. The observer’s eye will move admiringly over the eyes, lips, cheeks, and chin, noting the symmetries and sparkle, the color and texture (such exquisitely smooth skin!). The idea that there is person within is not at the forefront of the mental act (robots can be beautiful in this sense). The viewer may have no sexual interest in the woman at all, through lack of libido or difference of sexual preference. The person is reduced to an aesthetic object—an appearance of matter, a congeries of qualities. The exact shape of nose or color of eyes will be analytically noted and appreciated. What the person within thinks or feels is irrelevant—outer appearance is all. Thus the other is objectified by the aesthetic attitude: her humanity is deemed secondary at best. Her agency is eclipsed by her beauty as a thing among other things—paintings, sculptures, landscapes. And here lies a moral danger: she may be regarded merely as an object devoid of will and agency. She might be degraded, assigned to the wrong ontological category. She might protest: “I’m not just a beautiful object—I’m a person!”

            Consider the attitude of the peahen to the peacock. She finds that tail beautiful; it incites lust in her, the desire for copulation. She seeks the cooperation of the peacock to satisfy her desires, well aware that he might not reciprocate (though he probably will). In no way does she treat him as a mere object empty of agency. We, however, gazing at the peacock’s tail, adopt the aesthetic attitude not the erotic attitude; and in so doing we perceive the peacock as a thing of visual beauty—we objectify him. We are not concerned with his thoughts and feelings but with his feathers—splendid, no doubt, but merely part of his body. Which of us is more objectifying, the peahen or the connoisseur? The peahen desires to reproduce with the peacock (a cooperative act), but the connoisseur regards the peacock with a curator’s eye—what a fine candidate for taxidermy! The connoisseur will want to take a picture, the peahen to move in closer. One wants to make images, the other babies. The former requires passivity on the part of the object, the latter activity.

            It is odd that beauty plays both these roles—as a stimulus to desire and as an object of contemplation. They are really very different, and yet the same thing is perceived, viz. beauty. Suppose you experience a sudden loss of libido: you no longer desire your beloved but you still perceive her beauty. Has your experience of her changed? She still looks the same to you—she is no less beautiful—but her beauty just doesn’t excite you any more. Inevitably you move from the erotic attitude to the aesthetic attitude, objectifying her in the process. You no longer want her body next to yours; you are content to gaze at her from afar. Is that progress?


Colin McGinn

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