The Secret Power of Beauty by John Armstrong

A balance between perfection and variety
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The Independent Culture

What is beauty? The slim frame of Kate Moss or one of Titian's large ladies; the Parthenon or the Lloyd's building? A search for its ingredients is almost as old as philosophy itself. Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician who lived in the sixth century BC, discovered that a piece of stretched string produces a note and that, when another, exactly half its length, is laid beside it, they will, when plucked together, produce a harmony.

A sense of rightness, he believed, was to be found in this mathematical relationship. This was the essence of beauty and the key to the order of the universe. The universe, though, was not just ordered; its order was itself beautiful. Harmony in, say, architecture reflected not only beauty but its proximity to goodness and truth. A nice theory; but obviously flawed despite Keats's famous dictum. For what is beautiful is manifestly not always truthful.

Hogarth's formula was different. It had to do with corsets (or, perhaps, the shape of the bodies that inhabited them). In 1752, in The Analysis of Beauty, he asked readers to pick the most beautiful from a row of illustrated corsets. He was confident they would select those with just the right amount of curves - not too straight, not too bulbous.

For Hogarth beauty was composed of gently curving lines. He revealed himself as an early "formalist", suggesting that beauty depended on shape and pattern. He also thought we loved variety; therefore true beauty existed in the mid-point between boredom and exhaustion. But one has only to look at the Petit Trianon at Versailles - a lovely classical building from Hogarth's time, and one that ostentatiously lacks curves - to see the limitations of his argument.

In this highly readable and chatty book, the philosopher John Armstrong follows, with the deceptive easiness of a fireside chat, the various aesthetic discourses that have through the ages attempted to define the essential characteristics of beauty and its relevance for both the individual and civilisation. Looking at the work of Rembrandt and Botticelli, Caspar David Friedrich and Chardin, he explores the idea that beauty is, as Stendhal suggested, a vision of happiness. He considers the necessity to cultivate a language "in which we can give accurate words to our vague intuitions" about what actually constitutes beauty. And he trips lightly through the philosophical high ground of Hegel and the art historian Heinrich Wölfflin.

Armstrong comes to the conclusion that the experience of beauty "consists in finding a spiritual value (truth, happiness, moral ideas) at home in a material setting (rhythm, line, shape, structure) and in such a way, that... the two seem inseparable". He suggests that beauty is all too often recognised, as in Mahler's last song-cycle or Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, in a final epiphany at the end of life. This colloquial but informative book might help us not to leave its discovery so late.

The reviewer's poetry collection 'Ghost Station' is published by Salt in March