The women at the party
On Alexander Nehamas’ Only a Promise of Happiness (Princeton University Press, 2007)
Many philosophers’ definitions of beauty contain a strange hitch whereby physical human beauty, the aesthetic pleasure of looking at a body, doesn’t fit. Even if this prejudice begins with an essentially Christian fear of sex and sin, many thinkers disqualify the human body on grounds of reason. Kant likely wouldn’t allow nude bodies — iconic objects of interested subjectivity — past the baser, pleasure-based category of the “agreeable,” but he officially rules human bodies out of pure judgment because they too obviously “presuppose a concept of the end that determines what the thing should be” and thus demonstrate an “adherent beauty” liked indelibly to the free exercise of reason. Hegel, on the other hand, believes that humans can’t ever be a beautiful, truly transparent expression of reason because the wear and tear of worldly contingency marks us too completely. “There is no end to the haphazardness of human shapes,” he laments, proposing art as a far truer means of making reason intelligible. Responding to this tradition in Only a Promise of Happiness, Alexander Nehamas perceptively argues that we have long done ourselves a disservice by divorcing physical and even sexual attraction from our understandings of aesthetic experience, which can involve reason just as surely as desire. However, Nehamas rebounds too far, giving beauty a tone too amorphous to be critically useful and potentially too biological for comfort. His central analogy, which likens aesthetic experience to being smitten at first sight by an attractive woman (in his case), fails to account for the formal analysis essential to our experience of art as art. Without rebounding too far ourselves, we would do well to correct his account in accordance with several key dictates from an unlikely source: Dante Alighieri, whose medieval Christian treatments of beauty address its relation to desire and meaning from a very different standpoint.
Nehamas claims that the condition of modern art is such that “the higher and more refined its pleasures, the less like pleasures they [seem],” constituting a great “impoverishment” of art’s role in society. The main culprit, he continues, is Kant’s category of the “aesthetic,” especially as its modern heritors use his ideally unbiased “disinterested satisfaction” to claim that the best role of art is “a pleasure bereft of desire,” which Nehamas presents as a sterile and elitist nightmare. He detests the modernist axiom that the value of art must be “difficult both to discern and to appreciate, […] revealed only through the laborious efforts of criticism.” Clement Greenberg claimed that a bad artist “predigests art for the spectator and spares him effort, provides him with a shortcut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art;” T.S. Eliot, that “poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult” in order to avoid the limp and thoughtless sentimentalism by which Eliot felt art was easily and lately afflicted. Their terms of elitism, as Nehamas tells it, are at heart party to Kant’s prescriptive definition of the “aesthetic,” which requires feeling and especially pleasure to be clearly distinguished from any index of meaning or merit.
Nehamas’ answer is to press an analogy between sexual attraction and artistic beauty’s draw, which he does by giving repeated examples of art depicting nude or otherwise eroticized women, eventually separating out Manet’s Olympia as a work that marries erotic appeal with a beguiling promise of something higher, a call to a better life. Olympia is as central to his argument as his representative allegory of a beautiful woman at a party, by which he gives beautiful art’s appeal dimensions of both immediate pleasure and long-term betterment that, in our mind, are inseparable. He thus brings pleasure back to the fore of aesthetic experience, shunning the modernist dictum that concept is central to art.
Kant and Schopenhauer are Nehamas’ earliest historical examples of beauty “transformed from the spark of desire to the surest means of its quenching,” but around 1300, this exact transformation was the project of Dante Alighieri’s Vita Nuova and Commedia. Dante’s attempts to reconcile obviously sexual desire with moral good through interpretation are a foundational effort to make rational, categorical sense of beauty, and as such his account is well worth looking into.
In the Vita Nuova, Dante describes a love at first sight that weirdly parallels Nehamas’ analogy of the beautiful stranger: his first sight, as a boy, of Beatrice. Granted, Dante’s story is a poetic embellishment, but nevertheless his larger poetic aim relies on a mechanism of initial attraction and desire that we all recognize. His first sight of her affects him powerfully:
The moment I saw her I say in all truth that the vital spirit, which dwells in the inmost depths of the heart, began to tremble so violently that I felt the vibration alarmingly in all my pulses, even the weakest of them.
He then recalls dreaming of her as “a naked figure, sleeping, wrapped lightly in crimson cloth.” Doubtless, Dante’s adolescent self experienced an immediate sexual attraction akin to what Nehamas describes.
Far from Nehamas’ embrace of this impulse, though, Dante is quick to resolve the bare fact of sexual attraction by symbolic means, assuring us that his attraction to Beatrice’s beauty was really an attraction to her Christian charity. Sex has a storied equation to sin, evil, and death, so Dante spiritualizes it in order to save it, redefining that powerful drive as an innate thirst for God. He gives her beauty moral content, making her into an emblem of goodness. The Vita Nuova’s most famous canzone announces,
If any [evil heart] endured to look on her
He would be changed to good or die straightaway.
If any man she find who worthy be
To look at her, her virtue then he knows,
For, greeting him, salvation she bestows,
In meekness melting every grudge away.
If Beatrice’s beauty can save its beholders’ souls, then looking at her often must be commendable. When she dies, her salvational potential miraculously becomes even greater. In the last sonnet of the collection, Dante envisions her in heaven and writes of his longing to join her, which he proposes to accomplish by writing a poem that “has never been written in rhyme of any woman,” which definitely describes and probably denotes the Divine Comedy. In a final and colossal act of roundabout transformation of desire, Dante will use poetry and religion to finally reach a woman he barely spoke to in life. His terms are never physical: he asks only “that my soul go to see the glory of my lady, that is of the blessed Beatrice.”
The Commedia’s subsequent, qualified achievement of this goal only removes this mediated, sublimated desire further from physical beauty and sexuality. Dante often cautions us against beauty’s draw, making many invocations to careful interpretation that anticipate (or more probably inform) Eliot’s calls for difficulty and complex hermeneutics, presenting a very early example of the strict divide between inner meaning and external beauty that Nehamas laments. In the Purgatorio, Dante clearly distinguishes between shallow outward beauty and the substantive Christian love that Beatrice represents. One very shocking scene illustrates this theme most clearly. Dante’s pilgrim dreams of an ugly woman who, before his gaze, becomes very beautiful and begins to sing “in such a way that I could hardly have turned my attention from her.” Powerfully smitten at first sight once again, he asks Virgil who this woman is, at which Virgil reveals her true nature: “The other he seized and opened in front, tearing her clothes, and showed me her belly, which awakened me with the stench that issued from it.” All that underlies the meretricious exterior beauty of this siren, we learn, is the base and (here) grotesque anatomical fact of her femininity. From this clear and plainly misogynistic expression of sexual disgust, we learn that beauty is capable of wildly misleading us as to what is good. For Dante, this is a telling allegory of art. Since art, like this siren’s song, is capable of dressing up base desire in compelling terms, we have good reason to be wary of the beautiful. The key is interpretation, which allows us to determine the truth behind appearances. Earlier, down in the Inferno, appearances are downright deadly. Describing the arrival of Medusa at the gates of Dis, the narrator pauses in his account of urgently covering his eyes to tell us, “O you who have sound intellects, gaze on the teaching that is hidden beneath the strange verses.” This allegory points inward, telling us that if we don’t understand the signification behind the image of shunning the killing power of Medusa’s outward appearance, we may not make our way safely through the deepest rings of hell, or, really, through the poem. The work of interpretation determines the merit of the artwork as a vessel of truth, and of the reader as an individual both intelligent and blessed enough to do away with the appearances that drag us down to earth.
Dante thus solves the problem of beauty’s sexual element by transforming attraction to Beatrice into a distancing puzzle that makes us good by exercising our reason. There are some obvious problems with this account. Beatrice doesn’t fare very well as a participant, helpless amid Dante’s wild mythologizing and symbol-making. As the similarly adored and lyricized Marcela observes in Don Quijote’s send-up of the poetic muse theme, engaging with beauty this way is selfish, the substance of the adorer’s fantasies aside: “I know, by the natural understanding God granted me, that everything is loveable,” Marcela protests, “but I do not understand how, because it is loved, that which is loved for its beauty is obliged to love whoever loves it.” Beatrice, too, might have asked why the subject of all these rhapsodies on beauty can’t have some say in the matter. Nevertheless, by Dante’s own standards, which require beauty to be moral if it is to be given even qualified praise, his narrators’ treatment of Beatrice is fair. Dante could not have condoned a beauty-mechanism that has as much in common with sexual, reproduction-based attraction as Nehamas’ model. Analogizing aesthetic experience to love, Dante gives art precisely the same qualifying strictures as romantic love.
In Only a Promise of Happiness, Nehamas assigns no guilt or shame, treating art with the same free embrace of pleasure he allots to sex. As he tells it, our attraction to artistic beauty is essentially like our sexual attraction to another person because both involve a desire that weds physical intimacy to the hope for something abstractly greater, that titular promise of happiness. There is nothing wrong with this, Nehamas suggests, just as there is nothing wrong with his absolute favorite painting being Manet’s luxuriating nude Olympia. Selecting that particular painting as the fulcrum of his argument, Nehamas implicitly proposes a concept of aesthetic experience in which we’re entirely free to indulge any urges for which we might feel the need to reserve the word ‘indulge.’
Though Nehamas is frank about the sexual dimension he gives to art, he assures us that real beauty always leads to something more. He is aware that “it might seem reasonable to believe that those who value art for its beauty are either philistines or perverts,” but on his account, beauty is never merely a means of terminal satisfaction. We cannot engage with real beauty without feeling a call to engage further, more deeply. Hence his Vita Nuova-like analogy of intense desire at first sight. Imagine yourself at a party, he writes:
All of a sudden, everything becomes background — everything but a pair of eyes, a face, a body, pushing the rest out of your field of vision and giving you a moment of awe and a shock of delight, perhaps even passionate longing. For a moment, at least, you are looking at beauty.
What happens just after the moment of being struck by beauty differs essentially from Dante’s story. Nehamas clearly states that the main incitement of beauty is contact, closeness. This contact is crucially different from pure and simple lust, though. “At no point is my attraction, however sexual, a ‘merely’ physical phenomenon,” he insists. Beautiful humans make us think, “my life would be better if you were to become part of it,” even if this ‘better’ contains no clear import: “Not ‘better’ in a moral sense: the word, like my sense of what to expect is vague and lacks specific content; it ranges from immediate pleasure and satisfaction to the overall quality of my life over the long term.” The vagueness, here, is what makes beauty’s promise-like quality so powerful. We don’t know precisely what someone can give us, how they can change us, but we desperately want to find this out. Whatever interior qualities the object of our affection possesses might well come to nothing — might, in fact, be as downright repulsive to us as Dante finds his siren — and Nehamas leaves open the possibility that beauty can easily renege on its promise.
Beauty’s spell, “a yearning for features still undisclosed and desires that are still without shape,” applies as much to art as to love and friendship. “The art we love,” Nehamas aphorizes, “is art we don’t yet fully understand.” The comparison to Dante could hardly be starker: as Dante explains it, the only safe art is that which we’ve parsed and converted to theological truth, drawn away from appearance in favor of one clarion Christian meaning. Without such moral requirements, Nehamas describes a kind of aroused beguilement that is its own reward. Something about that unanalyzed first sight of beauty does us good, no matter where it leads us.
This is not simply a post-morality, pornographic theory of art. Nehamas doesn’t suggest that we simply respond to art depicting beautiful people as we might the people themselves. He draws a clear distinction between the beauty of subject matter and the beauty of the work. David’s Death of Marat, for example, is beautiful not because Marat himself is particularly handsome, but because of his emotive sprawl, the dramatic lighting, and the composition that so boldly cedes muscled skin and bunched cloth to flat, empty wall across half the frame. “The beauty of a painting is not necessarily connected to the beauty of its elements,” Nehamas writes, giving the sexual dimension of our beauty drive a definite qualification.
In the context of Nehamas’ book, though, I have to wonder whether he privileges artworks’ subject matter too much. Reading his enraptured descriptions of Olympia and looking at the image myself — page 119’s crop of groin and right breast in particular — I can’t help but feel a cognitive dissonance that has me reaching for Kant’s rigid aesthetic structures and strictures, if not so far as Dante’s. Perhaps I am just feeling residual Christian guilt, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s something wrong with Nehamas’ central example of beauty being so clearly seated in his obvious sexual attraction to that red-haired, reclining, all-but-naked woman in Manet’s image. Clearly Nehamas wants to press the analogy between the physical promise of such a beautiful woman’s presence at a party and her painted incarnation. I am also sure that he would not disagree with Danto’s idea that artists deliberately use such subject matter to play off the viewer’s reaction, which may well be frank arousal. As he describes Balthus’ Therese Dreaming on page eighteen, he wryly notes the self-delusional sterility of the critical term ‘eroticism,’ which, he says, “provides a way of claiming that others — not I — will find it exciting.” By these conceptual indices, Olympia ranks high among the twenty-odd other nude or sexualized female bodies in this book’s margins: surely Manet makes something strange and discomfiting of the woman in Olympia. The terms of Nehamas’ attraction, though, have far less to do with meaning than the beauty-spurred obsession underlying any prolonged search for it. What exactly does Olympia promise Nehamas?
His account of his relationship with the painting is rhapsodic to say the least, tinged with a lover’s ardor even as he maintains an articulate concern for both outer and inner beauty. “I literally want to devote part of my life to it,” he writes, “not just to look at it (although that will certainly be part of it) but also to come to know it better, to understand it and see what it accomplishes.” He describes fervid investigation of Manet’s work through research and conversation alike, sharing many theories about its significance. Nehamas’ extensive exegeses are interesting and enlightening, but something distinctly weird underlies his whole project. In trying to make us fall in love with this image too, which is surely his aim, he allows his inviting miasma of desire and cultured interest to remain too close to that original woman-at-the-party attraction. Without calling for repressive Christian moral standards, I wish to take issue with Nehamas’ account of beauty on the grounds that its deliberately sexual and romantic dimension is reductive and harmful.
Nehamas too readily falls in love with the work without truly considering it as a painting. He always remains in the hazy realm of personal experience and interesting research. “Olympia’s left hand draws the eye irresistibly to her genitals,” he writes, supplementing this observation with an image cropped to include the woman’s groin, navel, and left nipple. He easily jumps from this thought to the similar deliberate distance in the eyes of Byzantine icons and thence a definition of artistic interpretation as a repeated engagement with artistic objects, from which process we create our identities. To his credit, these Proustian meditations on memory and identity constitute an incredibly beautiful passage of writing itself. His syzygic reconciliation of Plato and Nietzche is equally moving. My criticism is that Nehamas makes this lovely conceptual leap too freely, without pressing enough on the nature of immediate aesthetic experience. Yes, Olympia’s Victorine is incredibly beautiful, but this artwork loses much of its potency if we don’t ask more of the artwork itself — the assemblage, in this case, of canvas, wood, oil medium, and pigment — than that it beguile us.
Reveling in the all-consuming mystery of Olympia, Nehamas misses the point, prescribing an aesthetic experience that is somewhat lazy. Victorine, to whose body our eyes are ineluctably drawn, is very naked and very attractive. How can Nehamas be sure he’s not responding to some promise of the woman herself, and if this is the case, does this basically reproductive engagement with beauty bother him? Clearly it bothers me. Doesn’t a painting with so much to offer deserve higher terms of praise? Can’t we make Olympia mean more by treating the particular painterly signification Manet so masterfully employs?
To attempt an answer of my own, I would like to consider Alice Neel’s 1973 portrait Linda Nochlin and Daisy:
This loosely rendered image of a mother and young daughter seated on a nice-looking couch belongs to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and every time I visit that museum, I spend a very long time standing before this painting, looking. To Nehamas’ point, I can enumerate many distinctive and remarkable features of the image but by no means explain why exactly I find it so astounding. Like all of Neel’s mature paintings, this image has the slightly wonky perspectival swellings and shrinkings that denote a portrait done from life, almost certainly in one sitting. Nochlin has exaggeratedly large knees and Daisy’s head is enormous, with a mane of blonde ringlets and two giant hazel eyes that seem all the more lively for their hastily rendered quality.[†] Nochlin’s face is a mess of colors that, at first, seem not to belong on skin: greens, purples, and browns that give her a dark, weathered look. The contrast between the rendering of her face and Daisy’s smoothness, though, along with the wild complementary colors of her clothes and Daisy’s hair and suit, make the unnameable but palpable character of this pair even stronger. If Neel exaggerated reality, she did so in a way that fit. The couch is not quite ‘right’ according to the rules of perspective, but nevertheless we recognize its heft, its depth, and its satiny sheen from Neel’s attention to the shifting tone of wood and fabric: for example, the dots, which change color only at the particular part of Nochlin’s shadow where the fabric is lighter than the darkened seat but still dulled past its normal sheen. The shadows of the floor may suggest a cursory touch, but the color is somehow just right, turning colder as it recedes so that the floor lies flat as it should.
Maybe, then, color is some part of the reason I return to this painting again and again: color used on its own terms and used with all the more intensity for its flagrant disregard for “realistic” proportion and line, representational painting’s standard indices of accuracy. I could expound upon the ways in which Neel thus evokes a powerful sense of character, but to happily conclude that the work is great because she thus captures a poetic truth more telling than reality would reduce the strange victory of the image. As Nehamas says, my relation to this work’s beauty is one of continuing to look in wonder. My esteem and affection have as much to do with Neel’s subject matter as with the way she uses paint to show us those subjects in a way only paint can do.
My problem with Nehamas’ extended hymn to Olympia, then, is that his inattention to simple markmaking valorizes unreflective meditation on a woman’s naked body. On his account, I don’t know whether he can honestly say that his love began with anything more than ogling. I don’t mean to detract from Olympia’s aesthetic integrity or from Nehamas’ largely convincing and astute model of beauty, but rather to suggest that his argument requires some revisions.
Why shouldn’t formal concerns register immediately when we look at an artwork? Take painting, for example. Without losing aesthetic experience behind a mountain of verbiage that Nehamas rightly brands as elitist and self-indulgent, we would do well to read a painting as a painting: not, as Clement Greenberg argues, as a dialogue with “the ineluctable flatness of the canvas,” but with a viscous semisolid called paint. (Drawing is flat; painting has always involved three dimensions.) Why, then, shouldn’t we discuss Olympia first and foremost as a painting, especially as a painting that does all the brilliant things Nehamas enumerates and for which he loves it?
One of the most remarkable things about Victorine’s nude form is the way Manet’s rendering in paint flattens her, making her skin strangely monochrome even as it moves across heights and declivities. What is so interesting about Nehamas’ idea that the painting is a dialogue with photography is that, more so than from Victorine’s gaze, you can see the strange, graphic quality of a photographic scene suggested all around her frame: the stark lines of shadow beneath her right hand, of her right knee against her left, of her heel against the sheet. The sheet and pillow are also strangely uniform. In place of soft chiaroscuro, the scene is lit by flat, direct light, so that everything is washed out in the same high-contrast way that many images would eventually be overexposed by electric flash. As much as the obviously startled cat, Victorine’s body’s refusal to roll and swell — her near-uniform skin tone, against which flatness the too-fine tonal shift of her nipples actually vanishes — gives this photograph its peculiar starkness and realism. This photographically-informed color takes on a racial dimension when it comes to Laure, the African-Carribean-French handmaid, whose skin is sometimes cast into such unrealistic shadow that she resembles a silhouette in places. In this way, Manet deliberately obscured her neck, her temple, and especially her hand. Both female figures, then, have a mediated, mildly weird presence that registers as such because of Manet’s attention to the dialogue between photography and painting, specifically because of his perceptive and masterful ability to imbue the latter with some characteristic distancing traits of the former. Simply observing that this painting has to do with photography undersells the ingenious details of how Manet does this.
Nehamas goes too far in writing off formal consideration, which is an incredibly fertile vein of investigation. This is not to say that aesthetic experience must be coldly analytical. I sympathize with and appreciate Nehamas’ love metaphors, which are a good way of describing how we live with works of art. I must admit that I am a painter and so predisposed to questions of technique; I do not insist that one must be able to make art in order to engage with it. If for no other reason than, as Nehamas says, to share what I find so beautiful about these paintings in particular, I must insist only that we step back from subject matter and consider what the work is. Why shouldn’t we talk about aesthetic experience in terms of how an artist uses the medium? Rather than negotiating the binary of beautiful and dull art, why not ask whether a work is generous or lazy in its execution? Beauty may be more accurately understood in these formal terms. Consider Antoni Tàpies, whose paintings I adore:
This image substitutes some sort of sandy grime for paint, giving no clear representation of anything (a cross? a face? the word ‘Dante’?) but creating an object that is wonderful to behold — inches of rough, textured stuff sticking out and delighting us with its slightly absurd physicality and abundance. We don’t need to talk about much more than the fact that Tàpies is playing with the medium of paint to understand why this gleeful and beautiful abstraction demands a second look.
To perhaps force an analogy that I started earlier, why does our figurative first sight of the woman at the party have to resemble Nehamas’ account rather than Dante’s? That is, why can’t we prod our artworks and even convert their initial shine to some kind of meaning? If we’re in the business of discussing art rather than just looking at images of beautiful women (and men!), we can acknowledge that some components of attraction that are basically sexual while still discussing art as art — without, of course, committing repression as abusive and extreme as Dante’s. Dante tried to reconcile a sexual attraction he clearly felt with the Catholic theology he knew to be true; this is not my project. I want to suggest that we do ourselves a disservice if we slide too far in the opposite direction, and that we would do well to step back and consider whether we can take something away from Dante’s argument. Considering an artwork with a few key questions about medium in mind is a means of engaging with the work far more intensely and, really, of rescuing any work from reductive discussions of history and theory that often obscure the specific fact of the work. As Dante reminds us in his recollection of Beatrice’s death: “she was born a Christian of the thirteenth century.” We should give artworks the level of reflective consideration we’d give to any person whom we respect in addition to finding her or him attractive. We can leave the weight of analysis to the people who write the monographs; all we have to do is think about what the object before us adds up to, beauty along with the window for the beauty.
Only a Promise of Happiness is a success insofar as Nehamas clearly demonstrates his own ‘style,’ as he sets out to do, sharing a few lengths of the fabric of meaning he’s woven between objects of art in his own life. In order to give a useful definition of aesthetic experience, though, the book requires a slight qualification. Bearing in mind Nehamas’ healthy conclusory dictum that “the passion for ranking, the fervor for verdicts, that has transformed our attitude toward the arts, and our lives, is simply another manifestation of selfishness,” cloistering its expansive, life-defining power, we can nevertheless ask of aesthetic engagement that we appreciate the pleasures of particular strangeness that reside in an artist’s use of medium and form to create a thing, an object of consideration that in all its physical specificity can change and define us just as bloomingly.
[†] The MFA’s plaque next to the painting ascribes Daisy’s intent, open-mouthed expression to Neel’s alleged promise that if Daisy would only sit still next to her mother for a little while longer, she would receive some candy.
 Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. Paul Guyer & Eric Matthews (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 114.
 G.W.F. Hegel, “The Idea of Artistic Beauty, or the Ideal,” Lectures on Aesthetics, p. 151.
 Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 2.
 Ibid., p. 3.
 Ibid., p. 22.
 Ibid., p. 31, 34.
 Ibid., p. 5.
 Dante Alighieri, Vita Nuova, trans. Barbara Reynolds (New York: Penguin Group, 2004), p. 3.
 Ibid., p. 5.
 Ibid., p. 26.
 Ibid., p. 64.
 Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, trans. Robert M. Durling (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 19.17-18.
 Ibid., 19.31-33.
 Dante Alighieri, Inferno, trans. Robert M. Durling (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 9.61-63.
 Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote, trans. Burton Raffel (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), p. 77.
 Nehamas, p. 11.
 Ibid., p. 53.
 Ibid., p. 54.
 Ibid., p. 64.
 Ibid., p. 76.
 Ibid., p. 96.
 Ibid., p. 106.
 Ibid., p. 119.
 Vita Nuova, p. 47.
 Nehamas, p. 137.