When I was in Moscow, I descended into the subway to find a world far from the severe communist style buildings and grey streets.
Tired, dusty immigrant workers swept the floors like a man brushing his teeth half out of delirium and half out of rhythm. Meanwhile panicky Russians used their briefcases like machetes to chop through the crowds in desperate efforts to catch the screeching train.
But in the midst of this fury, grand masterpieces of art stared at the chaos below like silent, stoic witnesses. Glittering mosaics embellished in yellow, the Russian color of royalty, covered the ceilings and walls, exquisite art that could easily persuade any man to lay down a stack of money simply to gawk at it.
Newspapers littered the ground where gorgeous statues of peasant workers stood holding sickles, hammers and wheat. The irony of these statues staring at the immigrant workers sweeping the floors was tremendous. Exquisite chandeliers hung heavily from the ceiling where shouting, panic and schedules were the rule of the game. Chandeliers! In a subway!
I am not here to argue economic or political theory about Russian marxism, but I do believe this set-up is telling of the power beauty possesses. This was not a museum. It was the subway! Any homeless man could drag his feet down the escalators and be in the presence of masterpieces. Ironically, these were built as bomb shelters during the Cold War. What persuaded Stalin to invest enormous amounts of money, during war time and mass starvation no less, for these absurdly opulent subways?
I posit he understood something about beauty few of us hardly notice because it surrounds our daily decisions so regularly we can barely separate it from our habits and perception of truth. The ceilings of the Moscow subways were aesthetically pleasing: but were they beautiful?
Immanuel Kant writes that the categorical imperative weighs morals in a vacuum. Essentially we must weigh morals apart from the ethical choices which tarry them. i.e. Just because it killed someone, does not mean telling the truth is evil. Another vice intervened to result in evil.
So we must acknowledge that beauty is present in unethical situations like manipulation, propaganda and social norms about propriety. While these ventures are not justified in their use of beauty, it is telling of the power of beauty to heal, unite, attract , even numb and anchor the human soul.
In fig 1.1, blue denotes man’s experience, red the natural world and purple metaphysical ideas. Experience straddles the physical and metaphysical because it uses natural elements- neurons and heat transfer- to fuel consciousness in the metaphysical world. In a later post we will unpack the necessity of separating taste from beauty itself but by dividing the physical from the metaphysical, we can see how our subjective experiences bring us to a transcendental, non-arbitrary value.
Aesthetics occur in the time-space continuum of the natural world where objects are ordered in a socially pleasing way. It is the actual stuff, the material placed in such a way that a group of people can sit down, look at it or listen to it and affirm it possesses beauty because of the transcendent non-physical values it conjures.
Aesthetics are not beauty itself, but rather the ambassador of beauty to men limited by the natural world.
Sound waves, light waves and heat transfer each cause a material order to surface which society categorizes into aesthetic norms because of the immaterial values they represent. These include but are not limited to music, color and the manipulation of natural materials like clay, wood or stone.
A single pile of rocks can be ugly or beautiful: it is not dependent on the rocks, but rather the idea that is communicated through the arrangement of the rocks. Perhaps...order, strength, symmetry, balance? Agency, driven by a sense of higher consciousness, is the avenue beauty takes to our physical world.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that our closed universe will increasingly decay. Nonetheless we are incessantly finding beauty in a broad spectrum of elements. Paintings fade and artists commit suicide, songs end and composers go deaf, sculptures crumble and joints grow stiff. Yet, man’s pursuit and discovery of beauty does not wane with the ages. Therefore, beauty must be rooted in a transcendental source apart from the decay of the natural realm.
Beauty is objective, not because every manifestation of it must be the same, but because it is rooted in some form of intelligent and timeless order apart from our material world, requiring our reasoning capacities to access it. I posit this intelligent order is derived from an intelligent force which caused the physical realm to collide with the metaphysical: God.
Again we ask..the ceilings of the Moscow subways were aesthetically pleasing: but were they beautiful? Is an excellent representation of the human form (even if it’s a deadly dictator) aesthetically pleasing? What does that tell us about our value of life? Is symmetry and color balance aesthetically pleasing? What does that tell us about our desire for order and balance? If each of these questions leads to an affirmation of the Moscow subway’s beauty, then we must ask if (remember Kant’s categorical imperative) the beauty Stalin used to indoctrinate or misappropriate tax money is good?
A man can have taste for certain aesthetic order, but if he does not contemplate why his taste drives him in this direction he has not arrived at beauty’s doorstep or that of her sisters: truth and goodness. It is merely a subconscious reaction. This we call appreciation and it is the next footprint in the trail left by the metaphysical.
Andrea Morocoima is a recent graduate of Rutgers University and served as an officer and leader for three years.