Speaking of Beauty


Nothing focusses the mind quite like a gasp-inducing encounter with beauty. Stopped dead by glory in our headlong rush through daily routines, we understand that beauty opens chinks in our self-awareness. Nearly imperceptible cracks can widen into fissures, revealing where we’ve gone wrong and how we might act more justly and fairly.

So posits Elaine Scarry, who persuasively recasts the question of beauty in this brace of influential essays on art and morality. Writing in the late 1990s, at a time when beauty was considered a weak-minded distraction from rigorous postmodern critical thinking, the Harvard professor of aesthetics picks holes in that misconception, enlisting thinkers and writers ranging from Homer and Marcel Proust to Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch. Running with the ball, Scarry is strong on the vivifying benefits of aesthetic experiences.

Scarry also sees art as an incitement to right action: “Justice itself is dependent upon human hands to bring it into being,” she writes, “and has no existence independent of acts of creation.” Our task, as close readers of this slender volume, will be to familiarize ourselves with its arguments about the moral possibilities of beauty while evaluating their viability. During our seminar we will look at images of beauty from varying cultural perspectives. We will also take several value-added field trips to art exhibitions in search of expressions of beauty unique to our present age.

Read more in Betty Ann’s blog post, Beauty’s Vivifying Force.

Image courtesy Elaine Weisglass

“How one walks through the world, the endless small adjustments of balance,
is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things.”

– Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just


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Betty Ann Jordan sees beautiful things every day, and has necessarily become good at suppressing the desire to possess them—except when they come in book form. She is no stranger to questions of beauty in art, as they recur in her workaday life as a cultural tour guide and arts writer based in Toronto.

Participants are required to obtain the specified editions in order to facilitate the group’s ability to find and cite portions of the text during discussion.

On Beauty and Being Just, by Elaine Scarry
(Princeton University Press, 1999)
ISBN-13: 978-0-691-04875-8

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Toronto Pursuits 2016