The Way of Beauty Beauty, quality and '60 Minutes'

Before the sixth century B.C., the objective basis of beauty lay in the ideal proportion of the perfect human body.  The measure of the perfect man was the measure of all things beautiful.  The design of the Parthenon exemplifies this balance, symmetry, and proportion. The Ancients and pre-modernists were aware of aesthetic disagreements, especially in works of art, but they could not ignore the evidence that “things are not beautiful because they delight us; we enjoy things because they are beautiful” (F.J. Kovach, “Aesthetic Subjectivism and Pre-Modern Philosophy,” 211).   Some reasons for disagreement may attributed to prejudice, religious education, nationality and cultural differences, close mindedness, immaturity or ignorance, excessive familiarity with a thing of beauty, dark mood, or illness. (Ibid., 211-14).

St. Thomas Aquinas (d 1274) 
Summing up ancient and patristic teaching on beauty, St. Thomas offers a terse definition of it: beauty pleases when seen.  A beautiful thing attracts when it is perceived, but we do not possess it as in a good.  Goodness relates to the appetite—enjoying a good meal; beauty, to the cognitive—enjoying a good book.  Beauty has three formal criteria: (1) integrity or wholeness, (2) proportion or harmony, and (3) clarity or brilliance.  All three are united as one.

Integrity means that the parts fit together as a unified and intelligible whole.  In proportion, the parts fit together to produce its overall harmony.  Proportion conjures up ballet dancers or trapeze artists who dazzle audiences with their high wire balance and symmetry.  A child can distinguish the beauty of neatly-arranged proportioned row houses from the squalid, ugly tenements.  These same principles are seen in ethics and justice, and a child is quick to detect lopsided injustice. Clarity refers to things that are what they should be—conspicuous forms. 

Beauty’s twofold movement
In beauty, a twofold movement takes place: 1) an objective form reveals itself in its wholeness, proportion, and clarity, 2) the eye that sees it is drawn to it, delighted by it.  We saw this in last week’s examples of Eliza Doolittle, the night sky, and a sprawling elm tree. One is grasped by the form and, in so doing, grasps the form as lovely. Is beauty subjective or objective? In a middle ground, beauty implies a knowing that is (a) sentient (b) cognitive and c) intuitive (perception, sizing up an event or a person).

Quality defines a thing’s essential character, standard, or grade of excellence.  We encounter quality and non-quality every day. We size up the quality of people’s characters because character is expressed through attitudes and action.  Who can adequately value quality time with family and friends?  We choose quality in food, clothing, and entertainment. “Quality,” writes Barbara Tuchman,

is the investment of the best skill and effort possible to produce the finest and most admirable result possible.  Its presence or absence in some degree characterizes every man-made object, service, skilled or unskilled labor–laying bricks, painting a picture, ironing shirts, practicing medicine, shoemaking, scholarship, writing a book. You do it well or you do it half-well. Materials are sound and durable or they are sleazy; . . .  Quality is achieving or reaching for the highest standard as against the sloppy or fraudulent.  It is honesty of purpose as against catering to cheap or sensational sentiment. It does not allow compromise with the second rate. . . . Quality can be attained without genius” (“The Decline of Quality,” New York Times, 1980, 38-41, 104).

Quality is not simply a matter of artistic skill but essential to man-made things.  It is not simply a matter of class but is found in all cultures, expressed in different ways.

Quality and form
Beauty, quality, and goodness of form go together.  The form expresses itself in a design, pattern, or definition.  Quality is beauty’s goodness of form. We come to know the beauty and quality of form through its substance and accidents.  In baseball, Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson exemplified quality and beauty of form; in dancing, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; in TV sitcoms, The Cosby Show.

“60 Minutes”
Since its appearance in the 1970s, the TV magazine program, “60 Minutes,” has won numerous awards for its outstanding reportage.  Fourteen million viewers watch it every Sunday night.  What accounts for its success?  First, the form is simple, clear, and concise:  the sole ticking of a stop-watch at the beginning, the middle and end of the program, two or three in-depth interviews, commercial breaks, and usually, a final comment by Andy Rooney.  Second, the internal structure is set-up with point-counterpoint, and narrative talk-over.  Third, the program is acclaimed for its scoops, probing interviews, unbiased journalism, and popular appeal.  Its form has barely changed through the years, and as yet, no one has suggested doing so.  Quality and the beauty of its good form—these make for superb viewing.

If a car lacks unity, proportion, and quality, it is defective. Plastic flowers and fast foods are junk.  Inexpensive things needn’t be ugly.  Every person can make or do something beautiful every day. Quality, care and honest intent—these are what matter. 

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