The World, Seen: On the Study of Beauty
Issue   |   Tue, 04/30/2013 - 23:06
Rob Mattson, Office of Public Affairs
For Bleemer, spring at Amherst serves as a fitting capstone to a year of education.

I am a senior. I have completed the senior thesis process. I have nearly completed my final undergraduate classes. In a mere thousand words, I will have completed my tenure as a columnist for The Amherst Student. Although Amherst College frequently reminds me (now and forever) that my financial responsibility to Amherst is unending, Amherst has (nearly) fulfilled its educational responsibility to me.

The wide body of course offerings available to all Amherst students and a freshman-year interest in friendship have led to my primary interest, beauty, occupying less than a third of my collegiate coursework. Nevertheless, I think one could reasonably characterize the lens cast by my Amherst education as the aesthetic lens, to stay with me as I leave the College on the Hill and return to the rest-of-the-world. The aesthetic lens is not the kind of lens that I can choose to apply in times of need; it is the kind of lens that, when my eyes are open, I am looking through. It is the kind of lens through which all of my experiences of the world will be determined.

(A side note: I began this biweekly column at the beginning of the year with the stated intention of seeking and grounding the value attributed to beautiful objects. Writing a final column on that subject seems in itself presumptuous, whether it makes any claim at summary or conclusion or not. Instead of writing that final column, I have decided to pull what I call a Post-Modern Disappearing Act. That’s where, instead of finishing a story, you make the author a character of the story, explain that character’s state, and then make that character stop talking, which effectively ends the story by cutting off its source. Think Kurt Vonnegut in “Breakfast of Champions,” or Lemony Snicket in “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” You’ve been warned.)

Pragmatically, beauty is a beneficial thing to study. It is an especially beneficial thing to study in the springtime, when one might meander around a freshly blooming landscape and wield the aesthetic lens in experiencing the natural world at the peak of its vibrancy. Amherst blooms at the same time that Amherst’s academic year concludes, reminding me of the value of my education at just the time that that education ceases.

The effect of using such a lens is twofold: enhanced attentiveness and enhanced consciousness. The former, attentiveness, yields the joy of the naturalist: the more of the experienced world that is really seen — paid attention to, noticed — the more that it can be enjoyed. The latter, consciousness, yields the joy of the scholar: the more one is conscious of the causes and characters of one’s own enjoyment among nature’s vibrancy, the more one can allow (and seek for) him-or-herself that enjoyment, conscious of its sources and its phenomenological character.

Of course, the study of beauty has no monopoly on these enhancements of the experience of the world. To the contrary, although beauty may be more directly related to perceptual experience than other fields and subfields taught at Amherst College, one might think of the liberal arts education in general as fostering these experiential enhancements. For the biologist, spring brings changes in lifecycle and the renewal of vitality; for the painter, spring brings green out of white and pronounced shadows out of a clouded winter. For the aesthetician, spring brings vibrancy and beauty.
In this way, all graduates (and, indeed, all current students) will leave campus this month with a lens, or perhaps a keychain-collection of lenses, which enhance their experience of the world. Some of these lenses target person-to-person interactions, some target interaction with entertainment media (like books, movies or this very article), and some target the pleasure we take in the perception of certain objects. Each fosters either attentiveness or consciousness, and many (most?) foster both, in varying degrees.

One distinctive aspect of the Amherst education is its insistence on eight semesters of classwork. You took four lecture classes this semester? 16 credits. Four classes, two of which had labs? 16 credits. Six classes? 16 credits. No matter what, you get just enough credits to earn a diploma after eight semesters. One way to justify this arrangement is to think of Amherst dormitories as lens trading posts. You have a cultural anthropology lens? I’ll trade you my aesthetic lens for it! Two hours later, the trade is complete, though ultimately both parties maintain the lenses they ‘trade’, and merely add their interlocutor’s lens to their own collection, to permanently determine the content of their experiences of the world. After eight semesters in those trading posts (or select other trading posts around the world), the diploma is yours.

I have spent significant time at Amherst College crafting my aesthetic lens, exercising every resource to spin and cut and polish that lens into proper form. My aesthetic lens has greatly helped me in my quest to determine what I should do and how I should act. I thank Amherst College for providing the tools with which it has been crafted. I have used this column in two ways: as an act of polishing my lens, and as a medium through which I provide that lens, at minimal cost and with the greatest clarity that I can muster, to you the reader. My eight semesters completed, I leave Amherst College in search of tools to polish my lenses all the finer, and trading posts that can in some way replicate that which Amherst has so graciously and commendably provided.

Christianson (not verified) says:
Wed, 05/01/2013 - 11:22

As a visiting alumnus and curator / contributor to Mead Art Museum, I find this piece badly written. If good for nothing else, the sole purpose of a liberal arts education enabled me to recognize when a man is talking rot.

Economy in writing reflects perception of beauty. But your sentences are wordy, convoluted, and sometimes altogether unnecessary. Just what, for example, does the entire paragraph in parenthesis do? I reminds me of crude first novels submitted to my publishing house that reveal meaning of embedded symbols before actually creating that symbol ("A flickering candle shows us the fragility of civilization"). What does the phrase "a freshman-year interest in friendship" mean? That you are no longer interested in Friendship? And there are non-sentences throughout. For example, you wrote: "I think one could reasonably characterize the lens cast by my Amherst education as the aesthetic lens, to stay with me as I leave the College on the Hill and return to the rest-of-the-world". That sentence does not work. The flow and coherence of your essay also suffers. For example, just why do you insert the paragraph on credit hours where you did? Only to draw the amateurish metaphors that you did?

Beauty as you constructed seems to be the plaything of flamboyant college boys. You claim "study of beauty" was "occupying less than a third of my collegiate coursework", implying your knowledge of which courses concern beauty and which do not. When was beauty circumscribed? There is majesty in a mathematical equation, elegance in a controlled scientific experiment, or a dreadful truth in recognizing the ugly underside of the world. All these, most classes give. Most students know that beauty is best left unspoken.

Zach Bleemer (not verified) says:
Wed, 05/01/2013 - 14:39

A pleasure to meet you, Christianson.
There are a whole bunch of questions here; I'll do my best to address the lot of them.
(1) The parenthetical paragraph. This is the last of a series of articles on the experience of the beautiful. Although the series does not progress linearly, each article stays within the purview that I established in my first article, identifying what it is about the experience of the beautiful that one might point to and say, "that's what I value about this experience". This article diverges from that purview, stepping back to examine my own examination of the beautiful in the context of my education at Amherst. I include this paragraph for exactly the reason stated in the article: the paragraph points out that I do not presume to actually complete my stated goals in this concluding article, but rather zoom out, wax personal, and pull a stunt common in post-modern fiction that justifies an abrupt and incomplete conclusion.
(2) Friendship, I have found, is a terrible thing to study: the more energy you pour into establishing the conditions under which a relationship is properly termed 'friendship,' the fewer of your friendships you decide ought be so termed . So to answer your question: correct, I am no longer interested in friendship, but instead 'leave it unspoken,' as you suggest in the case of beauty.
(3) Perhaps, in the sentence you quote, I should have written "which will stay" instead of "to stay". I think that both constructions are clear, and that the infinitive-as-adjective form is grammatically sound. I'm sorry to inhibit your reading experience.
(4) The first half of this essay describes how the education provided to me by educators at Amherst College enhances my experience of the world. I transition to Amherst's credit system to point out a second way in which Amherst has fostered my education, discussing credit hours as I do to show that the Amherst administration explicitly values (and acts on valuing) this second kind of education (in a way shared by few other institutions). I apologize for using metaphors in a way that you find childish, although I wish you had pointed out what about them you didn't like.
(5) I am confused by your last few sentences. Let's say that the experiences you described are magestic and elegant and dreadful, as you say. One might wonder: what does that have to do with beauty? After all, we have all of these different words, and indeed, their respective experiences feels pretty different. The critical thinker might seek out writers who have attempted to distinguish between these experiences, or introspect and wonder whether one finds them all to feel similarly, or to be similarly valued. And, indeed, the critical thinker might arise from that study with a better understanding of the various kinds of states that people have, which of those states are valued, and why those states are valued. They might even arise such that their way of experiencing of the world is fundamentally changed. That doesn't make beauty a plaything: it treats beauty critically, as an experience that one might or might not want to have, and examines what that experience is like.
(6) The sentence "beauty is best left unspoken" is humorously ironic. It also seems terribly wrong. Beauty seems to be something that a lot of people find very important. How could one leave Amherst College and not wonder why that is so? Or what exactly you're talking about when you're talking about an object's beauty? Or what the relationship is between the beauty of Monet's Water Lilies, the beauty of a mathematical proof, and the beauty of the swing of a baseball bat? I do not understand what possible argument one could make in favor of not critically examining beauty, as a term or as an experience.