By Safiyah Z
Keats’ equivocation of Beauty and Truth in Ode on a Grecian Urn, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’, will strike many of us as profoundly accurate. It is commonplace to hear someone comment that an artwork (whether a play, a song, a novel, a poem or a painting) is ‘truthful’. But what does this equivocation really mean? There is, perhaps, something intuitive in the notion that Beauty should amount to perfection, which in turn should equate to Truth. However, I think the connection between truth and beauty is deeper and can be elucidated further.
I believe that when one says an artwork is ‘truthful’, one is articulating the educational value of art. Indeed, the commonly held intuition that artistic beauty and ‘truth’ are somehow connected is an idea expressed in over and over in Philosophy, beginning with Plato. For centuries philosophers have argued that art has a special relationship to knowledge; that art has real epistemological significance. If art has epistemological significance, then I believe studying art should be considered a necessary and vital part of a student’s general education.
So, why does artistic Beauty have epistemological significance? I believe key to understanding art’s ability to convey knowledge, is the notion that the aesthetic experience is not solely sensory but also cognitive and can therefore tell us meaningful truths about the world. To explain, the pleasure of beauty is neither solely sensory, like the pleasure of a hot bath, nor solely cognitive, like the pleasure of a mathematic equation, but rather a unique combination of the two.
We cannot tie beauty in art too closely to the senses, for a beautiful face or a beautiful flower may seem to be objects of purely sensory enjoyment, but this cannot sufficiently explain the beauty of a novel or poem, for example. If the novel is the subject of purely sensory delight, then the beauty of the novel lies only its’ sound. But this would ignore what is truly interesting in a novel- the plot, the characters, the world (the form). Thus, to confine art to purely sensory interest is to overlook its’ intellectual profundity. As such art can be understood as directed ‘through the senses, to the mind’ (Roger Scruton).
The way in which form and content, sensory pleasure and cognitive pleasure, are inextricably intertwined is exclusive to the aesthetic experience and provides justification for the belief that the encountering of artistic Beauty allows us to acquire Truth in a way that no other human experience can. The idea that the aesthetic experience is not solely sensory originates in the Platonic understanding that the experience of Beauty is truly contemplative, where the senses act as a vehicle to deeper meaning. Plato believed that the appreciation of Beauty would prompt us to free ourselves from sensuous desires, initiating the ascent of the soul towards the form of Truth and Goodness.
Plato believed in an intangible reality beyond the physical world which he called the ‘Realm of the Forms’. He asserted that because our understanding of the world is imperfect due to the influence of our senses, we can never experience real Beauty, only instances of imperfectly beautiful things. The forms, unlike physical objects are timeless, unchanging and unqualified in perfection and ultimately more real than the objects which imitate them. Plato understands that Beauty has a special relation with the Forms, arguing that Beauty behaves as canonical Platonic forms do but that ‘Beauty bears a close relationship with the Good and is therefore a Form with some status above other Forms.’ Thus, Plato regards the experience of Beauty as a means by which to free ourselves from our imperfect sensory perceptions and to access the truth, the ‘realm of the forms.’
‘The true order of going is to begin from the beauties on earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is.’ (Plato, The Symposium)
So, what does all this tell us? I believe that the philosophy of art indicates that Beauty and beautiful art should be understood as a central part of learning and education. Art can communicate ‘truth’ in a way no other human experience can because of its’ unique combination of the cognitive and the sensory. Perhaps this is what Keats meant when he describes that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’ Thinking of my own education, the times when teachers have incorporated relevant art and literature in their teaching of any subject have been the times when I have felt most deeply absorbed in my learning.
One final note: I have loved learning philosophy because it is so inextricably intertwined in art, so much of philosophical writing is artistically beautiful, from Plato to Kant to Kierkegaard to Nietzsche, and so much of philosophy, like art, deals with the really fundamental questions from the nature of morality, beauty, love, knowledge, and existence.