The World, Seen: On Beauty and Big Bird

The World, Seen: On Beauty and Big Bird

Like Mitt Romney, I like Big Bird.

That’s not to say that I like watching “Sesame Street.” Actually, I find watching “Sesame Street” to be an infernal activity; time is a scarce resource, and time spent in my adult life without investment or pleasure is time poorly spent. Nevertheless, “Sesame Street” educates, engrosses and pacifies young children, as it once did for me, and if I could choose between a world with and a world without “Sesame Street,” I’d choose “with.”

To me, everything about “Sesame Street” is great unless I happen to be watching it. Thinking about Big Bird and Elmo, Oscar the Grouch and the Cookie Monster makes me happy because “Sesame Street” is just as children’s television programs ought to be. I could list the qualities of good children’s television (Educational. Inspiring. Funny. Directed towards an introduction to the real world.), and then list the qualities of “Sesame Street” in particular, and I would probably end up with two copies of the same list.

The feeling that thinking about “Sesame Street” invokes, at least in me, is a combination of warm-fuzziness and rightness. As a feeling, it relates very closely to the feeling of moral worth; I feel that “Sesame Street” is good for the world just as I feel that a person’s giving money to the homeless is good for the world, even if I rarely choose to experience either. Both are self-justifying, internally consistent, right. Considering them somehow necessarily results in a certain kind of pleasure, a pleasure that feels the same in both cases. Immanuel Kant calls it “the feeling of the good.”

Now, compare that pleasurable feeling, the feeling that you get on experiencing something that is good or right or perfect, with the feeling of experiencing something beautiful. The feelings are qualitatively very similar. After all, “a combination of warm-fuzziness and rightness” describes the feeling of the beautiful almost as well as it does for the feeling of the good.

In fact, centuries of European thinkers believed that the two feelings not only felt similarly, but felt exactly the same. The Middle Ages, as Italian scholar Umberto Eco states in his book on the subject, conceived of aesthetic beauty as “the beauty of moral harmony and of metaphysical splendor,” taking beauty to be a physical manifestation of the divine moral system. Medieval Neo-Platonist philosophy claimed that God placed beauty into the world merely to remind those who experience it of the greatness of the divine truth; by experiencing beauty it was believed that people could transcend their corporeal states and approach the world of forms that underlay the experienced world.

Feelings are difficult to talk about, almost by their very definition. Nevertheless, one discussable characteristic of most feelings, and certainly of the feelings that this article discusses, is that feelings are about something. Anger is a good example. Imagine that someone grabs your favorite pen from your hand and runs away with it. The pen is your property, and you want the pen because it is your favorite pen; at the time of the theft, then, and when you think back on the theft, you would probably experience anger.

But suppose that the person returns the pen to you an hour later, and tells you that they stole your pen only in order to fill out a voter registration form, which they would never have been able to fill out otherwise. If you believe that voting is a good thing for people to do, then suddenly your anger seems baseless, or even wrong-headed. As soon as the belief that grounds anger dissipate, the anger dissipates as well.

The feeling of goodness invoked by “Sesame Street” is structurally very similar to anger. Neither feeling is grounded on a physical object so much as on a particular property or properties of that object. The anger described above is grounded not on the action of the theft itself but on the perceived injustice of that theft; as soon as we are convinced that the theft was not in fact unjust, the anger dissipates. Similarly, “Sesame Street’s” goodness is grounded on the belief that there are certain things about that program that make it a good program for children, as evidenced by its longevity on television and its 143 Emmy Awards, indicating broad public admiration.

The feeling of beauty, on the other hand, is not grounded on any particular properties of the beautiful object. As I discussed in my last column, one remarkable, distinctive feature of beauty is that it cannot be broken down into components; the sum of all of an object’s properties contribute to beauty in their unity. As the American philosopher George Santayana stated in his turn-of-the-century monograph on “The Sense of Beauty,” “beauty is pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing.”

Our feelings of beauty and goodness correspond directly to our finding value in beautiful and good objects. When someone says that they value “Sesame Street,” after all, they are not really talking about the specific television show with Muppets, the spelling and the ridiculous restaurant scenes; what they value is the show’s educational value, popularity, sweetness, cuteness and all-around goodness. But when someone values something beautiful, it is actually that particular thing that they value; no replica or closely-related object or imagined likeness would suffice.

Ultimately, we find the manifestation of this distinction in feeling-type in our ability, or inability, to communicate why we find an object to be beautiful. In the case of “Sesame Street,” we can list off exactly what it is about “Sesame Street” that we appreciate or value. For beautiful objects, on the other hand, the thing that we value is so unified, so tied up in the complete object, that we often find nothing to talk about. The value of beauty is somehow its own ground; its pleasure validates itself. In this way, beauty maintains a purity of pleasure that cannot be attained by goodness, forcing its own place in the range of available experience.

Previous articles from this column: On Beauty and Women, On Beauty and Advertising, On Beauty and Bedrooms