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Book Review: Only a Promise of Happiness – The Place of Beauty in the World of Art by Alexander Nehamas

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In past ages, artists and philosophers regarded the passion for virtue and wisdom as the catalyst for an educated, honorable, if not heroic life. In Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in the World of Art, Alexander Nehamas explains how this passion, this eros (Plato), often erupted into vivid, intense, and beautiful art forms.

Nehamas, like Plato, sees the object of passion or desire as beauty. Desire begins in the senses. To give an example, he speaks of a man in ancient Greece who becomes obsessed with the Adonis-like appearance of a young boy. The man is unable to quench his desire for the youth. Still, safely distant, he continues to delight in the boy's bodily features at every chance. Upon reflection, this man will discover the truth about his passionate longing. It is a deep sexual desire – a love for the beauty of the ideal human body the boy represents.

In his example, Nehamas points out that although the man cannot possess the boy in spite of his erotic desire, it is the longing for possession that makes the boy beautiful in the man’s eyes. And so it is with art. A painting, a photograph, a sculpture that provokes this same desire to possess and enjoy, contains authentic beauty.

In a deeper sense, one wonders if what a person craves is not the perfection of that form, which Plato claimed existed in his ideal world. He believed that after birth, we long to return to this ideal world where every shadowy form on earth exists as a perfect object. Thus the boy in Nehamas’ example above could also represent male perfection in Plato’s ideal world.

Olympia 002 In Only a Promise of Happiness, the author draws a similar parallel to various representations of nudes or semi-nude art media. In particular, he mentions how, for several years, Edward Manet’s reclining nude, Olympia, has continued to obsess him. He has tried in vain to find a meaningful gestalt for the entire painting but it eludes him as it has other art lovers and critics. Yet he is drawn to it. Olympia is his enigma. He cannot understand the work yet he desires to possess it, to look at it, to contemplate it, to continue hunting for meaning, knowing that eros drives him to seek what he cannot have or figure out.

Nehamas sees a barrier between the way art and beauty are viewed in our time compared to the past. Beauty has become separated from passion. It is “… limited … to a kind of beauty to which desire seemed inappropriate.” Art today to the general masses has little meaning especially when so many modern art pieces line the walls and hallways of museums. It is empty, lacking zeal. Today’s art is merely aesthetic: easily described in such words as nice, pleasing to the eye, interesting, balanced, colorful, curious, odd, appealing, and any number of similar words.

Nehamas would attribute this emptiness to a philosopher like Schopenhauer who helped build the modern barrier between art that is beautiful, and art that is merely aesthetic. The exact opposite of Plato, Schopenhauer’s philosophy claims that the beautiful can never be seen unless all eros for it has been removed. He would contemplate the human body as if it were a landscape, devoid of erotic stimulation or human desire. He even objects to still life paintings that excite the appetite because once the will is stirred, aesthetic contemplation ends.

Only a Promise of Happiness can be a fascinating read if one takes the time to examine the figures coinciding with the text along with the colorful plates near the book's end. Nehamas’ language itself is fascinating, often giving rise to thoughts that in themselves are worth contemplating: “Beauty is … everything we love in a person … but are unable to say what that is.”

This same statement applies to art. A person may like a painting because it would look good on this wall or that, or because it’s just perfect for a room, or because its colors blend with furniture or draperies. One may like a landscape because it is serene and quiet and draws the eyes to a beautiful sunset. But when an artwork is bought because a person loves it – wants to possess it, that individual buys something of beauty, something that provokes unexplained happiness.

I would recommend this book to any reader who wants a glimpse inside the theoretical mind of an art lover. Alexander Nehamas is such a person. His fascinating book will show that appreciating beauty is its own reward – is, as he says, “Only a Promise of Happiness!

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