Studies in Beauty

Damien Hirst Love's Paradox

The question of beauty arises in all disciplines in all divisions of the curriculum. In many disciplines it is more implicit than overt and is often embedded within concepts of elegance, symmetry, naturalness, sex appeal, racial/ethnic stereotype, or evolutionary fitness, among other things. Beauty can be opposed to ugliness, blandness, prettiness, artificiality and sublimity; it can be understood as wholly subjective, a matter of social convention, or in some sense absolute. The experience of beauty is always at least partly aesthetic, but it can also raise ethical, epistemological, and ontological questions. The aim of the Beauty Initiative is partly to bring the ubiquity and variety of aesthetic experience and concepts to the surface, partly to examine its manifestations and politics across the curriculum, and partly to give the aesthetic a voice in a world where it is often either devalued or ignored.

For the 2014-15 academic year, the project will include a course cluster. These courses will include several joint experiences, including a “Beauty Summit” in which students in all the courses will present projects based on their coursework but addressing questions like:

  • What is beauty?
  • What are the conventions of beauty (in a given time, place, genre...)?
  • Are there different levels or categories of beauty?
  • Is beauty a property of objects or is it in the eye of the beholder?
  • Is beauty related to truth?
  • (Why) does beauty matter?
  • Who decides what is beautiful?
  • How relevant is any of these questions to the material under discussion?

In the Fall of 2015 we plan three evening-long faculty seminars with both internal and external speakers; these will be concerned, respectively, with the origins of beauty, the experience of beauty and the ethics of beauty

Faculty coordinators for this cluster are Mary Hunter, Birgit Tautz and Hanetha Vete-Congolo.

Course Offerings

Film 3200 c. The Ethics of Image. 
Spring 2015. Birgit Tautz.
Explores the representation of a range of ethical questions in film as well as the ethics of film, including the formal and stylistic, historical, and political decisions made in constructing cinematic images. Arranged in the form of case studies, compares and contrasts examples of international film with a focus on theoretical questions and approaches. May consider the ways in which films represent traumatic events in history (e.g., the Holocaust), environmental disasters, sexual and gender identity, to name a few. Addresses questions of cinematic genre as well as spectatorship (e.g., identification and repulsion, taste, appropriateness, humor, shock, activism as response). Note: Fulfills the film theory and the non-US cinema requirements for cinema studies minors.

French 3213. Aesthetics in Africa and Europe
Spring 2015. Hanetha Vete-Congolo
The course examines the notions of aesthetics and beauty, from pre-Colonial to contemporary times, in cultures of the African and Western civilizations as expressed in various humanities and social sciences texts as well as, the arts, iconography and the media. Also examines the ways Africans and Afro-descendants in the New World responded to the Western notions of aesthetics and beauty and formed their own. Authors studied may include Anténor Firmin, Jean Price Mars, Senghor, Damas, Césaire, Cheick Anta Diop, Fanon, Glissant, Bidima, Gyekye Kwame, Socrates, Plato, Montaigne, Descartes, Ronsard, Jean-Baptiste du Bos, Montesquieu, Diderot, Le père André, Baumgarten, Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Nietzsche,  Baudelaire, Hugo, Sartre, Fourest. (Conducted in French, Cross-listed with Africana Studies Program and Latin American Studies Program)

Music 2303. Gender, Sexuality and Race in Classical Music. 
Spring 2015. Mary Hunter
Both Romanticism and Modernism, in different ways, have encouraged the idea that “classical music” transcends the particularities of gender, race, and sexuality, and that it exists in a “pure” realm, largely unmediated by the social circumstances of composers, performers, and listeners. This idea has been thoroughly questioned in the past several decades. Addresses topics such as why female composers are so poorly represented in the canonic repertory, whether a composer’s sexuality makes a difference to his or her music or to the way we listen to it, and the places of African Americans and Asians in classical music culture.

German 1155 c - IP. Into the Wild Into the Wild: Untamed Nature in German-Speaking Culture. 
Spring 2015. Jens Klenner.
An examination of the mix of conflicting ideas that shape the many conceptions of “wilderness.” eExplores the ideas of wilderness as a space without or preceding culture and civilization, the wilderness as a mental state, and as an aesthetic experience. It also considers the place of wilderness in the ‘urban jungle’ of cities. Among others, this course will discuss the discovery of the Alps and interrogate the differing German, Austrian, and Swiss perspectives of that mountainous region, but also show how these European imaginations define American conceptions of mountains. The course puts German, Austrian, and Swiss theories and images of wilderness into dialogue with Anglo-American conceptions by comparing literary works, film, artworks, and philosophical texts. No knowledge of German is required. (Same as Environmental Studies 1155.)


Events for 2014-15 “image“image
  • Noliwe Rooks: "Because What is Beautiful is Good: Erasing Race and Selling Feminism in the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty" April 6, 2015 [Event Recording]
  • Performance of Dancer and Choreographer Chantal Loial: 'On t'appelle Vénus (They Call You Venus)' February 28 [Event Information]
  • Summit Colloqium for students in Beauty Cluster courses