Watch: Jim Crace, Catherine Hakim and Hannah Dawson debate beauty, intellect and power

We openly discriminate in favour of intelligence while playing down the role of physical beauty in our lives. Is this a mistake? Are we cheating ourselves?

We openly discriminate in favour of intelligence – at school and at work – while denying or trying to limit the role of physical beauty in the choices we make. Could this be a mistake? Should we accept the many different qualities possessed by individuals and prize them equally, and if we did so, would this undermine our society and lead us towards ruin?

Sociologist Catherine Hakim has written extensively on employment, labour markets and sex discrimination. Known for her theory of "Erotic Capital", she argues that sexual attractiveness is measurable as social and economic asset, and that beauty can be used as a tool for the empowerment of women. Hakim identifies the favouring of the intellect as a symptom of Western civilization’s traditional preoccupation with anti-sensuality: a puritanical mentality that we should have outgrown.

The novelist Jim Crace - shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize - believes that giving the physical preference over the intellectual is unjust. At the core of his contention is the role that luck plays against hard work and determination. He argues that people should be judged by what they have control over, and that we should strive to separate character and characteristics.

But is there scope for considering beauty as part of one's personality? Beauty runs deeper than the surface, according to Hannah Dawson, prominent university intellectual and historian of ideas. Like Catherine Hakim, Dawson recognises the gender dimension is integral to this discussion. She asserts that women's appearances are subject to considerably more scrutiny than men's, and accepts the role of beauty and attractiveness in the workplace. However, she wants to see an end to this discrimination and urges us to value action over appearance.

How would a shift in the value we attribute to intelligence and beauty change our world? Philosopher Julian Baggini chairs this debate from IAI TV to ask that very question.

Patrick Driver

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State