Objects of desire

The Secret Power of Beauty: why happiness is in the eye of the beholder

John Armstrong <em>Allen L

When I was 23, and so impoverished that I ate toast for lunch and dinner as well as breakfast, I bought a painting. The urge to make it mine came upon me suddenly, a flash flood of desire. One minute, I was standing on a shingle beach, interviewing the artist (I was a trainee reporter and she was living in a cave on the uninhabited side of the Isle of Jura), the next I was frantically bartering. In the end, we struck a deal: the vast canvas, of two freshly landed salmon, was to be paid for in 24 monthly instalments. All that remained was for me to find a way of getting it back to Glasgow.

At the time, I thought this painting very beautiful indeed. Looking at it made me feel like a cat burglar in front of a case of fine diamonds: the tips of my fingers tingled, the colour rose in my face. That I could not afford it, that I did not even have a home of my own in which to hang it, was irrelevant; only by possessing it, by being able to commune with it on a daily basis, would life be worth living. And now? If I am honest, I no longer think it beautiful. It is too big, too primitive. Would I have been less happy these past ten years had I got on the ferry empty-handed? No, not at all.

Reading The Secret Power of Beauty made me think of that day on Jura (and the countless mistakes made since - dreamy dresses never worn, fantastic furniture too hard for any human bottom). At the heart of its thesis are two contentions, both of which speak to my tendency to fall in love - intemperately - with books and pictures, films and clothes, even, alas, with household appliances. First, that it is only by understanding our attraction to the things we find beautiful that we may refine our attachment to them (a good word, refine - one that could save a girl an awful lot of trouble at the bank). Second, that falling devoutly on the altar of beauty involves a yearning that cannot be fulfilled. "At the core of beauty is an image of how we would like life to be," writes Armstrong. "Yet we know that life cannot be that way. The pleasure of beauty, therefore, draws upon dissatisfaction."

This is a short but pertinent book - beauty, after all, is the currency of our time, from the red carpet to the pseudo-laboratory that is the cosmetics counter - and in it Armstrong, like Alain de Botton before him, attempts to render philosophy appetising by making it relevant to the problems of our age. Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? If so, what enables one person to find beauty in an object that leaves another unmoved? Is this the result of taste, or education, or something more elusive? Along the way, he dishes up Hogarth and Pythagoras, both of whom attempted to reduce beauty to a set of principles; Kant, whose interest lay in the response of the beholder rather than in properties inherent in the object; and Schiller, who used the term "aesthetic necessity" to describe how, when we hear a beautiful melody, each note seems to lead inevitably, solely, to the next.

Armstrong's prose is far from beautiful itself; I found it elliptical and at times inelegant. But what he uncovers is so resonant and thought-provoking, it is worth pressing on even when you fear the fog has come down. The section on Plotinus - in which the author analyses the idea that to find something beautiful is to register the kinship between the object and the most important part of oneself, the soul - is particularly strong. So, too, is the section on the sociology of taste which, among other things, unpicks the mysterious ease with which a certain breed of middle-class person is able to flout the rules when it comes to culture, allowing personal response to triumph over received opinion, irreverence to triumph over museum hush.

Best of all is the chapter entitled "The Friendship of Parts", in which, with a little help from Delacroix, Wagner and Tennyson, he deconstructs the appeal of composition. Here, Armstrong wades through the quagmire of aesthetics and comes out the other side, linking our lust for beautiful objects with our approach to human relationships. One of our major preoccupations in life, he argues, is with bringing apparently disparate objects together. This is the nature of affairs of the heart - the discovery of a connection between two fundamentally separate individuals. However, human relationships being so very difficult, we are always more aware of the tensions within them than the bond. Not so with a beautiful bowl or piece of sculpture. In other words, our longing for the perfect union finds a home in a beautiful object; wanting to own it simply corresponds to one of our most profound needs. I understand that Armstrong, an academic of some standing, is a serious fellow - that he is very far from being a paid-up member of the self-help industry. Nevertheless, think about this for a while and even one's most rash aesthetic indulgences start to seem oddly permissible - more necessary, and more vital, than ever.

Rachel Cooke writes for the Observer