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“Beauty,” Embodied


Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner

Photograph by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

I took AP European History when I was a sophomore in high school. The course introduced me to the political, social, and artistic histories of faraway countries I had romanticized through books and movies, but never seen in person. One lesson that I remember in particular covered the French Revolution. “Liberté, egalité, fraternité!” cried our otherwise decorous instructor as she pranced around the room, flailing her arms in an effort to get us to join the cause of the sans-culottes. The arm-waving quickly led to a painful elbow bump and a less-than-subdued expletive, which had, for a classroom of 15-year-olds, the scandalizing power of an illicit royal love affair. As a result, five years later, I remember more details about the French Revolution than about any other period or country we studied. My teacher’s excitement about the material (and the unintentional slapstick of her lesson) made the French Revolution even more memorable than Henry VIII’s unfortunate wives.

I recalled that lesson during a lecture by Howard Gardner, Hobbs professor of cognition and education, at Harvard Graduate School of Education on Tuesday evening. The talk, on “Beauty,” was his second in a series entitled “Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed,” a name shared with the book he published in 2011. He has thought for a long time about how basic human concepts have changed in today’s media-driven culture, where the ubiquity of images may decrease the “specialness” of an original painting, and the ability to edit popular sources of information, such as Wikipedia, can challenge the truth. I came away from the lecture wondering how these three “virtues” apply to life lived behind screens, and how we can reconcile existing philosophies with changing technologies.

Beauty, Gardner asserted to a packed room in Gutman Library, can be applied to much more than the aesthetic appeal of a conventionally accepted work of art. It is about “appreciating rather than creating.” He noted that taking a shower, enjoying a walk home, or having a meaningful conversation can all be regarded as experiences of beauty, just as one may experience beauty when viewing a Rembrandt or Picasso in an art museum. Citing philosopher Nelson Goodman ’28, Ph.D. ’41, Gardner pointed out that if a Manet painting is being used as a doorstop, it no longer functions as a work of art. If it is hung on a wall, we consider it worthy of aesthetic value, and prize it for its worth and beauty. Things are treated as works of art, he claimed, when we pay attention to their details, and still have difficulty “paraphrasing” them. This becomes the case when the physical form of the art matters, not just the content—hence, our preoccupation with how things look, the most readily accessible definition of “beauty.”

My mind turned to the lesson on the French Revolution when Gardner, in response to a question, pointed out that, “while most people cannot remember how they learned about the French Revolution,” they can easily name works of art they know or have seen. Instead of thinking of my previous encounters with notable works in museums or theaters, my mind jumped to how I learned about the storming of the Bastille and the tenets of constitutional monarchy years ago. The “beauty” I gleaned from that lesson doesn't match the mystique of a Renoir or the palace at Versailles , but it still remains, in my mind, a certain type of beauty. The silliness of the moment, coupled with a historical slogan, made me focus on the details, and appreciate the form—I doubt I would have remembered as much had I only read about the events in a textbook. Instead of melting from my memory like most of my high-school experiences, it remains memorialized, like a fresco or Grecian urn.

Gardner stressed in his lecture that changing tastes in beauty are to be expected, but it is important for them to be catalogued, and to understand why such shifts in appreciation and value are occurring. On the one hand, he said, it is wrong to devalue something of previous worth because something new and exciting has come along (Shakespeare, the Beatles, and Taylor Swift were all mentioned). “Works don’t change, but people change. What you value, and why you value, will change,” he explained. He suggested that students keep track of their aesthetic tastes and how these change, the way a child grows to appreciate the tastes of broccoli and other more complex foods over time.

When my teacher suddenly shouted three French words I didn’t understand in the middle of a sleepy high-school day, I laughed in the moment, but was probably mostly concerned with how I would be graded on the information imparted during the otherwise un-noteworthy day. But as a college student, I am constantly evaluating my best techniques for productivity, and am grateful when a song, image, or mnemonic device helps me remember specific facts. Over time, I have come to appreciate the value in a humorous moment that allows me to recall detailed information years later. Make no mistake—I am still the last person you would want as a tour guide in an art museum, despite my revelation about a distant memory and its application to art and beauty. Still, I can promise you that I won’t be the one using the Mona Lisa as a door prop. 

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