Skip to main content
Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

Reading to be rescheduled -- URI professor takes beauty out of shadows

Media Contact:

Philosopher writes book about subject after century of neglect

KINGSTON, R.I. –September 16, 2010—Beauty got stolen and Galen Johnson, a professor of philosophy at the University of Rhode Island, is reporting its theft and wants to restore it to its rightful place.

“Philosophers dropped beauty as a focus,” explained Johnson. “The last full-length, systemic book about the beautiful was written in 1894. Beauty began to be thought of as too weak, soft, and feminine. Philosophers and artists today speak of the beautiful as if it’s a concept and experience from another time.”

In his latest book, The Retrieval of the Beautiful: Thinking Through Merleau-Ponty’s Aesthetics, illustrated with art images, Johnson creates a new philosophy of beauty that links it with love and desire. Rather than something weak, beauty is a bridge that challenges us and helps open us to others and our world.

Johnson will give a reading from his book at a future date.

The URI professor takes his lead from French philosopher Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), who was closely associated with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Unlike Sartre whose philosophy focused on human mortality, death, and anguish, Merleau-Ponty was inspired by birth and the generosity of life. ”While he seldom mentioned beauty, much of what he wrote was about the beautiful,” said Johnson.

Merleau-Ponty built his aesthetic thinking by closely observing art and artists. Likewise, Johnson devotes three chapters to three artists: French painter Paul Cézanne for his use of strong colors in his paintings, French sculptor Auguste Rodin for the powerful eroticism and character in his works, and Paul Klee for his sense of humor and sense of transcendence in his art.

Beauty’s premature death

Artist and writer Barnett Newman (1905-1970), a major figure in New York City abstract expressionism pronounced beauty dead, favoring instead an aesthetic of the sublime, more relevant to modern times.

Newman, together with other abstract expressionists—Rothko, Motherwell, Pollack, and de Kooning--radically broke away from the classical European paintings of reclining nudes, flowers, and such to create figureless compositions of minimal lines, color, and organic shapes.

While the URI professor disagrees with Newman’s rejection of beauty, he enjoys much of Newman and his colleagues’ art.

He doesn’t hold the same sentiment for some other of today’s art, which he said is created for shock and awe and money.

For example, internationally renowned English artist Damien Hirst, claimed to be the richest living artist, has death as a central theme of his work. He became famous for his series of works of dead animals, such as a sheep, preserved in formaldehyde.

Much earlier Marcel Duchamp turned away from retinal arts of beauty to conceptual art. His famous artwork Fountain, an upside-down men’s urinal, was valued at more than $3 million in 2006.

“There is an uglification of this world in art for shock, in the destruction of the environment, and in the dizzying sameness of malls. Ugliness impoverishes life,” said the URI philosopher.

But isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder? “Somewhat,” Johnson agreed. “It’s cultural and subjective based on our experiences and history and our memory. But it is as Kant said –a judgment of taste, subjective, but at the same time, in some sense universal.”

ABOUT THE SCHOLAR: Galen Johnson is the author of Earth and Sky, History and Philosophy, co-editor of Ontology and Alterity in Merleau-Ponty, and editor of The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting now in its third printing. He has also authored numerous articles in contemporary continental philosophy. He has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council for Learned Societies, and is the recipient of the American Philosophical Society’s Franklin Award. Currently the General Secretary of the International Merleau-Ponty Circle, Johnson directs the Center for the Humanities at URI.