The eye is in the beholder

Yes, yes, gentle reader: my heading this morning is some kind of joke. One too many times — the first was too many — I have heard the glib, the idiot expression, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I have adjusted it, to make some room for truth. For nothing is in the eye of the beholder, until something is put there, and his apprehension of beauty is an acquirement. He has the native equipment to behold it, if he is a man, as opposed to, say, a salamander. But equipment is useless if one does not learn to use it; and this knowledge requires training, apprenticeship, experience.

“Taste” — now there’s a word to provoke a fit, from the democratic totalitarians. The person with “taste” must be an “elitist.” So is anyone with competence, in any field at all. A capable house-breaker is an elitist; the kid who gets himself caught on first outing, is not. For house-breaking is potentially a craft, and should be done with some style. Smash and grab is not style. The home invasion that leaves no traces, and consists only in the removal of a priceless diamond: now that is style. There is art in it, and as I say: training, apprenticeship, experience.

Even the initial deduction of where the diamond is kept, requires a fairly high order of art-critical judgement. Or if in some obvious place, like a safe, what kind of safe and how to make it open, without unnecessary harm. Then close it, correctly, so the theft will not soon be discovered; patiently wiping all fingerprints, including those which might spoil the elegant thank-you card, which one has left behind. There is much to be admired in a high-class thief, who doesn’t waste his time on candy stores. There is much to be condemned in the amateur of shoplifting, such as we find around Parkdale, here.

But as De Quincey said, in his glorious essay, “On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” everything in the world has two handles:

“Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle (as it generally is in the pulpit, and at the Old Bailey); and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated aesthetically, as the Germans call it — that is, in relation to good taste.”

There are many fine arts, and as De Quincey hints, the most modest and unlikely works may be raised to an exalted station, as the Chinese have done with calligraphy and pottery. Moreover, the sublimities of Nature — of landscape and its creatures, animal and botanical — may be grasped in a spirit of connoisseurship. For long before men began making art, God was doing so, at a level of accomplishment we can admire without ever understanding.

A skunk, a rattlesnake, poison ivy: these are beautiful things, seen in the right light, when one rises above self-interest. None can be “explained,” in the manner of a Darwinist, who thinks he knows “how God did it,” as village idiots have been claiming since time out of mind. There are secrets of craft which must necessarily remain unknown, to him who did not make it. And this is so of the finest human art: though perhaps the adept forger comes close to understanding in moments of inexplicable grace.

For the rest, the beholder can only appreciate, what is not in his eye but in the object presented. That eye is instead within the beholder — within his body and soul — and speaks well of him, or poorly.