aesthetics

The two salvations: How erotic beauty is a false category of beauty

In his 2009 book Beauty, the wonderful British philosopher Roger Scruton says many insightful things about beauty. His book inspired me to create my own Islamic theory of aesthetics in which I assert that a beautiful thing is nothing other than that which brings us face-to-face with God. The reason that the most beautiful and picturesque scenes of nature and architecture bring tears to our eyes and make us feel morally uplifted is because beautiful things, in order to be beautiful, must point to God. Beauty is not some independent ideal or standard. Beauty is the power of an object to point the human soul to God. Nothing that is ugly is morally uplifting, and nothing that is beautiful fails to morally uplift us, to make us feel God’s presence and offer us a door to salvation.

This theory applies to music as well. Bach says:

The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.

Whether a composer of classical music seeks God or seeks beauty, they are seeking the exact same thing. All beautiful music has the power to cause mystical experience in us because what makes music beautiful is the fact that it can cause mystical experience in us. This is in opposition to pop music, which celebrates bodily desires and human weaknesses rather than striving toward the Creator. Some types of music can of course blend elements from both categories.

To experience beauty is to experience God in some small way. Beauty is morally uplifting because it connects us with the source that gives life meaning: the Creator. (See my essay Beauty as Pointer: An Islamic Theory of Aesthetics for more on this.) You can verify this theory on your own by looking at a set of beautiful pictures and doing your best appreciate their beauty while keeping your mind free of distractions. As you continue doing this, you will start to feel a mystical connectedness. You will get a feeling of goodness and wholesomeness, as if you are becoming a better, more admirable person.

You may realize that you are seeking some sort of climax. Each picture seems to bring you closer to something you need and desire. And that thing which beauty brings us closer to is God. If you are religious, the experience of beauty always brings with it the desire to praise God. If you are irreligious and do not believe in a God, you can still feel the mystical connectedness. Beauty will be like an open door to God that you will refuse to step through.

This essay is on the issue of erotic beauty. Scruton speaks of erotic beauty (think nude paintings of women) and its special nature. He mentions the “fall” that an observer experiences if he allows himself to become sexually aroused by the painting (as opposed to appreciating it solely for the “beauty” contained therein). For Scruton and many others, erotic beauty is a special category of beauty. It involves something that has the power to sexually attract, but that the observer can appreciate without sexual attraction.

Below I explain why I am highly skeptical of the concept and consider it a false category, or at least something to be categorized separately from ordinary beauty.

Erotic art at its most basic level is a genre of art in which mostly male artists draw sexually attractive females in meaningful and beautiful contexts. It is not the mere beauty of the human form that draws artists to erotic art. If the human form was so beautiful, we would have expected to find a very rich genre of depictions of children and anonymous males. But there is no such genre. This closely parallels the fact that while on the Internet there are thousands of websites dedicated solely to pictures of anonymous nude females, there are almost none dedicated solely to pictures of anonymous nude males. It is not the appreciation of the beauty of the human form that draws artists (and consumers of pornography) to nude females. It is the male sex drive. A man can enjoy hours inside a gallery that only has paintings of nude females. But he will very quickly tire of a gallery that hosts only paintings of nude prepubescent children or nude males (assuming he only finds women sexually attractive).

All beautiful things are morally uplifting. There can be such thing as a morally uplifting painting that includes a nude person, but the uplift always comes from something else. The painting might depict a very dramatic scene from a story that would be morally uplifting even if one took the trouble to paint clothes over the subjects. The nudity is not essential. The reason that men have created the category of erotic beauty is because of a mistake of the male brain. A nude woman does not merely represent something highly desirable (as in an expensive car). She represents salvation. Speaking biologically, a man’s highest achievement in life is to have a female give him her sexual approval through acting sexually open towards him. And a nude female in a painting is registered as that by the male viewer, because she is nude. Women are not normally nude, they only are during the prelude to sexual union.

A woman’s sexual approval (i.e. her attraction to him and her expressing that she is willing to mate with him, her nudity representing just such an approval) represents millions of years of evolution patting the man on the back, telling him he is a good and worthy male specimen. Perhaps nothing else in the world has such a power to cause a man’s ego to inflate. A woman’s sexual approval means that everything about a man is right, good and proper. He is good-looking, his social status is desirable, he is admirable, he has so much worth that a woman, despite her intense scrutiny of his weaknesses and failings, is willing to put her life and her future in his hands by accepting to procreate with him and become dependent on him.

In short, female nudity is registered by the male brain as female sexual approval, which is registered by the male brain as an invitation to the highest possible achievement in biological life.

A painting of a nude woman is intensely interesting and captivating to a male because for him a nude woman is an offer of biological salvation. A nude female is more interesting to a man than a planet full of treasure. Treasure is nothing more than a means of attaining biological salvation–of attracting a woman’s love and procreating with her. A nude female represents the end result of this process–she is more fundamental than treasure; she is the end result of treasure. Speaking from an evolutionary biology perspective, treasure is only a means toward securing her companionship.

That beautiful nude female, if only she looks at you and accepts you, can make you the happiest man on earth. The same way that beautiful architecture takes us into God’s presence who offers us otherworldly salvation, a nude painting of a female offers us worldly salvation.

Erotic art is interesting only because of a false promise; it misleads the male brain into thinking it is being promised salvation. Just as a religious man may be captivated by the hope of salvation represented by a cheap pilgrimage package to Canterbury or Mecca, any man can be captivated by the promise of biological salvation that attractive females represent (and the less dressed, the more captivating, because less dress means more nearness to the goal). The attraction for females is not a simple desire for sexual enjoyment. The reason why females are so incredibly attractive and why they are used everywhere in marketing to sell things to males is that females represent salvation and immortality because they represent an opportunity for a man’s to pass on his genes, in this way accomplishing his primary purpose in biological life.

You do not have to lustfully glance at a nude painting in order to experience this promise of salvation. Even if you try to stay classy and do your best to avoid the “fall” that comes from sexually objectifying a female, your brain registers the female promise of sexual/biological salvation perfectly: it is only the fact that a fertile-looking female is depicted in the artwork that makes the art interesting as “erotic” art.

When artists draw nude females, they seek salvation. She is the worldly deity who can forgive us our faults, make us happy and give us all that we desire. She is the ultimate aim of existence once we ignore God. It is for this reason that all irreligious male artists are partly obsessed with drawing sexually attractive females (and almost no artist is willing to paint a nude old woman, unless he is the type of person who also likes to draw pictures of unsettling things).

Religious and spiritual artists, on the other hand, focus on nature, architecture, historical scenes and other asexual things that are going to be rather “boring” to males who have fully embraced their animal nature and believe in no higher ideal than salvation through women.

Many irreligious artists worship at the foot of women. They seek salvation, but since they have closed their hearts to mystical salvation, they become enamored of earthly salvation through the female. The desire for this salvation turns the female into an infinitely powerful and infinitely worthy goddess for the male. He places her on a pedestal and prays to her day and night. Turn toward me and give this humble, worthless servant some worth!

There are, of course, artists who believe in God yet also seek salvation through female nudity, mixing their worship of God with their worship of the female.

If you look at a picture gallery that hosts a random selection of images, some of which are beautiful nature scenes and others beautiful, half-naked females, you will instantly feel the extreme conflict between appreciating a nature scene and appreciating a nude female. The female calls you to a wholly different experience compared to the nature scene. And if you give in to her call, the nature scene becomes infinitely boring because the accomplishment of your biological salvation is right before you. Your earthly goddess captures all of your attention so that you have no interest in connecting with the heavenly God. The presence of a nude or half-nude female in a gallery on a website is a very jarring element (at least for males) that can totally ruin his enjoyment in the non-erotic pictures. Classical nude paintings are better in this regard because they are not so obnoxiously sexualized, allowing a man to continue to see a woman as a person rather than an object despite her nudity. However, no matter how well the artist manages to prevent us from sexualizing his nude subject (as Botticelli manages in his Birth of Venus), the fact remains that the painting is made up of two elements: the non-erotic beauty that points to God, and the eroticism that points to biological salvation.

To put it another way, had Venus been properly clothed, the painting would have been a better conduit of beauty. Her nudity conflicts with the moral uplift. It is a jarring element that causes a confusion in the male brain between his desire for spiritual salvation and his desire for biological salvation.

Below is Botticelli’s Venus with an abaya on, probably done by a Persian artist. Once you get over the comical aspect of adding hijab to a nude painting, you may realize that this painting lacks nothing compared to the nude version. It is just as beautiful and meaningful. Not just that, but it is actually better, because now the jarring element of the call for biological salvation is removed. One can appreciate it solely for its beauty, its real, morally uplifting beauty1

For these reasons, as a Muslim I feel justified in considering nude art an improper and unnecessary category of art. It is merely the expression of the rather boring and banal activity of males seeking salvation through the female body. It is true that eroticism is incredibly captivating. But for a spiritual person it is a dead end. It points away from God. It invites us to engage in fantasies of biological salvation that at best have nothing to contribute to our mission in life and at worst cause us to fall into seeking a false deity through female-worship.

This is not an expression of some sort of moral outrage about nude art, nor is it a call to destroy existing erotic art. But as civilized, self-respecting and God-fearing men, once we realize that nudity is merely a call to biological salvation, we should give preference to the higher salvation by avoiding nudity, whether in its production or consumption, and by seeking God through seeking beauty that lacks the jarring erotic element.

To experience beauty is to experience God. To experience eroticism is to experience your body’s desire for immortality through biological reproduction. To experience erotic beauty is to experience a beautiful thing with eroticism added on as a distraction. Removal of the eroticism removes the distraction without removing the beauty.

This essay is written from a male perspective since the key driver behind erotic art is (or so far has been) the male sex drive. It will be interesting to read a female philosopher’s take on the issue.

Beauty as Pointer: An Islamic Theory of Aesthetics

Why is this beautiful?

There is something special about beauty, as has been recognized by philosophers in the recent centuries. If someone says the above piece of architecture is ugly, I would judge them either liars or somehow morally corrupt.

When we appreciate beauty, we feel morally uplifted. This is very strange. Why should appreciating some design have any relationship with how I feel about myself?

This makes me feel like a better person.

This moral sense of beauty is wonderfully expressed by Roger Scruton in the following passage:

Our need for beauty is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition, as free individuals, seeking our place in a shared and public world. We can wander through this  world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves. The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us. But—and this is again one of the messages of the early modernists—beings like us become at home in the world only by acknowledging our ‘fallen’ condition, as Eliot acknowledged it in The Waste Land. Hence the experience of beauty also points us beyond this world, to a ‘kingdom of ends’ in which our immortal longings and our desire for perfection are finally answered. As Plato and Kant both saw, therefore, the feeling for beauty is proximate to the religious frame of mind, arising from a humble sense of living with imperfections, while aspiring towards the highest unity with the transcendental.1

My point in this post is to take those thoughts slightly further using my Islamic education, especially al-Ghazali’s simulation theory.

A beautiful Gothic cathedral is a “glitch in the matrix” that creates a state of awe in your mind best expressed in the Quranic verse:

Our Lord, You did not create this in vain, glory to You!2

The state of mind tells us that while from inside the universe things may appear meaningless and random, if we could only look beyond, we would see that they have an architecture and a meaning; history has a director; God exists and watches on.

Appreciating beauty leads to a certain state of the mind. The way that taking a drug creates a certain mental state, appreciating beauty too does something to the mind, creating a special mental state. This state of mind produced feels meaningful because it points beyond the here and now, beyond the confines of space and time, beyond the individual human, in short, beyond the universe itself.

In Islam, we use the word ayah (“a sign that points toward something”) to refer to anything and everything that points to God. It might be possible to explain all beauty using the ayah concept alone (although I am not perfectly sure):

A beautiful thing is anything that points the human mind to the transcendent, i.e. to God.

The similarity between mystical experience and the experience of beauty is well-established. That, according to my theory, is because they are the same thing. The state of awe that beauty forces upon us makes us feel infinitely small, makes us feel connected to something larger than ourselves and larger than the universe, and most importantly, makes us feel judged by an all-seeing subject, an eye that knows us better than anyone else and is ready to accept us.

That is where the morally uplifting nature of beauty comes from. When faced with beauty, just as we are casually judging it, we suddenly become aware of an eye that looks back and judges us in return. Something suddenly goes click inside our psyche, we are transported beyond our circumstances, and we are offered a chance to become better than we are. We are on the edge of a great revelation but we do not know what is being offered or who is offering it.

For me appreciating the Quran creates the same psychological experience as appreciating beauty, natural or man-made.

This Quran, in pointing to God, is a universe that speaks. And this universe, in pointing to God, is a silent Quran.3

Many Western hippies have visited Fez, Morocco in their seeking of meaning in life. While Morocco has much beauty to offer, meaning that it helps travelers come face-to-face with the all-seeing subject that looks back at us, judges us and offers us forgiveness as we try to judge beauty, the same experience can be had for much cheaper at home by looking at the architecture of most churches and their surrounding scenery.

Moroccan pottery.

Beautiful art, whether Islamic or Christian, points to God. The experience of beauty, whether in Fez or in the English countryside, is one and the same. Both point to God and make moral demands on us, promising us salvation in return for piety.

The problem with Fez and Turkey’s many tourist attractions is that beauty is devoid of moral teaching, therefore while a lover of beauty is elevated by it and motivated to seek God, if they do not go through with this seeking (through religion or at least through the effort of direct communion with God without religion), they end up as moral failures who never reach what they seek. They admire God through beauty but are too cowardly to talk to Him face-to-face.

I have met some of these unfortunate seekers who never become finders. The fact that you can experience the moral uplift of beauty means that you are capable of contemplating God’s face and communicating with Him. But there is a next step you have to take, which is to seek moral guidance. You can experience God, but Your God can speak, so why don’t you listen to what He has to say?

Most mysticism ends in narcissism. Rumi’s poetry, Morocco’s beauty and Gothic architecture all lift us up into the stratosphere like a thousand tons of rocket fuel, but if we are content with this experience, if we seek the experience itself without bothering to listen to God, then our mysticism and spirituality becomes self-worship. We appreciate art or chant the name of God and enjoy the uplift that comes with it, but the moment God starts speaking to us we shun Him and run away, as if saying O God, give us the good feeling of being close to You, but do not make demands. You are lovely, beautiful, amazing, but stay where I put you.

The narcissistic mystic does not chase God, he chases the feeling of what it is like to be close to God. The one who chases God is eager to listen to Him, while the narcissistic mystic feels inconvenienced by His voice.

Ugliness

If beauty is that which points to God, ugliness is that which points away from Him. Beautiful architecture “traces the contours of God’s face” so to speak, helping us know what it feels like to be near Him even though we cannot see Him. Ugly architecture, on the other hand, often present us with faceless edifices that point to nothing beyond themselves, almost claiming that God does not exist and they are all that there is:

Ugliness personified: Zaha Hadid’s gigantic faceless worms (Galaxy SOHO in Beijing, China)

There is nothing to relate to as a human in the above building. It is an alien, impenetrable thing that might be an alien organism capable of wiping humanity out for all that we know. Beautiful things help us come face-to-face with God and offer us salvation. Ugly things offer us nothing and tell us we are not needed. Ugly architecture offers us cruel and vacant faces, telling us life is meaningless and that there is nothing beyond. Like those dismal Soviet apartment blocks, they remind us of the hopelessness and meaninglessness of existence without God. They can be interesting to look at as technological marvels, as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles below, but they are as morally uplifting as a washing machine.

The cruel, blank, inhuman faces of modern architecture.

And as a cure for the horror of experiencing looking at the above building, here is something beautiful and humane, a building that seems to whisper to us about God, almost as if it is an angel who points to God and offer us everything we could desire if we choose to be morally upright:

Religious propaganda

An important clarification has to be made here. By saying that beauty is all that points to God and that all that points to God is beautiful, I am not referring to religious propaganda, which is often ugly.

A Muslim-made billboard that quotes a verse of the Quran and talks to Christians about how Islam is better for them is not going to create any mystical experience in the hearts of the Christians who view it, because they know there is a human will behind the billboard that cannot be automatically trusted. The billboard might use a beautiful verse and a beautiful design, but the attitude behind the object makes it fall flat. Propaganda-makers pretend to possess the whole truth and refuse to acknowledge their doubts and their human weaknesses. Propaganda tries to change the course of history, it is an expression of the desire for a group of humans to make another group of humans do their bidding (I am not saying this is always bad, it can be done with good intentions, but the point is that it is not beautiful; it is not morally uplifting).

Unlike propaganda, beauty has no human will behind it and does not claim to be perfect. It does not matter who funded the above building and for what purpose. It stands on its own and humbly points to God, without pompously thinking that it knows what your beliefs should be, what you should do with your life or how history should go. It merely helps you have an experience of God while leaving it up to you to discover the truth on your own.

There is a certain class of religious art that does make truth-claims but that is not propaganda because it is aimed at members of the religious community itself; it does not seek to change them but only to reaffirm their faith and worldview. Such art is experienced by us as beautiful provided that we are members of that community because the attitude behind it no longer matters since we share the same attitude as its creators. It does not pompously claim to know the truth or try to change your way of life. It uses beautiful imagery to re-create mystical experiences you have already had in the past. The unsavory ingredient of attitude and politics is not present, so the artwork can be appreciated for itself.

Above, what might be experienced as a threatening cultural incursion by a Christian if they were to see it hung as a poster on some wall in their city is experienced by a Muslim as an apolitical reminder of many beautiful-mystical things: Ramadan, the peacefulness of small Middle Eastern towns in the desert, the Prophet’s migration to Medina . For a Muslim it points to God in numerous ways. For a Christian, if they were to see it hung in the wrong place (on a church’s wall!) it would be a direct, political attack on their way of life and independence of conscience. A beautiful thing in the wrong context can send all the wrong messages; instead of causing mystical experience it can cause discomfort and dread.