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The difference between "beautiful" and "pretty"

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  September 5, 2013 09:28 AM

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red block.jpeg
What makes something beautiful? It's a question that has vexed people for a long time, and the blog Gilded Birds takes an interesting approach to answering it: They ask prominent intellectuals and artists to choose one object and explain how, in their eyes, it expresses contemporary ideas about beauty.

Yesterday's interview was with philosopher K. Anthony Appiah, formerly of Harvard and now on the faculty at Princeton. Appiah chose to discuss "Red Block," a sculpture by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui that's part of a solo exhibition currently traveling the country (it was at the Brooklyn Museum in August, and opens at the Des Moines Art Center on October 25). The sculpture is made from found metal, largely bottle caps. As Appiah explains, it looks fluid, like a curtain, despite being made from rigid materials.

The whole interview is fun to read, and includes an interesting discussion about how our individual experiences and cultural backgrounds shape the way we view art. At the end, Appiah offers this thought-provoking definition of beauty, as something that attracts you with its immediate appearance, but then sticks in your mind even after the initial rush of sensation has passed:

I think Kant was right in that beauty is a word that belongs to sensation. It has to strike the senses, whether it’s the ear or the eye. And I think he was right in that it’s connected to pleasure in the sensory experience and the desire to return to the experience. But what is merely pleasurable is pretty. Beauty has an element of that thing that makes you want to come back, that engages you cognitively. It’s this combination of the power to attract the senses and then its being rewarding to think about the experience that you’re having that makes for real beauty.

To call something (or someone) beautiful is sometimes taken as a backhanded compliment, suggesting it's easy on the eyes but simplistic overall. Appiah's distinction between "pretty" and "beautiful" is a useful one to carry around, and helps to differentiate between the countless gratifying things we see each day, and the ones that are really worth remembering.

You can read the entire interview here.

Image of "Red Block" by El Anatsui courtesy of K Tempest Bradford.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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