The Recovery of Beauty

Woman's Head, by Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Woman’s Head, by Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It is something of a cliché that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, but the history of Western culture shows that the issue of what is beautiful in art and literature has indeed been a conflicted one. Can a piece of art that depicts something immoral or violent also be beautiful? Should a beautiful poem simply stir the emotions, or must a poem educate its readers in some way? Questions like this are at the heart of a longstanding critical debate over beauty, as a new collection of essays on The Recovery of Beauty explores.

Throughout the centuries – but especially after the Second World War – art has interwoven beauty with pain, violence and destruction. Yet even when it seems impossible to hold onto simple conceptions of beauty, artists, writers and critics keep returning to it as a key theme in the imagination and human experience of art. Edited by Corinne Saunders, Jane McNaughton, and David Fuller, The Recovery of Beauty asks why the problematic notion of beauty has remained so resilient across the centuries even into the present day, and how beauty has played a central role in culture through the ages.

A mural rendition of Picasso’s Guernica, by Papamanila (Own work), reproduced under CC BY-SA 3.0 licence via Wikimedia Commons. Can art be beautiful even when it represents violent or immoral acts? Have your say in our twitter poll.

Fourteen writers explore the various manifestations of beauty through time and in different areas of culture; The Recovery of Beauty features poets such as Michael Symmons Roberts and choreographers like David Bintley, as well as literary scholars, historians, and philosophers.

Many of the essays engage with the cultural history of beauty and of its recovery, exploring the development of conceptions of beauty across time, the ways in which tensions are inherent in cultural understandings of beauty, the differences and continuities between past and present ideas of beauty, and the intersection of the aesthetic with the moral and spiritual.

Literature provides a particular focus, but the book engages too with medicine and cosmetic surgery, philosophy, theology, visual arts, architecture and dance. Recurrent themes are the human need for beauty, its links to truth and understanding, and also its deceptive dangers. Finally, the book asks: does beauty have a restorative or healing agency?

This collection developed from a public lecture series called The Recovery of Beauty, which was hosted by the Department of English Studies in conjunction with the Centre for Medical Humanities and Institute of Advanced Study. Podcasts from some of the lectures in this series are available to listen to below.

The Recovery of Beauty is available now as an e-book or hardback, published by Palgrave.

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