Defining Beauty: New Rutgers Course to Explore an Ancient Ideal

Defining Beauty: New Rutgers Course to Explore an Ancient Ideal

Student researchers work with School of Arts and Sciences professor over three years to help shape curriculum

Le Chapeau de Paille by Peter Paul Rubens
The plump models in Peter Paul Rubens' portraits were the epitome of beauty in the 16th century.

'It may seem trivial on the one hand, but it’s also interesting because these are examples of how things are influenced by the cultural moment we inhabit. It makes you think about how much you’re shaped by outside influences in ways that can be difficult to appreciate.'
– Nicholas Rennie

WHAT: The 12th annual Aresty Undergraduate Research Symposium featuring research projects in sciences, social sciences, humanities and the arts from 500 Rutgers undergraduates contributing to the works of nearly 300. This unique event is one of the largest undergraduate research celebrations in the country.
 It is free and open to the public.
WHEN: 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Friday, April 29
WHERE: Livingston Student Center, 84 Joyce Kilmer Ave., Piscataway
BACKGROUND: For her Aresty project, Daisy Lee, a philosophy major, is exploring how large a role familiarity plays in a person’s perception of beauty. By examining noted works of art, particularly Andy Warhol’s series on Campbell’s soup cans, the Rutgers junior seeks to demonstrate how carefully defining at least one property of beauty, scholars can better understand the concept as a whole.
Maria Ortiz Naretto, who is also a junior and a philosophy major, is researching whether there is an intellectual way to categorize beauty and ugliness in addition to an aesthetic one. A native of Buenos Aires and now a resident of Hackensack, Naretto says her work is a response to the findings of the 18th century philosopher David Hume, who focused on beauty as an emotion within the mind of the observer.
The Aresty Research Center was founded in 2004 with the support of the late Jerome Aresty and his wife Lorraine to provide opportunities for undergraduates to reap the benefits of attending a public research university. Since its inception, the center has worked with more than 3,000 students, providing close to $3 million in support of undergraduate research at Rutgers.

That oil painting by Rubens hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art – is it pleasing to your eye?

Do the strains of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachmusik strike you as beautiful? What about the spires of St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan, or the elegance of a mathematical equation?

The answer, a Rutgers academic suggests, depends largely on who you are, where you live – and when.

Now Nicholas Rennie, a professor in the university’s School of Arts and Sciences, is developing a course devoted to beauty and its shifting meaning over time and geography, addressing the question of who defines the ideal and how that ideal affects people as they go about their daily lives.

“To talk about beauty is interesting because you inevitably wind up linking what seems really superficial to issues that are linked to our very identity,” says Rennie, who traces his passion for the topic to his love of German literature and philosophy.

It was the Germans, he notes, who raised aesthetics to the level of a discipline. The philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten introduced the term in 1735, defining it as “the science of what is sensed and imagined.”

The course Rennie is planning, tentatively titled “Skin Deep? Beauty in Work, Play, Business and Sex,” is expected to debut in the spring of 2017. It will be an outgrowth of his involvement with the Aresty Research Assistant Program, which offers Rutgers undergraduates the opportunity to support faculty research during the academic year.

In 1970s, stick-thin British fashion icon Twiggy set a new standard for beauty in the West.
 For the past several years, Rennie and his students have been exploring how each prevailing culture has defined beauty in its own way, from the zaftig models in those Rubens portraits to the stick-thin magazine images of the 1970s British icon, Twiggy.

“Every country’s concept of beauty is very different,” says Daisy Lee of Paramus, a junior philosophy major who has been working with Rennie this year and who will present her findings at the Aresty Undergraduate Research Symposium on April 29.

“In parts of Asia, for example, pale skin is very beautiful. But not so much in North America, where the sun-kissed glow is very much the ideal.”

The issue of what is attractive is more than mere academic exercise, the researchers agree: It can affect who gets a job and who loses out, whom someone chooses to marry, even who receives better service in a store or restaurant.

Moreover, a society’s definition of beauty has a huge bearing on an individual’s sense of self-worth, all too often sending women – and to a lesser degree men – to the offices of a plastic surgeon in search of some unattainable ideal, Rennie says.

“It may seem trivial on the one hand, but it’s also interesting because these are examples of how things are influenced by the cultural moment we inhabit,” Rennie says. “It makes you think about how much you’re shaped by outside influences in ways that can be difficult to appreciate.”

While the elements of beauty may be hard to pin down, both he and Lee believe one factor plays a vital role: Contrary to conventional wisdom, they say, familiarity does not breed contempt. It breeds appreciation.

 And the more the eye gets used to an object, the more that object becomes a thing of beauty.

Rennie points to the ubiquity of movies – and one in particular -- to illustrate his point.

“Every little girl out there wants to be Queen Elsa,” Rennie says, referring to the heroine of the Disney movie Frozen, whose face and golden braids adorn T-shirts, mugs, sippy cups, jackets, pillows and coloring-book covers, all thanks to savvy marketing.

“Hollywood has achieved a kind of world dominance, and these movies are huge, international enterprises,” the professor says. “Kids from all sorts of cultures are looking at these very slim, Barbie-dollish figures and wanting to put on these clothes.”

For her Aresty project, Lee has chosen to explore this concept more deeply through an examination of another easily recognized object: Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans.

Arguably one of America’s most frequently viewed pieces of art, the series of paintings made its debut at in the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles more than 50 years ago. It features 32 different varieties of the manufacturer’s soup, presented in a repeating grid-like pattern.

Viewers identify instantly with the product from seeing it on grocery shelves over the years, Lee says, and the artist’s repetitive use of the graphic image only intensifies the sense of … yes, familiarity.

“It’s like looking at a face you know: The brain receives some kind of reward,” she explains. “It’s psychologically comforting. In contrast, when you are presented with something brand new and foreign, the brain doesn’t immediately know how to process that information.”

Lee is expanding on the work of philosopher Jerome Stolnitz, who explored the theory of beauty in his paper, “On Artistic Familiarity and Aesthetic Value.”

Among Rennie’s goals for the upcoming course is helping students understand that beauty is a set of societal conventions, and that those conventions change.

“One hope I have is that this could free some students up a bit, and that whether they feel they are a victim of those standards or a beneficiary, maybe they’ll say, ‘I won’t let them define me,’ ” the professor says.