Difficult Beauty

exploding wineThroughout much of the history of aesthetics beauty has been the term of highest aesthetic praise, referring to objects that exhibit perfect symmetry, proportion and harmony, and often associated with the divine. But terms that refer to more ordinary aesthetic experiences—pretty, pleasant, charming, nice, lovely, etc.—receive almost no attention. This is odd to say the least because the vast majority of aesthetic experiences in ordinary life are best described as pretty, pleasant or nice.

This is surely true of wine. Most of us don’t drink the most impressive wines on a regular basis. Everyday wines of quality can best be described as pleasant, nice, scrumptious or some other adjective denoting a common experience. To describe a wine as pretty is a term of praise. Our lives are suffused with these more modest experiences. Without things that are pretty or pleasant our lives would be much poorer. Our experiences of things that are pretty or nice are genuine aesthetic experiences despite being ignored by people who should know better.

However, what I find even more odd about traditional aesthetics is that when I think about harmony, symmetry and related concepts, it’s pretty or pleasant objects that exhibit them. Pretty pictures have all their elements working together with balanced colors and graceful lines, nothing jagged or garish. They have unity and feel complete. Pleasant wines are well balanced with round, prominent fruit set off by plenty of acidity to keep the wine fresh, a conventional aroma profile with just enough complexity to be interesting but nothing confusing or off-putting, and if the wine is red, sufficient tannins to give the wine some length and intensity. In short, pretty, nice, pleasant things have nothing of difficulty about them. They effortlessly enter our lives producing no conflict and providing many moments of modest joy precisely because they exhibit harmony, symmetry and balance.

Beauty by contrast is something less comforting. Objects become beautiful when some difficulty is introduced, something that disrupts harmony and makes us think or react. The intensity of beauty comes from contrast not symmetry. A symmetrical face is pretty; it becomes beautiful when animated by the complexities of a personality that hints at something tumultuous just below the surface. Musical passages are beautiful when they contain sufficient tension to elicit powerful emotions. The great composers are masters at building tension that never fully resolves. What makes a painting such as Monet’s Water Lilies beautiful, and not merely pretty, is that it draws us into a maelstrom of swirling color that has no border so we feel on the edge of the infinite.

Similarly, great wines are paradoxical, marrying incompatible features such as power and finesse or complexity and simplicity that leave us with a sense of wonder and mystery about how it all works. They are hard to understand, can feel overwhelming in their intensity and may exhibit features that are unusual and distinctive. Great wines have balance but they feel like they’re pushing the limits of balance striving to keep the various intensities under control.

My point is that beauty is best viewed as unity and good form subtly disrupted by contrasts and intensities that the work struggles to accommodate. The aesthetic tradition is mistaken in conceptualizing beauty as perfect proportion and harmony.


  1. I just wanted to say that I really enjoy this blog, especially the more philosophical pieces, and that I thought your book was fabulous. You gave me terms with which to understand the foodie movement (terms that had eluded me prior to reading your work). I will admit that my knowledge of wine is extremely limited—apparently some wines have corks and others have twist-off tops—but your writing has been immensely helpful to me. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.