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Even as this notion of timelessness resonates, it still leaves a question: What in art gives it this quality? Arendt refers to that something as “beauty”. Disappointingly, her essay fails to characterise explicitly what she meant by the word. One can only draw possible meanings from the context of her discussion. Beauty, whether in a portrait, a landscape, an abstract, a poem, or a sonata, fosters imperishability, she seems to say, by creating a tension between two powerful but contrary feelings. One is the natural human desire to possess what is beautiful. The other involves a subtler sense that possession would somehow destroy the beauty that so attracts. This second, almost opposite sense impels the individual to create an atypical distance from his or her personal, subjective feelings, what our ancestors might have referred to as assuming a “disinterested” appreciation. By prompting this distance, the beauty at once offers additional insight into the individual’s subjective feelings even as it yields a sense of what perhaps the artist might have felt or what other viewers, listeners, readers might feel. Subjective feelings become more vivid while the individual glimpses something bigger than self, something that perhaps hints at immortality.

Kant, in his Critique of Judgment, makes a similar case. He characterises this second feeling as liberating people from their individual “subjective, private conditions” and in so doing enlarging their “mentality” (eine erweiterte Denkungsart). The sense binds individual feelings to those of others and in so doing also binds the viewer, listener, reader to them. He refers to this welcome feeling as a “common sense”, not in the phrase’s modern colloquial meaning of everyday wisdom, but rather as those familiar feelings and values a person holds in common with others in his or her culture, “a faculty of judgment . . . of all others”. Sir Roger Scruton writes something similar when he describes great art as rewarding imperfect human beings with the sense of a more perfect “icon”, to use his word, one that stands at a distance from our subjective selves and resonates with the values a person holds in common with others even as it makes each person’s inner life that much more “lucid”.

Pericles adds another take on the matter. In the speech that Thucydides’s The Peloponnesian War puts in his mouth, the great Athenian leader speaks of the city’s art as an expression of Athen’s great culture. It is apparent in the context that Pericles says more here than that Athens, unlike other cities, allows its artists to express themselves as they will, though it does. Rather, he says that the city’s greatest art gives expression to something bigger than an artist’s inner feelings. It speaks to the common culture of the city, something that draws Athenians together and so will live on after the feelings of the moment fade. Barbarians, he acknowledges, have a sense of beauty, but because they lack the discipline of common feeling, their art tends toward voluptuousness. Pericles, like Kant after him and Arendt as well as Scruton still later, argues that for art to last and achieve greatness, it must have this ability to connect a person’s subjective feelings to those that he or she shares with others in their culture. Other efforts, no matter how appealing in the moment, will fail as great art if they fail in this respect.

Some people resist this notion of common feeling. They describe the tension with possessiveness as a special sort of rapport with the artist or the work. While this notion seems to pull in a very different direction from the descriptions of Kant and Scruton, it nonetheless has similar essentials. It still takes people beyond their subjective feelings to something outside themselves, to something larger and more durable than everyday feelings, even though the sense binds them to a much smaller group.

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