‘The Recovery of Beauty: Arts, Culture, Medicine’ reviewed by Dr Katherine Aske

‘The Recovery of Beauty: Arts, Culture, Medicine’ edited by Corinne Saunders, Jane Macnaughton, and David Fuller (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). 


9781137426734Ezra Pound’s observation — ‘beauty is genuinely difficult’ (p. 1) — reminds the reader that discussing the diverse concept of beauty is infamously problematic. This is because the construction of beauty relies on human interaction and interpretation, and it cannot be explained in any straightforward way. Starting with Mark A. McIntosh, Professor of Christian Spirituality, the book opens with a general exploration of the often-contradictory role of beauty and its association with truth. From here, The Recovery of Beauty: Arts, Culture, Medicine, edited by Corrine Saunders, Jane Macnaughton and David Fuller, moves through the areas of literature, dance, surgery, architecture and science, exposing a diversifying, and at times contradictory interpretation of beauty as a concept. The approach taken by the editors highlights beauty’s need of recovery, and its potential application within the medical humanities, without addressing what it is — choosing instead to explore a collection of interpretations, designed to revive the discussion of beauty.

The collection opens with Mind, Body, Soul, where Corrine Saunders addresses the dangers and ambiguity of physical beauty in Medieval English Romance literature, and Elizabeth Archibold’s straightforward argument connects the process of bathing with beauty and purification in the Middle Ages. Sander Gilman persuasively argues that the correlation between ugliness and disfigured bodies, opposed to beauty and the ideal form, ensures the continuing civilising process of the human body. Collectively, the essays in Part I demonstrate a linear set of issues concerning the understanding of physical beauty and the reading of the body throughout history. But while Gilman and McIntosh’s arguments include materials from the fifteenth to early twentieth centuries, I could not help but feel a little short-changed by such a general approach to historical periods, considering changing attitudes, particularly to women’s bodies, are so crucial to physical beauty’s interpretation. I would have liked to see more attention paid to the cultural differences, or even similarities, between then and now. That said, these chapters do set the tone for the book, demonstrating that the term ‘beauty’ is often generalised, entangled with prejudice, misinterpretation, cultural significance, and underpins the equally difficult concepts of love and health.

Moving into David Fuller’s investigation into beauty, pain and violence, Part II — ‘Art, Ideas, Ideals’ — offers a glimpse into the way beauty is understood and challenged within a broad interpretation of the arts. Patricia Waugh’s exploration of the Bloomsbury group (including influential figures like Woolf, Keynes and Forster), and the ‘postmodern assault’ (p. 111) on, and the battle to prove, the relevance of beauty, reveals the twentieth-century concerns for the contradictoriness of beauty, and its ability to destabilise the relationship between creator and beholder — identifying a difficult, often overlooked area of academic study. Continuing to address this relationship, I was pleased to read Fuller’s interviews with poet Michael Symmons Roberts and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s artistic director David Bintley. In a collection of academic essays, these were invigorating, and lost nothing of their intellectual authority in their more relaxed form. But again, the chapters noticeably shift across time periods without a particularly strong sense of definition, meaning the term ‘beauty’ is often used too generally within references to aesthetics, performance, and emotional reaction. While the reader is frequently left to connect the dots, these chapters do highlight the very different ways beauty can be experienced, and reinforce the importance to recognise an individualised response to visual stimuli, as Fuller notes, ‘however diverse and un-beautiful its elements’ (p. 94).

Part III — ‘Surgery, Reparation, Imagination’ — takes inspiration from a 2012 exhibition, About Face, on the work of Henry Tonks. Jane Macnaughton, Ludmilla Jordanova and Anne Whitehead’s chapters detail the medical, literary and artistic impact of surgery, with a strong connection to Tonks’ work on facial reconstruction during the First World War. Macnaughton’s question of elegance in surgery is innovative, and allows one to contemplate beauty in action, as well as the finished product — providing a fresh perspective as to how beauty is not only constructed, but in a way transferred between creator and created. Jordanova draws together the worlds of medicine and art, finding beauty in what she sees as the traditionally un-beautiful — scars, injuries, and disease; and Whitehead, in her reading of Pat Barker and Louisa Young’s novels, meets the contradictory relationship between deformity and the reconstruction of beauty head on. For anyone interested in the origins and development of plastic surgery, these essays provide a clear, interdisciplinary approach, joining the study of medicine and the arts with convincing perspectives and thought-provoking images. That being said, Part III does feel heavy amidst an otherwise thematically diverse collection.

The final section, Rescuing Beauty, plays host to the most diverse group of essays, moving from John Onians’ medical and neurological approach to understanding our reaction to beauty, to Simon Thurley’s examination of architectural taste and preservation laws, and finally Roger Scruton’s philosophical analysis of ‘Beauty and the Sacred’, which aligns our divine need for beauty with its artistic response. What struck me most in reading these very different, but inherently linked essays, was the emphasis on beauty and human experience, reawakening the question as to whether our recognition of beauty is one of nature or habit. While Thurley questions the difficulties in developing human reactions to beauty into enforceable laws, able to safeguard certain ‘important buildings’ (p. 257), Scrunton sees an active decision to follow or disregard beauty in art as a reflection of the artist’s relationship with God. These two arguments highlight a need for beauty within the spectre of human emotion, and certainly provide food for thought. However, it is Onians’ examination of art through the lens of neuroaesthetics, implementing the role of habit in our neurological engagement with the beautiful, which is the most innovative, and offers a convincing, scientific perspective to the analysis of visual materials within the medical humanities.

Overall, the collection’s diversity presents both strengths and weaknesses. I feel, as a whole, a clearer line of enquiry could have held this collection together more tightly, as the ambiguity re-exerts the issue of definition when discussing such a large, fluid concept. Unless one is already familiar with the study of beauty, its cultural nuances and philosophical contradictions, it would be very easy to overlook the underlying themes drawing these investigations together, which may alienate a potentially wider readership. That being said, I largely enjoyed The Recovery of Beauty, in its intellectual exchange of multidisciplinary and diverse subject matter, proving that ‘though beauty is difficult, beauty persists’ (p. 7). The text certainly opens up the potential scope for further study into the relevance of beauty in the medical humanities, and provides encouraging developments in neuroaesthetics and the human experience.

Reviewed by Dr Katherine Aske, who completed her PhD thesis on eighteenth-century female beauty at Loughborough University in 2015, and finished her post-doctoral research examining eighteenth-century beauty and sociability at Université Bretagne Occidental in 2016. Aske’s research focuses on literature, medicine and art concerning beauty and its cultural and moral reputations.


Correspondence to Dr Katherine Aske.

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