As a graduate student working on a thesis about the aesthetics of ugliness, I couldn't have come up with a better defense of why beauty is important then the recent Ecce Homo debacle in Spain. For those of you unaware, and probably blissfully unaware, of internet memes, the Ecce Homo obsession began when an elderly Spanish woman took it upon herself to restore her favorite fresco of Jesus that had sustained damage over the years. She painted over the original image, and began her attempt to recreate the face of Jesus. Or so she thought....
The "restoration" made it onto the local news, and soon social networking turned this incident into a worldwide frenzy. Then anyone with photoshop started playing with the image and pasting it onto iconic images such as Cristo Redentor in Brazil, or as the little alien in ET. Someone even started a Twitter page for the fresco, with the anthropomorphized image screaming "MY FACE!!! WHAT HAPPENED TO MY FACE!!!!!!" I'm pretty sure that by now, even my internet-illiterate grandmother has come up with her own meme.
Nice job grandma.
Behind all of the frenzy, I think the interesting thing here is the universality of the reaction. Aquinas, following in Aristotle's thought, taught that there is an objective dimension to beauty. We can look at a painting and determine that it is beautiful based on whether it captures the form of its object. Hence, a drawing of a bowl of fruit is more beautiful when it more closely resembles the fruit, and even more beautiful when it captures the full reality of the fruit (its goodness, juiciness, brightness; especially in the case of watermelon). An objective notion of beauty is important because in the end, all things are truly beautiful because they participate in what is Beautiful in itself, God.
Now, it is still true that our friend the "restored" Spanish Fresco is still beautiful, but its beauty is to a lesser degree because the image captures less of the form of a man, and even the original painting was less beautiful than an actual man. And less we speak cruelly of the woman responsible for the "restoration," it is important to remember that art has a powerful moral dimension as well. In this case, the ugliness of this restoration led more people to appreciate the beauty of art and the importance of preserving that which is beautiful.
And now back to my thesis.