Monday, August 21, 2006

History of Beauty

I had the opportunity this Sunday to read most (not quite all) of Umberto Eco's History of Beauty. It's a survey of the kind of the things that, according to Eco, men admire but do not need to possess. Here was a fascinating opportunity to look at how time, history, ideas and culture define standards and perception. The book is not so ambitious, or at least not so good. In practice, the book is a survey of art and its relationship to social philosophy in the West. Far too much time is spent on some subjects (eg, 19th century decadents, though much of the youth culture of today seems to be a shallow echo of the aesthetes). The book partially disappoints for focusing exclusively on the West, though a world survey would require many volumes. The 20th century treatment is abysmal, which is quite puzzling given Eco's fascinating novel with graphics, the Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

As a survey, the book is readable and probably worth taking the time to page through. I found it stilted at times and thin in many places, with echoes of important insights here and there. The book's graphics are often stunning and it's probably worth the price for the painting prints. I can imagine the text being used as a companion to a series of university-level lectures, which may have been the author's intent. The US release, however, is marketed as a stand-alone work of art critcitism. Overall, I fear this book will be quickly relegated to the coffee table by most readers (at least those without young children).

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