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The University of Southampton
Lifelong Learning

'The Decline of Beauty' Study Day Event

The Sublime
10:00 - 16:00
27 April 2013
Avenue Campus Highfield Road Southampton SO17 1BF

For more information regarding this event, please telephone Kirsty McLean on 02380 59 4514 or email .

Event details

We will be holding a one-day cultural event on Saturday 27th April consisting of a series of short talks led by experts from within Philosophy at Southampton. This thought provoking and inspiring conference will provide you with the opportunity to learn and engage in discussion about aesthetics from academics of international distinction.

We will be holding a one-day cultural event on Saturday April 27th on ‘the decline of beauty'. Until the later nineteenth century, 'beauty' was a word laden with meaning - so laden indeed that it spawned the 'sublime' and the 'tragic' as further terms of aesthetic approbation, so as to spread the burden of approval around. Today, however, all three terms have lost their richness. 'Beautiful' means little more than very pretty or attractive; more or less anything sad or unfortunate is nowadays called 'tragic'; while the 'sublime' features mostly as a place from which the ridiculous can be reached. How has this happened? How have these terms become so hollow? And how is this reflected in how we engage with art today?

This thought-provoking day will include a series of short talks by experts from the Philosophy Department at the University of Southampton (a centre of excellence for the philosophy of the arts) and will provide you with the opportunity to learn and engage in discussion of this perplexing transformation in our engagement with art.

Places are limited, so book your place early to avoid disappointment. 


‘Introduction: On Cultural Hand-Wringing' (Professor Aaron Ridley)
We are rightly suspicious of people who harp on about a Golden Age, when everything was so much better than it is today.  But that doesn't mean that some things weren't better once.  This introductory talk surveys a number of reasons to think that we have lost touch with some of the central concepts of our culture - such as the sublime, the beautiful, the tragic - and asks whether we have done so to our detriment.

‘On the Very Idea of the Sublime' (Professor Alex Neill)
The sublime was once one of the major concepts of aesthetic theory.  When people came to regard the natural environment as something worthy of aesthetic appreciation, the sublime was at the heart of their thinking.  Today, however, the closest that most of us come to referring to the sublime is to invoke it as the starting point of a route to the ridiculous.  What has happened to (our sense of) the sublime?  How is it that a notion once so central to our understanding of aesthetic appreciation seems to have become so marginal?

‘Declining Beauty' (Professor Christopher Janaway)
Beauty used to be thought of as one of the supreme values, along with the True and the Good. And in past centuries works of art were sometimes thought to be valuable largely to the extent that they were beautiful. Then the question arose: are there objective truths about what is beautiful and what is not? How relevant is that question today? On the one hand, people tend to assume that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder'. On the other hand, the arts in the twentieth century seem to have turned away from beauty as an aim. Visual art and music, for example, became difficult, discordant, abrasive, confrontational, conceptual, ironic, or just entertaining, and beauty seemed beside the point. So does it matter what beauty is?

‘Beyond Tragedy' (Professor Aaron Ridley)
When ‘tragedy' was a reasonably robust category, through which people understood discrete areas of their aesthetic experience and, indeed, of ethical life, the tragic was distinguished from, for example, mere bad luck or misfortune, however extreme.  We no longer seem to make that distinction: more or less any kind of serious mishap is nowadays likely to be called ‘tragic'.  Why has this happened?  What does our loss of the tragic as a distinct category tell us about ourselves?  Are we the poorer for it?



£30 full rate

£20 loyalty rate (Harbour Lights Members, Friends of Parkes, English Teachers Network, university staff and alumni)

£10 discount rate (students/sixth form & college students and those in receipt of income-based Job Seeker's Allowance, Income Support, Working Tax Credit, Council Tax or Housing Benefit)

All prices include lunch and refreshments


To book your place, please log into our new secure Online Store to complete the application form and make payment.

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