One can see how oddly, yet effectively, the demotion from the sublime and the political demotion [of beauty] work together, even while deeply inconsistent with one another. The sublime (an aesthetic of power) rejects beauty on the grounds that it is diminutive, dismissible, not powerful enough. The political rejects beauty on the grounds that it is too powerful, a power expressed both in its ability to visit harm on objects looked at and also in its capacity to so overwhelm our attention that we cannot free our eyes from it long enough to look at injustice. Berated for its power, beauty is simultaneously belittled for its powerlessness.

The multiple, opposing assaults on beauty have worked in a second way. The sublime—by which I mean the outcomes that followed from dividing a formerly unitary realm into the sublime and the beautiful—cut beauty off from the metaphysical, permitting it to inhabit only the ground of the real. Then the political critique—along with a closely related moral critique and a critique from realism—come forward to assert that beauty (forever discomforting morals with its idealized conceptions) has no place on the ground of the real. Permitted to inhabit neither the realm of the ideal nor the realm of the real, to be neither aspiration nor companion, beauty comes to us like a fugitive bird unable to fly, unable to land.

Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just