You may well tell me that I think too much. Maybe I do, but it is quite a part of who I am, and I like that part of myself. I also happen to believe that if more people spent more time thinking, the world might be a saner place. When speaking, I often have that mental hiccup before I use the word ‘believe’ since I also happen to believe (!) that those who favour belief over thought need some lessons in rationality. In an increasingly complex and nuanced world we need more than ever ways to distinguish truth from falsehood. And if this is not possible, a way to decide what to do, or not to do. The future of the planet, no less, may depend on it. What was I thinking about? This …
After reading ‘The Moth Snowstorm’, a plea for the survival of life on earth, I found myself wondering for the nth time why we humans find the world beautiful? And what are the fundamentals components of beauty? Not least, what reasons might there be for deliberately choosing the un-beautiful, as we often do? And lastly, is the Natural always beautiful, or the inverse question, is the unnatural also ugly? You can imagine the mental (if commonly experienced) tangles resulting from this reflection!
I’m not well versed in philosophy, and indeed aspects of the topic seem convoluted and unhelpful to me, but it is hard to avoid the name of Plato as one of the earliest recorded philosophical voices. Since his time, so much philosophy has been talked and written, it is impossible for the non-expert to map the paths taken. And here, with Plato, the earliest (and semantic) confusions creep in. Is beauty kallos? Or hōraios (timely)? What are we to make of the relationship of beauty with mathematics, or virtue? Can a landscape be beautiful or only a person? In his Theory of Forms, non-physical forms (or ideas) represent the most accurate reality. Clearly the ancients did not think in quite the way that I do. With the revival of platonic ideas by Plotinus and other early Christians, the “One”(divinity from which all else comes) was identified with the concept of ‘Good’ and the principle of ‘Beauty’. Plotinus asserted the ultimately divine nature of material creation, since it ultimately derives from the One, through the mediums of nous and the world soul. It is by the Good or through beauty that we recognize the One, in material things and then in the Forms. A further corruption and confusion of ideas set in with the Florentine Marsilio Ficino who presented his philosophy as an authentic and accurate representation of Plato’s (it wasn’t). I try to respect these early thinkers while remembering the state of culture and society when they lived. We’ve come far since those days. And with that I set them aside and move to more contemporary hypotheses of beauty.
Maybe Stendahl was closer to us in thinking that beauty is ‘la promesse de bonheur’ – the promise of happiness. It would clearly be in line with modern thinking on the subject of evolution to agree that. If something makes us happy, be it a hopeful vision of the future, a view of a peaceful landscape or a productive garden, the face of the partner to whom we are bonded, it might well look beautiful. But there is also the problem of addiction: the reward centres of our brain might well tell us that a illegal or harmful substance was as beautiful as other stimulants which I am going to contend are the constituent parts of beauty. And the rewards of beauty might bend our all too great susceptibilities.
Of what does beauty then consist? Symmetry, intensity, purity, harmony, perfection, health and youth. This is human perception. All these attributes could induce the brain to resonate powerfully, memorably and with pleasure. And here we have my explanation for the attraction of music, art, a photographic model, a beloved child, and a summer sky. Stimuli act upon the senses to generate a good feeling. But we are complicated creatures, and sensory perception is not all. Taste or preference may not be about absolutes of attraction, but more to do with association. Partners who look like our parents, sweet scents we remember from wonderful experiences, the colour of a childhood dress. Thus, the human mind can bend to admire the wrinkles of age, fierce body-modifications, death, decay and other maybe perverted objects. This is different altogether to finding bed bugs, slugs and flies beautiful, since these we can learn to find beautiful because of their perfection of construction and form, and the well-adapted way they go about their lives. We can look and learn, and overcome disgust through knowledge – such intact and operational life is utterly beautiful, even if we find the associated effects on human aspiration distasteful.
So why are some people so powerfully drawn to the broken, damaged, diseased, unnatural and even the ugly? Maybe because of the imagination – we can imagine how the thing might have been when pristine, and know that it is only time and existence which has tarnished it. An understanding of the processes of organic and inorganic decay might make dust and moth more appealing. The Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi sabi envisages beauty accruing to an object as it continues in existence. This idea derives from Buddhist acceptance of intransience and imperfection, clearly a different tradition to the western platonic, since true platonic beauty is removed from the world of existence altogether and raised to an ethereal and non-existent realm.
We can also have compassion and pity for the deformed, damaged and aged, and thus do things we have loved for a long time become beautiful. Perhaps less honestly, and I have heard this one myself, a man might find a girl with a squint or a limp attractive because of the possibly unconscious belief that she is more powerless, and likely to be more grateful. I could have no sympathy for this kind of thing, but I can reluctantly accept that to feel powerful oneself, while debatably unworthy, must be rather pleasant. I confess that this is a kind of bonheur I have rarely experienced. Power and the sense of self should not depend on the vulnerability of the other.
I am unlikely to be the exception in finding (only some) manmade materials and objects distasteful. Although metal, wood and ceramics may be beautiful, and also mendable, surely there is nothing less so than a piece of faded and unmendable plastic. Thus art made with such materials can be dubiously beautiful, though a naturally talented practitioner could doubtless redeem the most despicable modern rejects of the material world, whatever the starting point.
There is clearly a role for the leaders of culture (the educated, the wealthy and the ‘powerful’) to form or even dictate what is considered beautiful. But somewhere along the line, it seems to me that our ideas of beauty as a culture have gone wrong. Much contemporary Art is un-aesthetic, individualistic and intellectually barren: not even well executed (the craft of it). It’s worth looking more closely into the ideas beneath such manifestations of contemporary culture, but nobody could want to live with such objects, even if the deformation of the Market had not rendered them un-affordable. It may be naïve or primitive, but for myself I shall continue to seek out and appreciate those human and natural creations which most satisfy my own sense of the beautiful and valuable, while simply gazing unaffected on the rest – ‘not to my taste’.