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WHAT IS BEAUTY? (part 1 of 2)
I have made images almost all my life in response to my passions and for commercial assignments. Frequently the word ‘beauty’ has been used to describe my work. It was often used in relation to many TV commercials and food still-life photographs I made for clients. I was pleased they responded in that way, but I shrank from accepting it, although for many years I never asked why.
To my surprise, often people responded very emotionally to my documentary work, at times with tears, describing individual photographs or the collection as ‘beautiful’. I understood, but, I didn’t ask why this seemed right, and my reactions to the commercial work seemed wrong?
Now that I occasionally teach people about making films and photographs, and, as an aspiration, how to CHANGE THE WORLD IMAGE BY IMAGE, the question WHAT IS BEAUTY? has become more important. I wish for those I teach to be able to create beauty, but of course to do so they and I need to have clarity about what beauty may be. This is that attempt, made humble by having read great mind’s explanations of its meaning.
THE FIRST COMPONENT: FORM
Many definitions from the ancient classical world (8th century BC – 6th century AD) through to the present describe beauty as a consequence of universally pleasing mathematically calculated proportional relationships of forms, volumes, shapes, colours, visual and aural tonalities, and the harmonies and rhythms found in music and spoken words.
Aristotle (early 3rd century BC) defined beauty as possessing “order, symmetry and definiteness which the mathematical sciences exhibit in a special degree”.
From the end of the classical period, for almost 1000 years, what were classified as beautiful public and religious buildings, represented those satisfying proportions and symmetries.
Every two-dimensional image is built upon three foundations: form, content and technique. In my photograph above, three elements of form – tone, volume and shape - dominate the image. Those three elements describe (suggest) a building. The building is the subject matter. This is where it gets tricky. The apparent subject matter, the building, at first sight, seems to have relatively little significance; but what one may perceive as the beauty of the photograph’s look (its form) suggests a powerful content or meaning: that human beings are capable of creating perfection, as represented in the pleasing silvery grey tones, and the well proportioned volumes and shapes in the photograph. Thus, there is a less obvious but vital unity between the form or the look of the image and its content (subject matter), which is the carrier of the underlying narrative.
When one views an image, the form or look of it is easily visible, as is the subject matter (the content or narrative). What to most viewers is not immediately grasped is the technique used in making the photograph. But this is for discussion in another essay.
This relationship between the look and the meaning of an image says to me that in part the classical thinkers were right to believe that formal elements can illicit the ‘beauty response’ because to encounter seductive form allows humans to see in the genius, skills, vision of the creators, their own possible perfectibility. Or at least, that as a species we may rise above our faulty behaviour. The above opens another area of consideration in the definition of beauty. How does content (subject matter, narrative) play a role in beauty?
THE SECOND COMPONENT: NARRATIVES OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT
This relationship between formal beauty and the needs of our psyches for stories is touched upon in the Old Testament. Their God defined beauty in a way opposite that of the ancient world’s view. In Acts 13:22 (written between 70 and 90 AD) it says: “After removing Saul, (God) made David their king. ... Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight.”
This Biblical story implies the second part of what I believe composes beauty; yes, it is about ideal forms, but those forms embraced with the ‘unfading beauty’ of the human spirit expressed as a narrative, which, to my mind, must play a part in the creation of what we find deeply moving in relation to beauty.
Beware though, form on its own without regard to content is decadent, and content on its own without regard to form is dogmatic.
EARLY MODERN COMODIFACATION OF BEAUTY
From 1300-1500, artists began againpainting women’s naked breasts, symbolizing a mixture of fertility and sensuality. The idealized women of artists like Titian were commonly swelling and curvy, pale with flushed cheeks, and coy faces. At this point, a separate branch of beauty began to grow on the self-aggrandising trunk of the new Italian middle-class sponsorship and consumption of art. Having liberated their souls from medieval spiritualism, and preoccupied with status, power and wealth, they saw women as they saw bolts of cloth or chests of coins; they saw women as another possession. Of course, women’s value as a possession needed to be appraised by some standard, and the vague nature of female beauty became a part of that valuation process, but it also began to dominate the meaning of ‘beauty’.
By the 19th century these superficial middleclass values became all but codified into polite society, representing that classes’ conventions of propriety, manners and materialist attitudes.
The early 19th century French author, Stendhal, noted the relationship between acceptable visual taste and contemporary values when he wrote, ”Beauty is the promise of happiness. If the search for happiness is the underlying quest of our lives, it seems only natural that it should simultaneously be the essential theme to which beauty alludes.” (Quoted from Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness.)
If the above is true, that beauty is about happiness, then it is not dissimilar to being made happy eating a sausage or getting a suntan.
Since around 1980, the spread of the plague-like Neoliberal financial globalization of the world’s economy has been changing, integrating and homogenising local cultures into an Anglo-American standard of taste, styles, fashion and beauty.
For me this constructs an even more facile, post-modern, ‘me’ centric universe. In what kind of world must beauty be dedicated to fashion and style? Franz Kafka (German-speaking Czech, considered one of the most important writers of the early 2oth century) wrote: "If the book we are reading does not wake us, as are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us."
In other words, the rise of the middle classes, leading to the rise of Neoliberalism, has done to our appreciation and concept of beauty what it has done to the rest of culture, turning it into a financialised materialist component of style, fashion and looks, while turning it away from its deeper meanings (content and themes) to the human spirit.
Where does this leave me in regard to define beauty? This will be resolved in the second part of this essay to be published in a few days.
I need to unravel this. Subject matter - the people and animals, the objects, buildings and landscapes are what you see filling the picture. Subject matter is chosen because it represents certain content, as the nature of family life, the conditions of war, the exhaustion of poverty or working in a hospital. Looking at one or many related images will suggest a narrative meaning a story about those things. Underlying the story will be the maker’s themes as a concern about love or oppression or justice or freedom. All of these allude to values and values to one’s morality.
If you turn this upside down, you can see how one’s concerns, for say oppression, may lead the artist to tell a story about a local food bank, so choosing a family to represent the conditions which lead to relying the food bank.
When the human brain is presented with an image, it naturally seeks its story. The brain will ask what is the relationship between the old man with the crook in his hand with the lion. Or when presented with two images together, the brain will again try to create meaning between them. We know from historical, psychological and neurological research that humans need stories for various reasons as to understand where one has originated and come from, for helping to create a sense of completeness as a result of living a life that fragments our psyches, and to provided us models and morals to live by.
In the Greco-Roman classical age, female nudity represented fertility and at times love, while male nudity represented moral values, strength and an idealised beauty.