Working off of the WordPress Daily Prompt about trying to describe or explain beauty.
I’ll riff on that a little bit. What is beautiful? Those things that give us peace, but also those things that promise variety. I will suggest that beauty is an emotion of “rightness”. Tony Hillerman’s mysteries introduced me to the Navajo concept of hózhó, which combines beauty with rightness and harmony.
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
Perhaps Keats was on to something, in equating the two. Of course, he was writing about the mystery of the ages as expressed in the Grecian Urn, and there are beautiful fantasies and ugly truths as well.
A beautiful landscape is one that has features – if you think past “ugly” as an antonym, “desolate” comes to mind. “Stark beauty” is a cliche to describe, not featurelessness, but features emphasized by their isolation. Beautiful architecture has a balance of features that is neither too stark and slab-like, nor too laden with baroque detail.
An illuminated blue ceiling is somehow less beautiful than an equally blue sky, though a photo of the two might appear identical. Is it the depth of field? The promise of change? Or a trick of perception that the light arriving from the sky, though it appears the same color to us, is richer or more continuous in wavelengths than the painted ceiling? (Compare real sky spectrum to paint reflections…)
What is beauty in a person? Various research has shown that, in a face, we like a face that is nearly, but not perfectly, symmetrical. (Taking a photo and mirroring the left-right sides actually decreases attractiveness.)
Beauty is correlated with youth and health, but not strictly. Older people can be beautiful when their faces suggest a friendly and generous character, and the artificial look of a Paris Hilton plastic-surgery face decreases beauty.
Beauty is also associated with cleverness or good practice within a set of artificial parameters. Engineers and mathematicians use the word to describe an elegant solution to a problem, one that uses a minimum of complexity. In that respect (and note that this is the opposite of landscape beauty!), perhaps beauty implies economy of resources.
This afternoon, some football player will probably make a beautiful catch or a beautiful tackle, or maybe escape a tackle through a beautiful feint. And another team will “win ugly” – they’ll get more points, but somehow the win is diminished by the absence of this elegance, or by blunders from the other team. I probably wouldn’t recognize a beautiful play in, for example, British cricket, since I have no idea how the game goes.
There is beauty in music as well – perhaps coming from completion of an expected pattern? This pattern idea comes from my limited experience with P.D.Q. Bach, who uses broken patterns to produce musical jokes. The wave-forms of sound can certainly also be a source (or lack) of beauty in music – the same note in sine wave, sawtooth wave, or square wave sounds different, and synthesized music seems flat because it lacks the pattern of overtones produced by physical instruments. I have little appreciation for Chopin’s tinkly (and to my ears, dull) piano music, but someone who knows Chopin might get little sense of beauty from In Memory of Elizabeth Reed. And neither of us see the beauty in Judas Priest or this.
Music can be beautiful in different ways to different people, because it brings up different memories. So the powerful association of music and mind easily evokes beauty – a topic for another day, I can see depth there.
A beautiful symphony (or guitar jam), a beautiful face, a beautiful landscape, a beautiful proof in mathematics or a beautiful double play in baseball all provoke an emotion of beauty. They do so through different mechanisms, and for best appreciation of beauty it’s important to have some background to recognize it.
So what is beauty? The last line of the 1933 version of King Kong is, “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”
Maybe beauty is an emotion that sets humanity apart from the beasts. And maybe that’s because it isn’t always there for us.