When Considering Beauty
I think that humanity is fundamentally based upon three pillars: truth, justice, and beauty. Of the three, beauty is the hardest to grasp — its definition is tenuous and transitory, puffs of smoke wafting through the centuries. Yet its presence continues to transcend time and space; its character continues to serve as the treatise for philosophers and thinkers across civilizations; its function continues to spark debate amongst biologists and anthropologists.
I would define beauty as the following: an element that brings the beholder to an elevated state of appreciation or satisfaction, that evokes a heightened state of awareness and consciousness. It’s important to recognize that the nature of an object’s beauty does not directly depend upon that object’s immediate function. Unlike keys, defined upon its utility for unlocking doors, or pens defined as utensils for writing, beauty is not a x for mediating f(x). I don’t think that beauty is necessarily contained in the “beautiful” objects themselves, but instead within the attended state of consciousness of the contemplator. Beauty is a vehicle for appreciation, for an elevated consciousness of existence. I would thus argue here for the use of subjectivity to define beauty. This idea traces back to the Greeks (3rd century BC): “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Princess of France in Love’s Labours Lost (mid-1590s): “my beauty, though but mean, / Needs not the painted flourish of your praise: / Beauty is bought by judgment of the eye, / Not utter’d by base sale of chapmen’s tongues,” Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack (1741): “Beauty, like supreme dominion, is but supported by opinion,” and David Hume’s Moral and Political (1742): “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.”
I’ve been thinking about how to best bring my own definitions of beauty up for consideration, and have concluded that the best form for doing so is through personal reflection. Such reflections are of course inherently subjective, but the act develops a shared experience— perhaps helping us come collectively towards a deeper understanding of why/how/what we consider to be among the most beautiful things in our lives.
On the first day of every new year, I take a drive up along the Pacific coast from Northern San Jose to Big Sur with three friends. We depart in the morning, off we go in Bela’s white Land Rover (aka the little “portable library on wheels.” Books, magazines and notebooks are strewn across the carpeted floors and tucked into gloves behind the two front seats).
The drive is a little over two hours long. Along the way, we pass through Watsonville, a city located in the Parajaro Valley, where the pleasant climate (60 to 70°F throughout the year) has supported its thriving agriculture-based economy. Rows of apple trees, bright red splotches upon leafy branches, then acres of bright green lettuce heads popping up from the soil, then strawberry bushes with their distinct ridged, rounded leaves, swoosh by. The geometry of these agricultural stretches of land, the fertility of the earth, and the vibrancy of the fruit and vegetables: these sights are all beautiful. In viewing them, I am brought to a heightened awareness of the grandeur of our Earth, the immense possibility for growth and development and life contained within our planet.
Then up the coast we go, and I can’t tell you why exactly, but if I just show you this section of HWY 1 — from Salinas to Monterey to Carmel-by-the-Sea, perhaps you’d understand what I mean when I tell you, with conviction, that the California coastline flanking this side of the Pacific should be considered the most beautiful place on Earth. The ocean here is composed of varying shades of soft baby blues, turquoise, sea grass greens. And the land complements the ocean so beautifully, with jagged islands of rock accentuating the sea foam as waves crash upon its sides, and grass-covered slopes and cliffs looking above the shore. There’s a sort of mystical allure of the ocean. I look out at the Pacific and its immensity, the way it stretches past the horizon and drifts softly off view, inspires a mixture of awe, wonder and, above all, an infinite appreciation. Perhaps the purpose of beauty is just this: to conjure this mix of emotions, to take our breath away, to ask us to evaluate what we believe is worth preserving and holding near to our hearts.
But it’s important to note that the beauty I experience here, every first day of the New Year, isn’t contained simply within the physical beauty of the roadside landscapes. Just as beautiful: the unshakable solidity of my friendships and the seemingly endless potential for possibilities in the New Year. This so deeply complicates an attempt at defining beauty, for things of beauty transgress form and function; they can be reflected within Nature, relationships, emotions. In all its forms, however, beauty brings me to a state of appreciation and heightened awareness (of things interior and exterior to my own self).
The idea of beauty in ballet is perhaps complicated by the art’s obsessive addiction to perfection. This perfection can be more or less broken into two categories: artistic and technical.
I first watched Misty Copeland perform in the American Ballet Company’s production of Giselle two years ago. The performance was an incredible show of grace, a show mediated through intense dedication to a higher form of art. The chiselled muscles, perfectly executed pas de deux, pirouettes whirling across the floor, not a single step executed to the utmost perfection — ballet is truly an art that embodies beauty in its most dynamic form. I see these movements as grace, and this graceful movement as beauty. The ballet leaves you in awe, with an unfiltered admiration for art, craft, and physical perfection — an elevated state of appreciation for the form and potential contained within the human body.
Dancers like Copeland allow us to appreciate the beauty in human bodies precisely because their physical forms so lucidly reflect a form of relentless pursuit for perfection. In seeing the taut sinews, muscles, and veins across the canvas of the body, the arch of a pointed toe moulded into a ballet shoe, the form of the fingers — middle finger slightly flexed down — indicating even the finest attention to grace, you see the grit, the zealous passion fuelling these dancers’ performances. You see all the intensity of physical, mental, and technical pursuit of art and thus, you see the performance as beauty, encapsulated in the dynamic forms twirling upon stage.
In using ballet as an example of beauty, one cannot ignore the presence of standards in the definition of beauty. Are there certain standards that must be met in order for something to be considered beautiful? Within ballet, the standards are in the technique. And in order for you to have the right technique, to execute the difficult series of steps at quickly and clearly enough, to perform the choreography at the right rhythm, there’s a certain physical standard, in your physique, elegance, how you carry yourslef. There’s an emphasis on clean lines and a pleasing arrangement of the figure’s design that simply do not allow for layers of body excess in-between. This standard in physique exists and is often set as a prerequisite for a ballerina to achieve beauty in her craft.
Evolution & Neuroaesthetics
Our conversation thus far has been centred on my own subjective experiences with beauty, but consideration should also be given to more objective aspects of beauty. The previous story on ballet references the idea of “standards” within things that we consider beautiful. Perhaps we can argue that beauty in humans selects for certain “standards” that serve an evolutionary purpose? This hypothesis may be supported by neuroimaging studies within neuroaesthetics that suggest that brain areas thought to be involved in aesthetic responses overlap with those that mediate the appraisal of objects of evolutionary importance (desirability of food or the attractiveness of potential mates).
In their book The Beauty Prescription, Luftman and Ritvo argue for a beauty-brain loop in which beauty (both inner and outer forms), health, and environment interact with one another. Looking from an evolutionary perspective, beautiful skin, nails, hair, and teeth would have all served as indicators to the health and vitality of our ancestors. Indeed, most people consider youth more beautiful than the elderly, as individuals in their earlier phases of life have higher physical evidence of vitality and fertility. Thus, one could argue that certain physical traits, voluminous hair, clear complexions, symmetrical bodies, indicate biological “fitness” and thus we are wired by natural selection to view these traits as beautiful.
The consequences of this previous argument is a potential “survival of the prettiest,” perhaps mediated by specific neuromodulatory circuits that prefer things of higher beauty. The field of neuroaesthetics explores this idea, using neuroscience to explain and understand aesthetic experiences (specifically when viewing artwork) at the neurological level. Results of the paper “Naturalizing aesthetics: brain areas for aesthetic appraisal across sensory modalities” (Brown et al., 2011) report voxel-based meta-analyses of 93 neuroimaging studies of aesthetic appraisal of both non-art and art objects across sensory modalities. Across the surveyed positive aesthetic responses, the anterior insula was found to be the most important brain region for aesthetic appraisal. Interestingly, the anterior insula is traditionally thought to be involved in regulation of the body’s homeostasis (blood pressure, immune system regulation, motor control) but also in negative social emotions (disgust, fear, anger, pain). However, it is this same anterior insular region that is most active when we view beautiful Renaissance paintings or attend to pleasant auditory (Baroque concertos), gustatory, or somatosensory stimuli. A plausible evolutionary hypothesis from these results is that the aesthetic system of the brain, the one that regulates our response to “beautiful” objects, was first used for evaluating these objects based on their biological importance (food, mating, survival). Then, over the course of human evolution, this same neurological system was repurposed to create aesthetic responses to higher forms of art (paintings, music, dance).
Thus, our neurological responses to delicious meals or attractive potential mates have been argued to consist of the same underlying neurobiological circuitry as our responses to Beethoven or Monet. If our brain’s aesthetic systems are also used for assessing evolutionary survival, perhaps there is some unconscious consideration of a beautiful object as something that is “good” or “healthy” for us, not something that could harm or threaten our survival.
A note on Brave New World
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in its obliteration of artistic beauty, can help further my definition of beauty thus far as something “good” or “healthy,” that invokes appreciation, or provokes a “heightened state of awareness or consciousness.”
The society in Brave New World is stable, comfortable, and yet lacking in real beauty or fulfillment — stuffed with individuals who do not know “what time’s for” past the pursuit of pleasure and consumption (97). All forms of art, from books to plays to paintings have been prohibited. When the Savage asks Mustapha Mond why Shakespeare’s texts are all banned, “Even when they’re beautiful,” Mond replies: “Particularly when they’re beautiful. Beauty’s attractive” (141). The Controller later adds: “But that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed the high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead” (141, 143).
I’d like to conclude by considering Mond’s elaboration on his ideas of beauty and beauty’s consequences on humanity. I think that Mond sees beauty as a force that compel (impel?) individuals to strive for something higher, to look beyond the boundaries of their existence into higher orders of thought / consciousness. This is why he, along with the other Controllers in Brave New World, see beautiful art forms as a threat to their society’s stability. But the importance of this function of beauty, as an element that asks us to aspire to greater heights, to illuminate a new aspect of truth, reflective thought, or consciousness, is perhaps the most important function of all. Things of the most significant kinds of beauty take us to a heightened degree of awareness of the infinite potential — for aesthetic perfection, joy, empathy, fulfilment, wonder, and grace — contained within our humanity.