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The Column icon The Column: Issue 25

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The Column is a monthly feature that explores the world of creativity and aesthetics.

A thing of beauty
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

What makes an object, music, words, or a person, beautiful? Can a taste or smell be beautiful? Can we touch 'beauty'? Here are my thoughts on how we know that most difficult to contemplate, yet easily experienced quality we call beauty.
'Intellect can sense nothing, the senses can think nothing; only through their union can knowledge arise.'

'Everything is beautiful - assuming that everything has the ability to make at least one person experience 'beauty'. How beautiful something is, is simply a measure of how potent the experience is for the beholder.'

Beauty is the combination of all the qualities of a person or thing that delight the senses and please the mind.'
The Collins English Dictionary

Defining beauty

For each one of us our experience of what is beautiful differs. Many have attempted to define beauty through the arbitrary perspective of their own sense of taste. Others have sought to present beauty as an external ideal. The truth seems more that beauty brings together many disparate elements from within us, and presents them in the context of a single unified experience.

Our sense of what is beautiful is inextricably linked with our feelings towards the focus of our attention, and feelings are produced from the complex interaction of our physical makeup, past experience, knowledge, social and cultural context, and our need for personal advantage (our need to survive, and the service of our ego). Ouch! This is going to take some thinking about. Beauty is far from straight forward.

My mate: beauty

It seems beauty plays an important part in our survival, why else would we have developed a sense of beauty? Perhaps the appreciation of form and structure serves us in our ability to recognize a suitable mate, and furthers our chances of our continuing lineage. Our sense of beauty in this context gives us a kind of intuitive recognition of what for each of us is an example of perfection. This 'perfection' isn't necessarily without asymmetry or 'fault'.

If we choose an 'attractive' partner, our sons and daughters might be stronger and more likely to continue the family line. If you view this as a reasonable supposition, perhaps you might also consider the perception of beauty is not confined to our own species. Might not animals also perceive beauty? When does something or someone cross the line from being attractive to being beautiful? Isn't beauty simply the zenith of attraction?

We like to think of beauty being the exclusive experience of 'higher animals'. But beauty is not an experience born of thought. We don't 'come to an understanding' of beauty, although our understanding can develop our sense of what is beautiful. We feel an immediate sense of beauty. We see and say almost without delay 'what a beautiful flower'.

Where people are concerned, we often add a behavioural or moral element to the equation. That 'person' is beautiful. I wonder whether what's actually being said is 'that person would make a great mate or clan member'.

The history of beauty

The experience of beauty has been with us as a species for a long time.

Frog The appreciation of beauty in the colour and form of animals and plants is perhaps our oldest and most instinctive aesthetic. There's no doubt however, that despite the tendency to assume sight and hearing as the most significant senses in the apprehension of beauty, other senses are also attuned to the experience of beauty.
Plant Plants for example are not only beautiful because of their visual appearance, but also because of their texture and scent. We apprehend their beauty in their entirety...
Cave painting Located on the western edges of the Massif Central and the northern slopes of the Pyrenees, Lascaux is a prehistoric site containing Paleolithic cave paintings that date to around 32,000 years old. The paintings are substantial and powerful representations of animals, and it seems very clear to anyone viewing them that a strong sense of aesthetic is being applied.
Urn An earthenware urn dating back to the Neolithic period of around 4,500 years ago originated from a culture known as Machang, situated in Northwest China. Objects such as these are not only utilitarian, but also highly desirable for their intrinsic beauty.

Cultural context

Our home culture also plays a significant role in our apprehension of beauty. I have grown up with the assertion of my home culture at every turn. As an infant learning the rhythm and tone of my home language, through the years of my upbringing, to my daily exposure as an adult to the messages and emphasis of the people and media that surround me.

The countless examples in which my home culture influences my understanding and experience of the world have a profound impact on my experience of what beauty is to me. That's not to say I don't have independence of thought and feeling, but it is to accept we are both natured and nurtured.

When ugly is not

I wondered whether I might understand beauty more if I pondered on what its opposite, ugliness is. I found the more I thought, the more difficult it was to judge when a thing is beautiful or ugly. Beauty however is an instinctive experience, and one undermined by the clutter of thought.

Ugly Ducklings

The ugly duckling is an interesting example of how difficult ugliness is to convey.

One of my abiding thoughts as a child was how all the ugly ducklings I came across in stories really weren't that ugly. Hey, even if I was an ugly duckling, things didn't seem that bad.

As far as I could tell, ugly simply meant different, and one thing I've never been that concerned about is being different.

Beautifully simple

The Golden Mean (or Golden Section), represented by the Greek letter phi, is for some, a mathematical expression of beauty, like e or pi. The greek philosopher and mathematician Euclid (about 300BC) in his 'Elements' was the first to present phi.

Unlike the abstract numbers e or pi, phi appears clearly and regularly in the realm of things that grow and unfold in steps, and that includes living things. The decimal representation of phi is 1.6180339887499...

Each spiral below is generated using recursive attachments of the same geometric shape. In this example, polygons of sides 3, 4, and 5 have been used.

Click the 'next' button above to view each spiral version. Right click, 'Zoom in' to reveal the infinite nature of these constructions.

Full stop

I've spent some considerable time on this subject because I feel beauty is a major unseen motivation that informs our need to create. Beauty is something I more than like, it is something to love.

Sometimes reaching a conclusion about the nature of beauty appears tantalisingly close, yet continues to evade the final grasp of my reach. Beauty is not something that can be caged, or simply articulated. Beauty is like a full stop. It is there to make sense of all that precedes it.


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Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author. Mike is also a Director of 2BrightSparks, a software company producing award winning backup solutions.

Flash movie of the 'Golden Spiral' by Jared Tarbell:

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