On Beauty

A few days ago, I had a long conversation with a friend about beauty. After that conversation, I realized that I have two incompatible views of beauty. And I don’t know how to reconcile them.

The first view has to do with beauty in nature and art. It comes from two places. I took a class on eighteenth century aesthetic theory in which we talked about various definitions of the beautiful, and the one I found most convincing was a rather old one, and a fairly staid one actually. It was that beauty consists of variety in unity. That is, a variety of things (lines, shapes, colors) that nevertheless comes together as a unified whole. And the greatest beauty is the maximum amount of variety, still unified. I have a feeling that it comes from William Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty, but I’m not sure; I’d have to read it again. Perhaps it’s my distillation of Hogarth and his “line of beauty” or serpentine line (the s-shaped double curve that he thought was the most beautiful shape).

And then I heard, on a television show, about a physicist named Richard Taylor who had analyzed Jackson Pollock’s paintings and found that they were fractals. That is, there was self-similarity in them: the same mathematical relationships exist in the painting as a whole and in parts of the painting. You can read an article on Pollock’s fractal patterns here: “Pollock’s Fractals.” A fractal demonstrates the same principle I found in Hogarth: variety within unity. If you look at fractal patterns like the leaves of a tree, they have a fundamental unity, but they also have an almost infinite variety. And we consider them beautiful.

If you read the article I linked to, you’ll find that Taylor conducted a series of experiments to determine which sorts of patterns human beings find most pleasing. He determined that what we find most pleasing are fractals, but more than that, fractals with a specific relationship: the ones closest to the fractal dimensions we see in nature.

I’m going to include three quotations from the article:

“Studies have found that people prefer patterns that are neither too regular, like the test bars on a television channel, nor too random, like a snowy screen. They prefer the subtle variations on a recurring theme in, say, a Beethoven concerto, to the monotony of repeated scales or the cacophony of someone pounding on a keyboard.”

“Artists, architects, writers, and musicians may instinctively appeal to their audiences by mimicking the fractal patterns found in nature.”

“In a famous 1950 documentary by Hans Namuth, one can see Pollock circling his canvases on the floor, dripping and flinging paint in motions that seem both haphazard and perfectly controlled. He wasn’t merely imitating nature, he was adopting its mechanism: chaos dynamics.”

So that’s my view of beauty in nature and art. I believe that beauty in the natural world and in an artistic work comes from variety within unity, and that a particular relationship between the two triggers something in us, a sense of recognition that makes us say, “Yes. That’s it.” I think my best stories have that, a particular relationship between variety and unity. It’s something I was not aware of when I started writing, but that I’m more aware of now. I want my stories to be like Pollock’s paintings: if you look at them closely, they should still be intricate. There should still be more to see, within a unified whole. And I believe we see beauty in that particular relationship because we’re wired to do so. We’ve been wired that way by millions of years of evolution within a fractal environment. We think art is beautiful when it most closely resembles nature, not by representing it but by operating according to the same mathematical principles.

But that view is completely at odds with my view of personal beauty. Do you remember Merlin, the television miniseries? It features Helena Bonham Carter as Morgan le Fay, who is initially disfigured but who is made beautiful by magic. At the end, after she has been defeated, she becomes disfigured again. Merlin tells her that her beauty was only an illusion. She looks up at him and says, “Beauty is always only an illusion.” That’s what I believe about personal beauty, that it is always constructed. Think of the different looks of Helena Bonham Carter herself, all the different ways she can appear. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes plain, sometimes grotesque.

I find it fascinating to look at the women who have to be beautiful because it’s a professional requirement: film actresses. When they start out, they are often not particularly beautiful. Think of Scarlet Johansson in Ghost World, and think of her now. She has been Hollywoodized. There is something Hollywood does to them. They lost some of their individuality. But they gain a sort of glow. They no longer look ordinary. They become luminescent. And then, when a film role requires, they can become quite ordinary again. Think of Kate Winslet as Iris Murdoch in Iris. And then, for appearing ordinary (which the film industry evidently sees as a significant feat), they often win Oscars.

In the course of this conversation, my friend commented on some pictures of me he had seen online, and I said, “You should see me with green goop on my face.” And then I said, “I should post a picture of that.” And then, “No, I shouldn’t. It’s going to be out there forever.” And that was a failure of nerve.

So here is my argument that beauty is constructed. The green goop picture:

A picture with no green goop, posed and photoshopped:

And a drawing that Kendrick made of that picture. Here we circle back to the issue of art.

What bothers me is that I see beauty in nature as mathematical, while I see personal beauty as always constructed, always only an illusion. Perhaps the way to reconcile these two views is as follows: beauty itself is mathematical, a fractal relationship. That applies to trees and faces, as well as to works of art. How we get to that relationship, that variety within unity: in terms of personal beauty as well as art, that is always a construct, an illusion. It is something we create, as Pollock created his paintings.

(Which makes me think, if I just dripped paint on my face . . . Well, perhaps that will be the next photograph!)

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11 Responses to On Beauty

  1. rushmc says:

    And here enters the “eye of the beholder” issue. Many of the artificial, painted, and plasticized women in Hollywood become more 3-D icon than woman and can rarely stand the comparison to an actual beautiful woman. Prettiness is posed, but real beauty surges from within. Or one can distinguish it as cold beauty vs. warm beauty. I would argue that fractals are always cold and can never connect to a viewer as something with warm beauty can, however much they may be appreciated.

    Or maybe it’s just me? I must admit that I MUCH prefer your first photo, green face and all, to the second. It contains far more interest value and appeal, and I don’t find that the green detracts at all. Indeed, it contributes a layer of…something…reminiscent of the sad beauty of the clown, perhaps?

  2. I think the “green goop” picture is quite beautiful, myself. 🙂

  3. Ditto rushmc that the green-goop picture is a more beautiful picture — in my aesthetic register; I think both because it’s unconventional, and because of the juxtapositions — poise and concentration with a dollop of absurdity in the form of the green goop — and because it implies more narrative. The posed picture is beautiful, of course — in a conventional way; I expect it would get more hits on a dating site. But it’s not as striking, because it resembles a lot of other beautiful pictures structured just the same way — although, of course, in another esthetic register, that very resemblance will work as an allusion or reference to those pictures rather than simply a repetition of them, and thus enrich rather than detract…

    I think there is probably some interesting math behind the differences between people’s esthetics — just as the fractal/nature thing captures certain universals. Whether Britney Spears and Dan Brown appeal to you more than Björk and Geoff Ryman can be probably usefully characterized by a couple of numbers, capturing things like how often you want to be surprised and (another axis) how overt you want your depictions of emotion.

    All art trades on the tension between familiarity and novelty; and narrative art, at least, on the tension between distanced observation and emotional involvement. The precise way these are “tuned” in different people probably generates much of esthetic taste — so that a McSweeney’s reader will find something already cloying sentimental which a Danielle Steele fan finds still dry and passionless (and the rare person who is both a McSweeney’s reader and Danielle Steele fan will be conflicted).

    From an evolutionary perspective these different “tunings” might well have something to do with the similar tension between endogamous and exogamous mating strategies, or indeed between different foraging strategies (wanderlust and homesickness are very basic, pre-mammalian emotions). It’s also clear that a lot of these parameters of “taste” are learned, and that while we may be in part, wired to like certain things, we’re also very much wired to absorb what’s around us and figure out what we should like. Taste is, for instance, correlated with social class in overwhelming and nontrivial ways:

    Over several years in the 1960s, Bourdieu and his researchers surveyed 1,200 people of all classes and mined government data on aspects of French domestic life. They asked, for instance, Which of the following subjects would be most likely to make a beautiful photograph? and offered such choices as a sunset, a girl with a cat or a car crash[….] The statistical results were striking. The things you prefer — tastes that you like to think of as personal, unique, justified only by sensibility — correspond tightly to defining measures of social class: your profession, your highest degree and your father’s profession.

    (from this very relevant essay on Bourdieu and the word “hipster”)

  4. Nik Reeves-McLaren says:

    I have to agree with the previous posters – I prefer the green goop also. The photoshopped image is my least favourite. I guess what I look for in art and beauty is honesty, originality and something genuine. I can appreciate Kendrick’s picture for the same reasons. These pictures tell a story – at a basic level, why is she wearing green goop on her face? Is she getting ready to go out, is she trying to impress someone? Is she trying to relax – if so, why, what has happened to make her feel she needs to relax?

    The middle picture could just be snipped out of a magazine – the pose, the photoshopping… it strips some of that character away as well, and the story the picture tells is diminished as well. In my humble opinion, anyway…!

  5. Of course a lot depends on context. This is an interesting informal survey, and I suspect the vast majority of commentors here are going to prefer the green-goop picture. But this is a blog post where you juxtapose the two and call our attention to the “construction of beauty”; also, where each picture has to stand on its own without anything else to provide narrative. In this context I too prefer the green goop. But I’m not sure that I would advise you to use green-goop-pic rather than Photoshop-pic for your book jacket inside back cover photo for your next book. Maybe it depends on the tone of the next book? But in that context, the green-goop photo might seem jokey, gimmicky, while the Photoshoppy one might effectively evoke the book’s Romantic sensibilities…

  6. Duncan Long says:

    I enjoyed your article. When it comes to the female face, I believe we have a hardwired “picture” that we compare to any given real face. The closer the face to that hardwired icon, the more we perceive it as being beautiful.

    Interestingly it is possible to create a “pleasing” female (or to some extent male) face by “averaging” a number of pictures together. The more faces added to the composite, the more “beautiful” it becomes to most viewers.

    Makeup tends to “average” a face. Thus it is often possible to transform a person from so-so to beautiful with careful use of makeup. Often you’ll see this with actresses with and without their makeup. This is also why there’s a growing tendency of all Hollywood actresses to be both beautiful while being easily confused with one anther — as the averaging takes place, they become both more beautiful and more alike.

    Sadly it appears that the hardwired ideal can be bent by fashion or experiences. Or perhaps that’s a good thing :o)

    –Duncan Long

  7. AJ Vega says:

    Interesting subject. It seems we are slaves to the “old wiring” in our brains.

    I’m reminded of a sad story about a man who sustained damage to his “wiring”. He was in a car accident and received a concussion. Since they did not find anything wrong with him at first, he was released from the hospital.

    When he returned home, his family noticed a significant change in his personality— he was cold and unemotional; essentially unable to “love” or be a husband and father anymore.

    Eventually, he went back to the hospital and upon a more detailed examination, they found he had a hairline cut in his brain— somewhere they believe certain higher-level emotions are “created”. Essentially, his “old wiring” was damaged.

    Does that mean that love of one’s spouse and child could also be an illusion, the way beauty is?

    Hmm. There is no spoon. 🙂

  8. Duncan Long says:

    Yes, the high G forces in a car wreck can case the front of the brain to scrape across the bony ridges at the center, front of the skull. The damage is very minor BUT often destroys the ability to love people. These victims become very self-centered and often leave marriages or other relationships since they no longer see any advantage in staying in them.

    Whether they have had their eyes opened or are suffering from a handicap probably could be argued – perhaps the stuff for a story.

  9. You all are very funny with your green goop preference, but I think Ben makes my point when he writes the following:

    “The posed picture is beautiful, of course — in a conventional way; I expect it would get more hits on a dating site.”

    “But I’m not sure that I would advise you to use green-goop-pic rather than Photoshop-pic for your book jacket inside back cover photo for your next book.”

    The green goop pic is more artistic. The photoshopped pic is more conventional, but would get a different reaction, an uncomplicated “that’s attractive” reaction rather than the complicated reaction you all are having to the green goop photo.

    I’m with Duncan in that I believe we have a template for people’s faces. But I agree with Ben, too, that our aesthetic sense is affected by social class.

  10. Duncan Long says:

    Yes, if there’s a template it becomes obvious that it can be altered in both subtle ways. When one looks at the skinny fashion models and compares them to the heavy set women of the Renaissance, or the female faces on statues of ancient Greece, it becomes apparent that there can be alterations of our vision of beauty. The changes aren’t such that most of us would not see one or another of these as attractive, but the changes are nonetheless there, I think.

  11. rushmc says:

    Okay, I was actually being polite in my previous comment. I actually actively DISLIKE the second photo. It looks like it could have been taken on a morgue slab. My liking of the green goop photo had nothing to do with any artistic staging; I was judging it merely on the criteria we were discussing–beauty. Looking at them again, I stand by my original assessment. 🙂

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