Tuesday, May 2, 2017

--- Notes on beauty ---

Beauty is pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing.... Beauty is a value, that is, it is not a perception of a matter of fact or of a relation: it is an emotion, an affection of our volitional and appreciative nature. An object cannot be beautiful if it can give pleasure to nobody....

George Santayana

This might be a surprise given some of the violently ugly works of art that exists. Consider Goya's "Saturn Devouring His Son", Munch's "The Scream", and Robert Mapplethorpe's "The Perfect Moment".

Certainly, in nature, beauty is a "something about" something that makes people (in general) feel good. A colorful sunset, a craggy mountain, the deep, blue sea - these things strike a chord in just about everyone that gives them pleasure.

What about Goya's "The Third of May 1808", the depiction of a horrific firing squad. Usually, people who like this painting understand certain things about the painter and the his times. The painting doesn't directly inspire pleasure in the viewer but something more like agreement, sympathy, or solidarity, and it feels good to be a part of a group bound by agreement. Works of art, unlike nature, can be beautiful for reasons much divorced from direct pleasure.

People can feel pleasure for many reasons, including some quite warped reasons (read Eric Berne's "The Games People Play" for a pleasurable and often quite uncomfortable exploration of many of those reasons), and art can play to all of them.

People who do not approach art from the position of appreciation, or immersing themselves in the piece, its background, and its creator, often wonder what the big deal is for something like Van Gogh's "Starry, Starry Night." Deeper understanding allows a work of art to come alive and display surprising beauty.

In the same way, a mathematician talks about the beauty of an elegant and creative theory, a programmer talks about the beauty of an efficient line of code, or an ecologist may talk about the beauty of a valuable scavenger like a vulture. Part of what they mean is the esteem they have for something that fits so well, but I suspect that they have also caught a feeling, a scent, of the lines, the rhythms, the certain inexpressible....beauty of the thing.

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