How many very beautiful objects can you think of? And how many very ugly ones? For objects read things, entities, items, doodahs, whatsits, whatever comes to mind as long as it is non-human - let's not get personal about this! Spend a couple of minutes on each and see what you come up with. Or see how long it takes to find three. Whatever suits. If you have the time to spare, do that now, before reading on.
Now I'll stick my neck out and suggest that you found the beautiful thingummyjigs much easier to come by. Further, I'll warrant that your characters for the ugly attribution are most likely to be works of art or architecture, and that your lovelies are natural objects or works of engineering. Of course, I'm on a hiding to nothing here, and your ugly customers could well be creatures of a nasty disposition or countenance or both, but then again, some of the nastiest are actually very beautiful - viruses, etc. And if I am wrong, I remain unrepentant.
No sooner had I posted my most recent effort on What is art? - The Blind Men and the Elephant than I decided to watch the first in the BBC 2's new Saturday evening series What is Beauty, which I had recorded. As I watched it began to occur to me that perhaps I should follow my art post with one on beauty, the two ideas being so intertwined. Almost synonymous, you might think. Even so, it might have got no further than the passing thought, had not two comment on the post suggested the same thing. And so I turned my thoughts more seriously towards such a post.
And almost the first thing that occurred to me was how very much easier it was (for me) to think of very beautiful objects than very ugly ones. Maybe it is a reflection of how privileged we are in the West, for ugly things and awful environments certainly abound in the world, but I still think that, taking the world as a whole, they are probably outnumbered by those we might designate as beautiful. I do recall a conversation with my first boss (a fill-in job between school and college), a disagreement about Darwin and his Origin of the Species. He had given an example of something or other, and I thoughtlessly replied (something like) Ah, but you're talking about a very beautiful flower!.
He came straight back with And do you know of any ugly ones? A silly, rather trivial remark to have stuck in the memory for such a length of time, especially when I can no longer recall the rest of the argument, but stuck it has, and it seems to have coloured my thinking to some extent. To such an extent, in fact, that at times I'm not even sure that there is ugly.
There is frightening, disturbing, alien, unattractive, repulsive, hideous and many another, some of them terms which seem synonymous with ugly, but about ugly I remain unconvinced. Think of a slum scene, for example. We would unhesitatingly call it ugly, though it might well be that its repulsiveness derives from the horrors associated with it, rather than from a purely visual effect. I think how there was a time when all these adjectives would have been applied to somewhere like The Lake District. No one then saw beauty in woods and mountains, not until the Romantic poets and others saw it first. Before that, anything that smacked of wilderness was a dark place of great danger to be avoided at all costs. Everything about it was hideous in the extreme. Of course, all these concepts are subjective as are, for example, colour: your magenta, viridian and rose madder are probably nothing like mine, though we shall never know for sure.
So what is this thing we call beauty? Or would it perhaps be easier to turn our attention first to ugliness? I had thought to do so, but in a sense maybe ugliness is just an absence of beauty the way darkness is not an attribute in itself but an absence of light. Matthew Collins, the presenter of What is Beauty, detailed what he saw as different forms of beauty. He picked out the beauty of nature, of people (are they not part of nature?), light, spontaneity, the beauty of Contemporary Art galleries (an interesting theory of his own was that where once the exhibits in a gallery were beautiful and would special-up their environment, now they have no need of beauty and so all over the country the most stunningly beautiful galleries are being provided to special-up the works!) and others.
I think I see it more simply. First of all, it seems likely that beauty as we perceive it - all beauty - is an off-shoot of the sexual drive. As such it would have bestowed great evolutionary benefit by encouraging the passing on of good genes. The degree to which the emotions associated with the perception of beauty became applied, first to artefacts and symbols (most probably) and later to objects of other kinds would have been dependent on our developing intellect, as was - and is - the case with all the emotions. It is intellect that differentiates and decides which emotion is felt: a small man punches me and the emotion I feel is anger; a man bigger than me hits me and what I feel is fear. There is also a cultural element, of course.
It does seem that there are certain configurations of line that are perceived by our brains as inherently beautiful and others that have a negative charge. In my art school days a number of us were commissioned to paint some murals in a large mental hospital. One student produced a scene of boats on a beach. A psychiatrist came each day to check that there were no masts crossing the horizon - a configuration, he maintained, that would have had a negative effect on the mental stability of some of his patients. It is likely that other configurations, of shape, colour, proportion, texture and so forth, have their own contributions to make in one direction or the other.
Beyond these there are attributes that are seen as inherently beautiful, symmetry being an important one. Again, a symmetrical face is often a pointer for good genes. (I would like to point out here that my markedly asymmetrical head is the exception that proves the rule.) Repetition - as in the reiterations of a fractal, in a simple repeating pattern or a texture - is another.
My apologies for leaving out details of the images. In order of appearance, they are:-
A Francis Bacon portrait.
The Rape by Magritte.
Two holiday snaps of Norway,
The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Bellini
and a work by Odilon Redon.
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