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Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Why do I not love thee well, when I am nuts on yon?

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.


willow said...

Beauty truly is all in the eye of the beholder. I rather liked the more unique pieces you posted here.

Poetikat said...

If you're up for a bit of psycho-analysis, Dave, here's my list:


ugly teeth
dirty toilets
dog crap


clean toilets
pretty teeth
dog coats.

I find the idea that all beauty as we perceive it, stems from sexual drive fascinating.

Vewy intewesting. (As Elmer Fudd would say.)

enchantedoak said...

My beautiful (based on today's post on my blog):
Sea stones

My ugly:
Crap (I'm with Poetikat)
Squashed snails

Everything is from the natural world, that's about all the meaning I see in that. I'm very noncomplex. Loved your photos and artwork.
Cheers, Chris

The Weaver of Grass said...

Hi Dave. Confucius, he say - everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it.
Interesting post and one for a lot of thought - when I try to think of something ugly - not easy as you suggest - I think of heaps of rubbish by the roadside, overflowing dustbins, vomit in the street - all things which really offend the senses. When I think of beauty I think of things which appeal to me - a rose, a beautiful building, a baby. It is all pretty subjective the beauty thing, but not so the ugliness. Shall have to give it all much more thought - possibly it is impossible to define.

Shadow said...

i don't think ugly need even be visual. all it needs is a bad association...


well, posts like this one and i am so remindful of all i liked so much about coming by your place - and am sorry to have been away for a while - very neat post - thought-provoking and more! and i, too, totally believe beauty to be in the eye of the beholder - as is not-beautiful -
have a great day, dave!

Harlequin said...

I will leave the psychoanalytic for any other day.... I enjoyed reading your meditation on this powerful dichotomy,its twists, turns and intersections.... thanks for your thoughts. I like how they have spurred my own reflections

Rachel Fox said...

Definitely one of those subjects that changes as you think about it. Hard to pin down!

Cloudia said...

"What is truth?"

You ask the big questions in such a deep way that I only skirt your surface and admire the beauties I cannot quite fathom.

Aloha, Dave

Comfort Spiral

Dianne said...

You have drawn me in again, and this time my head DOES NOT HURT. Thanks. I agree with all of what you wrote, thanks for the entry.
The beauty of faces was studied by random participants, and the connecting link was the symmetry with midline orientation, thus, sans genetic deviation, brain or visual or oral scarring, (ensuring neuologic integrity and survival strength.)
Yeah, thats what I said, yeah,
keep it coming

Jim Murdoch said...

Beauty as an offshoot of the sexual drive? A bit Freudian don't you think? I think why we find it easier to recall beautiful things is that we naturally dwell on them therefore reinforcing them in our memories; we want to forget ugly things. I watched the programme too. It was interesting enough but like all attempts to define something it had to stretch its net a bit wide to cover everything people think of as beautiful and so it lost its edge; there were too many bullet-points for my tastes.

I think the simplest definition of beauty is that it is in the eye of the beholder. Humanity is so diverse that there's not much out there that someone won't think is beautiful even if they're in a minority of one.

Derrick said...

Hi Dave,

I certainly found beautiful objects easier than ugly - and things like vomit and crap didn't enter my head! I reckon it would be hard to reach a consensus on this topic.

Dave King said...

Which I have just realised I had not posted who they were by. I shall do so. Thanks for the comment.

Point made - also interestingly. Thanks.

Yup, point taken!

I didn't see that one coming. Not Confucius, I didn't. I accept your points, but think that in the case of the ugly, the main difficulty is separating the visual from offence given to the other senses.

I was trying to separate the two. I do see ugly as (mainly) visual, although I admit we do use it in other ways (e.g. "am ugly customer").

Thanks for that, and good to have you back.

My thanks to you for those comments.

Absolutely right. I started out with quite a simple post in mind!

I do that also! Thanks, it's reassuring to know I'm not the only one.

I will try Diane, I will try...

Freudian? yes, but the difficult question seems not so much why we find it easier to recall beautiful things, but why we found them beautiful in the first place. Some have suggested that there is a structure in the brain to which beautiful objects in some way correspond or echo. I find that abit of a stretch and totally speculative whereas it does seem to me that the elements that can be analysed in a sexually arousing image are all present in an image of a tree - or can be. I agree with you about the programme.

Yes, although a consensus of some sort appears to be emerging, even if not on what was (originally) my main topic.

Carl said...

Another great post Dave!
I check your blog for new posts every morning before work. I enjoy the mental exercise.


June Calender said...

Much to think about in this post -- thank you. When you asked for ugly, I thought of quite a few instances of modern art that I find ugly, repulsive, anything but beautiful. So then the mention of modern art museums being beautiful to contain that which may not be [my words and understanding] really rang a bell. I think many contemporary artists do not try to create beauty, they are making statements that are not about beauty. But architects are enjoying a freedom to create special kinds of beauty beyond the traditional -- thanks in part to modern materials.

Beauty, yes, I think of natural objects but the beauty that moves me most is musical, and noisy chaos is among the ugliest of things I can think of. Beauty is not only in the eyes of the beholder but also the ears.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that, but I suspect that after reading my blog even work seems good - that's why you do it!

June, welcome to my blog. Good to have you along. Re the art galleries, I think your words and understanding are spot on, and it is certainly true that many modern artists see no reason why they should include beauty in there spectrum of desirable outcomes.

I also agree with your thoughts on architecture and on music - about which I do not feel qualified to say too much.

Thanks again.

jinksy said...

Harmony and balance seem to me to be the prerequisite of beauty in whichever field you choose - art, music, even emotion, for in every case, disharmony and imbalance lead to ugliness of one kind or another. Though I would agree, all are governed by one's own perception.

Madame DeFarge said...

I'm not sure that I have ever seen anything truly ugly. I may not like some things, but I would never say ugly. There are far more personality traits that I would describe as ugly before i got round to physical qualities.

Tom Atkins said...

I am never sure which I enjoy most, your verse, or your thoughtful essays. But I value them both a great deal.

Linda said...

The only things I ever really interpreted as ugly are "short sightedness" and the inability of some people to keep an open mind. Insight and learning in that sense, could define beauty for me. The more I learn, the more beautiful life seems to be and life as a result, becomes so much less ugly. Thank you for this post, Dave!

Mariana Soffer said...

I wanted to say hi, tell you that I enjoyed a lot reading your post, it made me think too much, and by the way to let you know that francis bacon was my favourite painter, kind of a coincidence I think.

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