I occasionally toss a philosophical question at my practical daughter to get her to do some abstract thinking (a bad habit from my limited humanities training). Yesterday I showed her Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats, and asked her whether she agreed with the famous final statement: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. Being wise she said she did not know, and asked what I thought. I, being a fool started to talk and analyze and tie myself in a knot. Obviously I needed to clarify it in my mind before I opened my mouth. As such… the following is an outline of my considered thoughts (or perhaps a rambling thicket of random thoughts). This is a summary of personal research and opinion, so read on at your own risk.
First, in cold rational analysis, beauty is not truth, and truth is not beauty. There is obviously overlap in certain areas of human thought and activity, but in general the examples where truth=beauty are minimal. And, all of this is going on in our heads anyway, so… never mind.
At the other end of the ‘aphorism chart’ you have: “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” In other words beauty is entirely a matter of personal preference. Yes, but how much individual choice do you have. We don’t have wildly differing ideas of beauty, but we also don’t all love the same color or shape for instance (note that I’m a visual artist, and so will emphasize that area throughout the following). We are a mix of freedom and conformity, and this border land is what follows.
Human Nature (based primarily on The Second Conquestof Earth by E.O. Wilson): Brain wave analysis shows that humans prefer approximately 20% redundancy in abstract shapes. We like a balance of the familiar and the unfamiliar. We also prefer a balance between complexity and simplicity; we hate boredom, but don’t want to be bewildered. Finally, we prefer images or views that provide a hierarchy of things to focus on; we dislike a blank world, but similarly hate a world with infinite points to focus on.
Human Nature (based primarily on The Blank Slateby Steven Pinker): Meta-studies of human groups show that humans prefer open fields with scattered trees, similar to the savannah where early humans developed. We like to see or be close to bodies of water. And we prefer a panoramic view of our world. Scientists who study these preferences suggest that they are “hard wired” via natural selection over thousands of years of human development.
In terms of physical beauty, humans prefers healthy looking things: symmetrical, uniform and conventional. For instance most societies consider female beauty to include a 0.7 waist to hip ratio, although different cultures will favor thinner or fatter overall body types.
Cultural Variety (based on various sources): Female beauty is the best documented area of cultural divergence. For centuries foot binding was the way to get your daughter noticed (and married) to a rich and discerning man in China. A woman’s elongated neck (produced by wearing metal rings) was the ticket to upper class marital bliss in old Burma. A “full figured” woman is considered beautiful in Nigeria, while in California plastic surgeons seem to rearrange faces and figures to match the latest fad.
Internal cultural preferences are usually set by the ruling class, the elites and the taste makers in the media. Up until the 19th century the western elites were fat and pale, reflecting their access to plenty of food and their freedom from hard outdoor labor. The modern “leisure” society features thin tanned elites, reflecting their access to health clubs and Caribbean vacations (people who are fat and pale are now considered poor, ignorant rednecks in our tolerant worldview). We are also swayed by dominant foreign countries. In the 18th and early 19th centuries France was the dominant European power (England forged a colonial empire, but France dominated Europe). French fashion, language (lingua franca), arts and science were mimicked by the elite of other European states, and eventually were spread around the world. The 19th century saw the rise of the Anglo-sphere which established the universality of the English language and “anglo” culture. Now nearly every potentate in the world is dressed like any state senator from Kansas. We revel in the exotic third world “eco-vacation”, but the world is becoming an American strip mall.
Architecture and art have followed the path of cultural hegemony. The Roman/Hellenistic style was fashionable in Renaissance Italy, but that gave way to the French Beaux Art movement in the 18th and 19th century. A scattered rejection of tradition I’ll call “modernism” dominated the 20th century, bolstered by the hegemony of the United States following World War II. Whatever comes next will be an outgrowth of what has gone before, influenced by whatever polity dominates the world at the time.
Just one other thing I have to add to the cultural discussion. The “modern” art movement rejects historical precedent, but embraces, or rather, worships innovation. This is due to the artistic tendency to mimic and symbolize whatever is central in their world; and science is central now. The value of scientific exploration and innovation is unquestioned, but mimicry of something which is important does not guarantee beauty (or importance for that matter). Is every new thing beautiful? No. Is every new thing interesting? Yes, by definition. In our worship of “the new” we have relegated beauty to a minor position behind the “fresh”, the “edgy” and the “transgressive”. Perhaps this is a phase which will lead to unexpected beauty, just as any good artist has to go through failure to master their art. We shall see.
So, have I made myself clear? No? My schizophrenic outline pits the free individual against the preprogrammed individual. Which is it, freedom or programmed? The answer unfortunately is Yes. We humans are a mix of ant and angel: a rational Dr. Jekyll attached to a psychotic Mr. Hyde. We analyze and rationalize our gut reactions, and mindlessly defend our scientific discoveries. Analysis and rationality is something we have built our modern world upon, but for the human animal the aphorism may be more than enough to live by and easier to remember than the algorithm. The reality is that “In the eyes of the beholder” explains most of human experience. And perhaps Keats meant that in the end: “- that is all /Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”.