Minimising the importance of beauty because of its subjectivity and variety and the difficulties in measuring it quantitatively has been an epistemic error. So has postmodernism’s position of absolute relativism, which has thrown the baby out with the bathwater, to use a tired but apposite cliché.
However, I think it highly unlikely that postmodernism will have the final word on the place of beauty in the scheme of things. When considered from a wider cross-cultural perspective, its views on beauty (as well as truth and goodness) appear too nihilistic. In attempting to become free of dogma, absolutism and regressive social values, it has ended up denying the very existence of truth, goodness and beauty.
Despite the experience of beauty being variable and subjective, both culturally as well as individually, human beings are instinctively drawn to beauty because it is real, tangible, palpable and affective, both when it is present and in its absence, when we experience ugliness.
It was encouraging finding wide agreement in these dialogues on the importance of the relational qualities of beauty in creating life and knitting systems of all kinds together. When good minds are put to it, we may even discover the mathematics and science of beauty and find better ways of correlating and measuring what constitutes it.
The range of possibilities for the experience of beauty and ugliness are many. We see beauty, hear beauty, taste beauty and feel beauty, but like any perception it requires attention, and the experience deepens when attention is sustained.
Moreover, the appreciation of beauty can be made a more acute skill when sensitised through training, practice and interest. At some point or another, we all have had the experience of noticing beauty that was around us but which we had been oblivious to before, and of being struck by the intensity of beauty in things when we are not distracted by external activities or internal mental noise.
Though beauty is known through perception, beauty as a “state of being” exists, whether or not we are able to perceive and experience it. The argument that beauty is entirely a human experience and that without human perception there can be no beauty is too anthropomorphic a view of life.
We cannot really be sure if beauty is exclusively a human experience. It may extend to other life forms. There may be a degree of sensitivity to beauty in other species. Perhaps, bees and butterflies do experience beauty when they approach a bush of pollen-laden jasmine flowers. Beauty seems to have a role in mating preferences across species and it might also have a role in food choices and habitat preferences. The experience of beauty is an attractor response and ugliness a repulsion response – whom to mate with, where not to be, what not to eat. There are many good reasons why beauty exists in the universe.
It seems beauty has an important role in the dynamics of evolution and continues to have a vital systemic role in the creation and flourishing of the entire web of life that includes the environment. A proposition that has been validated in these dialogues is that beauty’s systemic role can be extended to human creations – things as well as systems.
There are many levels of beauty. There is an exterior beauty of surface – of how pleasing things look. This is the current default level of beauty and a lot of energy and money is spent on making people and things look more attractive. In architecture, facades are used to cover up ugly materials or create illusions of style and grandeur. Making pretty, using adornments and dressing up are ways of creating beauty at a surface or exterior level and have existed in most cultures.
Creating this level of beauty has even been considered an art. These days there are many professions and industries devoted exclusively to doing this. Up to a point this is understandable and positive. But these efforts to create beautiful-looking exteriors can lead to falseness and dishonesty. What is made to look beautiful on the outside might hide and distort the true or real state of being. We trick our instincts for beauty and end up with an exterior prettiness perhaps, but by hiding ugliness we neglect doing what will actually make a better, healthier and more truly beautiful world.
Beauty as a “seen” experience dominates our use of the word. Most people think of beauty as a visual experience. This is partly because of the importance of the visual faculty as an instrument for obtaining knowledge of the world.
When the Greeks identified balance, harmony, proportion and rhythm as the virtues of beauty, which was an ideal for them, they thought it could be given visual form in art and architecture. Yet, beyond the exterior beauty of looks, there is the interior beauty of state of being. In Japan, for example, beauty is often found in forms that may be rustic, aged or marred. It is not the prettiness of the object but other qualities that imbue them with beauty. This is true of a teacup, a vase and even a person.
The level of beauty that exists beyond how things look, beyond the surface, is something we have all experienced. Our mother no matter how dishevelled she was when she woke to feed us in the middle of the night or our grandfather’s wrinkled face as he listened to us patiently when we exaggerated our day’s adventures. While the beauty of looks is valued in all cultures, it is widely recognised that there is a higher level of beauty, when things are real, true and good. When things do not just look beautiful but are in fact so. This is the beauty not of prettiness but of things being real, true and authentic.
In the arts, especially the visual arts in Europe and America, beauty was placed in the realm of form, surface and sensory experience. This was not true in Asian cultures where the arts always had and continue to have an emphasis in mental and spiritual concerns.
The Western containment of art entirely in a sensory framework led to a wariness and dismay of surface beauty or prettiness, and when combined with the Hegelian “end of art” paradigm, which posited the limitations of the sensory in art for expressions that would satisfy the higher mind, it became influenced and dominated by forms of conceptualism.
We find an enormous output of art that protests and attempts to bring attention to a variety of social issues. Most of this art is dissatisfying to the senses and is often ugly. This could be interpreted as a lifting of art beyond surface beauty and a search for higher systemic levels of well- being, which, as we have argued, is an important level of beauty. In other words, art remains concerned with beauty but in a different way.
In many classical cultures, beauty was known to be visible as well as invisible and the four relational qualities of beauty were placed in the context of not only all the senses, and ascribed to the creation of music and other arts, but also in the context of mental development and realising higher states of consciousness. This possibility of experiencing beauty without an external stimulus, when our inner being is in harmony, balance, rhythm and proportion within itself, was recognised and sought. In India, the penultimate state in the hierarchy of human consciousness is ananda, joyful bliss, which spiritual practices and the arts were purposed to help human beings experience.
Excerpted with permission from The Promise of Beauty and Why It Matters, Shakti Maira, HarperCollins India.