THE BEAUTIFUL IN ART
An essay, article, writing about digital, modern and contemporary art
By Rick Doble
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
--- John Keats -- Ode on a Grecian Urn
#1. THE EXPERIENCE OF BEAUTY
Oh Mr. Keats if it were only that simple. Beauty has so many aspects and some are quite dark and deadly.
Experiencing beauty is an odd and very human feeling. It is both quite personal (in the eye of the beholder) and a cultural or human standard that most people can agree on.
For example, according to the latest scientific research, certain aspects of men's perception of feminine beauty (the ratio of the hips to the waist, the symmetry of her face) will be agreed upon by most men across the world regardless of their culture.
And while family feelings are deeply personal, most parents would agree that seeing their children peaceful, healthy and asleep can be a moment of intense joy.
A sunset is beautiful because it is so striking, so colorful and it is one of the few times when we can glance at the sun's brilliance directly. At the moment of setting we are reminded of our place (literally) in the solar system and in the universe and also of the eternal struggle between light and dark and of the cycles of the day, the year, and life itself.
As we know from the study about women, beauty often deals with proportions, symmetry and relationships. In ancient Greek times the mathematician Pythagoras was so taken with this idea, he imagined that numbers had a mystical importance that held the key to a human understanding of the universe. Music to him was the bridge, because on the one hand it was purely mathematical (the relationship between the notes) and on the other hand touched our deepest feelings, longings and desires. He felt that there was a musical and mathematical harmony of the spheres in which all could be understood and that humans could respond to.
More than two thousand years later, Johannes Kepler took that idea of the harmony of the spheres and used it as a starting point to discover the precise paths that the planets followed around the sun and exact way that they moved. "Kepler assigned a musical interval representing the motion of each of the known planets around the sun, and he spelled these intervals out using musical notation." (From the Fleur Helsingor
web page about Kepler http://members.aol.com/MetPhys/68kepmusphere.html )
What Kepler found was truly simple, beautiful and harmonious. It was a key insight that led to the discoveries of Isaac Newton and to the inventions of the modern world in which we live. So perhaps Pythagoras was not far wrong.
#2. WHAT IS BEAUTY
This is a long introduction to my principle idea. After much thought (lets say forty years), I believe that beauty, in part, has to do with a sense of order, an aesthetic order. As humans we are obsessed with finding patterns. This is as it should be, since these will give us both an understanding and a control that will help us survive as a race. A sense of aesthetic order may involve symmetry, proportions, harmony, dissonance, composition, rhythm, cycles, repetition, irony and even justice.
Beauty also often involves a sense of awe, a feeling that one is seeing something that speaks to our deepest feelings. It is hard to stand in front of one of Monet's large water lily paintings and not feel that, for example. Sections of Bach's St. Matthew Passion move grown men to tears.
And beauty often involves a sense of mystery. The feelings we have after viewing a painting or a play can touch aspects of the human condition that we may never understand. Mystery is the opposite of order, because, by definition, we cannot comprehend it. Yet mysteries are very much a part of life and to be connected to them in a meaningful way is an order in itself. Art can provide a doorway or a window. Art can frame a mystery so that we feel less isolated and less alone.
If a profound art is successful, we know that we have seen a bit of ultimate truth that is both satisfying and which we will never quite understand. Like hearing the Bach Mass in B Minor, we go away knowing that we have experienced a human creation that has answered some of our deepest questions and that for a time has provided food for our hungry souls.
One of the most powerful aspects of art, is that many viewers come to an art form with an openness, a willingness to find beauty, even a new kind of beauty or a new sense of it. But viewers may not understand at first or they may miss the profundity of the message. Cutting edge art can present a new order which may seem chaotic.The paintings of Jackson Pollock were viewed as merely paint splatters at first, paintings that anyone's kid could create. The harmonies of Chopin sounded dissonant and were hard to listen to initially.
For art to be accepted it must resonate with an audience, even though that audience can be quite limited. Some artists seem to get it right from the very beginning such as Beethoven and the Beetles who have always been popular. Others take a while to develop. The impressionists were not well received at the beginning. Van Gogh could not sell his paintings when he was alive. And yet both of these are very popular among a wide audience today.
Other examples are even more intriguing. The music of JS Bach was not generally listened to for one hundred years after his death and did not become really popular until about 200 years later. Yet he was always held in high regard by an important segment of the music audience, that is the composers. These artists knew his Well-Tempered Clavier intimately because Bach had written the definitive introduction to creating music in all the different keys. And because of this his music stayed alive, although hidden, for a very long time. Yet his art paid a heavy price for that 100 years of neglect. It appears that roughly half of his works have been lost.
#3. TOWARD A CONTEMPORARY CREATION OF BEAUTY
What does all this mean for the contemporary artist of today? I think that one of the principle purposes of contemporary art should be to find new relationships and to bring these into human consciousness.
While stories and images of alienation are popular, I believe that the most important task of art now is to create a new sense of our place in our hi-tech world. Alienation is that peculiarly modern feeling of discomfort, that we do not really belong in this contemporary world that we have built. Creating a harmony that comes to terms with this modern anxiety would be a major accomplishment.
#4. MY PERSONAL QUEST
What is my own particular quest for the beautiful? It involves a lot of seeming contradictions.
I want a visual art that feels ancient and yet modern, archetypical and contemporary, on the human scale and yet vast, quiet but deeply emotional, a balanced composition that is energetic, a transient image that feels permanent, simple yet complex, easy to grasp at first and yet revealing more layers and depth after continued viewings.
I also want to create an art that is spontaneous and candid. As a result almost all of my photographs are not staged in a studio but grabbed from real life.
After much experimenting with abstract compositions and forms, then studying the figure sequences of photographer Eadweard Muybridge, I realized that I could achieve this in part with compositions based on the human body. No one was more surprised than I when the human figure became a major theme in my work. I had always leaned toward more abstract compositions. The human figure gave me the elements I needed: it is both ancient and modern; the human shape is fleeting and transient and yet even modern postures can have the feel of ancient greek statues.
To see some of my work that touches on this topic visit these online galleries.
Silhouettes of people fishing:
Self portrait shadows:
Shadows of people at an amusement park:
#5. THE DARK SIDE OF BEAUTY
Beauty, however, has a very dark side to it. This really should not be surprising since most powerful human emotions are double edged swords - the same knife that the surgeon uses to save a patient could be used to kill another.
In particular, Hitler employed his sense of art and beauty (he was an artist) to enthrall the German people. The Nazi swastika was used as a symbol of how German power would dominate; the torch light pageants were designed to recall the Nordic myths and German heritage; the massive gatherings were created to make people believe they were part of a magnificent larger whole and also to realize that they played only one small part, and that at the top of the structure, the highest point of the pageant, stood their leader, the Fuhrer, whom they would follow. In short Hitler's carefully crafted sense of beauty was used to enslave an entire people to do his bidding.
And to make the question of beauty even more complicated. How should we regard the music of Richard Wagner. Wagner's music was deliberately created to be very Germanic. It was revered by the Nazi's and used to inspire their regime. Can it be seen as beautiful in and of itself irrespective of how it was used?