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Beauty,Spring 2005
Fifth Web Papers
On Serendip


Beatrice Lucaciu

Beauty. What is it? Is it something aesthetically pleasing? Is it tangible? Do we each experience the same beauty, or do our individual differences and preferences create varying perceptions? These are just a few of the questions that we have sought to explain over the course of the semester. My goal is to take a look at how my own experiences of beauty have changed, and how my preconceptions about what is beautiful have been challenged.

Typically, I have found that I consider something to be truly exquisite when it can stir up emotion in me that I may not have felt otherwise at that moment in time. Although I still feel this way to a large extent, my experience of beauty has expanded beyond the emotional level. When taking the "Beauty Quiz" at the beginning of the course, I had felt as though I had a pretty good idea of what I found to be beautiful. In the quiz, I had rated highest the images of nature and classic figures. These were the images that had struck a chord with me. I had seen some of them before, thus they provided me with a sense of familiarity – maybe even a sense of comfort. However, if I were to rate all of the images again, I cannot be certain that my re-ratings would be very similar to the original ratings.

I wanted to remember the images I had seen during the quiz, so I took another look at them. When reaching the image of the woman wearing glasses and smoking that had received low ratings from the class (and from me as well), I was surprised to observe that my perception had changed. How is this possible? I was wearing the same pair of glasses each time I saw it, so it isn't as though my vision has suddenly cleared. Perhaps it is because now when I see her, I imagine that she has her own special story. After examining artwork at the Barnes Foundation I have realized that, although I may not fully understand their subject choices, many artists have reasons for painting certain images.

However, all of this makes me wonder. It makes me question whether my own perceptions of beauty have really changed or if I have altered my experience by having previous exposure to the piece in question. The Elkins essay we read months ago helped me to realize that doing research on or having already seen a painting lessens any emotionality when viewing it (again). Therefore, if I do not experience a wave of emotion upon seeing this vague image of a smoking woman yet I still consider it to be beautiful, that must mean that emotion is not absolutely necessary in the experience of beauty. Naturally, upon realizing this, my whole world was turned upside-down. This idea challenged what I thought was my final and complete perception of beauty. I had thought that I had it all figured out and had very little to learn. How wrong I was!

This is not to say that emotion is never necessary in experiencing beauty. In February, I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see the Salvador Dalí exhibit. I wanted a pure experience of the paintings which I was going to see, thus I decided to forego the complimentary audio tour that was offered. Furthermore, while walking through the exhibit, I avoided reading the many stories about Dalí posted up on the walls. The lack of outside influences telling me specifically what to observe or the meaning behind a certain painting heightened my awareness of the beauty that was around me. To be honest, though, it was not a simple task to avoid such influences. Besides the magnificent artwork displayed, I was also surrounded by people who had chosen to be guided by the audio tour. I was upset that I could not appreciate the fine work before me in silence. Instead, I heard a multitude of muffled voices escaping from the headsets worn by others; and, because they were wearing headsets, the people themselves were commenting loudly on the paintings because they were not aware of their own volume. Aside from feeling a bit frustrated, I found myself feeling as though it was I who was having the most pure experience of beauty, untainted by the influence of others' words and ideas. I can honestly say that if it wasn't for the readings and discussions of this class, I might have been duped into believing that some form of guidance would have been necessary for me to really appreciate what I was viewing. That was my first conscious effort in applying things learned in this class to the real world.

In the past, I had always felt the need to know everything – how things work, why people do the things they do, why the sky is blue. You name it, I wanted to know it. However, during the course of this semester, I found myself retreating from solid answers. This was one of my biggest problems when we worked on various science experiments. Suddenly, I didn't want to know why certain metals cause the color of a flame to change. I didn't want to know why two clear liquids had turned into a rich blue liquid when combined. I wanted the mystery. I have tried to pinpoint when this change in me occurred, and the only conclusion I can make is that the illusion is much more magical and appealing to me. Being in awe of something almost makes me feel like a child again. So now, the only time I really want to know why things function as they do is when I am trying to fix something. The only real exception is when people are involved. I still want to know what causes them to behave in certain ways, or what cognitive processes are at work. This distinction exists, however, because I identify myself as a social scientist. Therefore it is possible that I view other experiments as intriguing novelties – not to say they are unimportant, of course.

As the semester progressed, I found myself becoming hyperaware of the beauty that exists in my daily life. Each time it snowed during the winter months, I would just gaze out my large window, taking in the view. That was also my way of capturing that image in my mind, that moment in time; because I knew that I would be moving to southern California in June. Although California is very sunny and lovely, it is highly doubtful that I will ever see such beautiful snowfalls out there.

My appreciation for the purity of the freshly fallen snow increased tenfold this year. To see such an untouched blanket of white covering everything in sight was breathtaking. Even though I have lived in this state practically my whole life and have seen countless snowfalls, this year it was almost as if I had been seeing it for the first time. It was around this time that it dawned on me that talking about beauty so much had opened up my eyes and helped me to see things in a new light. Things that I may have seen a hundred times before were like new!

One thing in particular that I have come to appreciate even more in light of the things that I have learned this semester is my experience at Bryn Mawr during the past four years. It seems appropriate that this would be one of the last classes of my college career – it has helped me to take in everything that I see and really observe the beauty in it. I have been so lucky to spend such an important part of my life on such a beautiful campus. It's interesting to suddenly wake up after four years and realize how beautiful it really is here. Because it becomes part of daily life, it is easy to take its beauty for granted.

This year's May Day made me remember how lovely campus can be, considering it had been a chilly, dismal day that had completely turned around. Seeing the sea of individuals dressed in white on the green grass reminded me how traditions here are so special an invaluable. So, clearly, it isn't just the college campus that makes an impression, it is also everything that comes with it; all the people, the traditions, the experiences.

The sharing and exchanging of ideas about beauty in terms of science and culture has made a lasting impression upon my life. I still find beautiful things that I had previously considered to be so. That has not changed. But my scope of beauty has broadened greatly. I have realized that beauty is not just linked to emotion or aesthetics; it is much greater than that. Beauty can exist in the way the carpenter takes great care to smooth the edges of his creation, in the way the artist wields his paintbrush when creating his great masterpiece, in the way a mother cradles her child, in the way the college graduate receives her diploma. Beauty really does exist everywhere and is limitless. Everyone may have their own experience with it, but one thing is certain – everyone does experience it.

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