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Beauty,Spring 2005
Fifth Web Papers
On Serendip

Final Thoughts on Beauty

Katy McGinness

Throughout this course I have had the opportunity to reflect upon my own beliefs about beauty, as well as to be open to and hear other people's beliefs. I have explored beauty in paintings, in pieces of literature, in chemistry and physics, and the consequences of ascribing standards of beauty to human beings. One thing that I can say I have taken from this course is a reinforcement of a belief that I have held for many years: that beauty is a subjective and personal experience. Everything that we have done has reminded me more and more strongly of this conviction of mine.

The paintings at the Barnes Institute were widely considered beautiful. I for one especially enjoyed the older (i.e. medieval, if only for their eeriness) pieces of artwork as well as the non-Western displays. Many of my classmates enjoyed the French paintings a lot, and I must admit that I hated Renoir's portraits of women (although I found his landscapes delectable). His portraits of women were ugly—and grotesque, even—to my eyes. Nonetheless, several of my fellow classmates found them extraordinarily beautiful (as apparently did Barnes himself). It occurred to me how subjective beauty really is as I was conversing with classmates after the tour. Even in such a small setting (with a fairly limited display) there was much disagreement over what was and was not "beautiful."

Previous to taking this class, I would not have believed for a minute that the hard sciences could be in any way beautiful (although I definitely would have agreed that chemical reactions can be quite beautiful). Physics, mathematical equations, etc. were in an entirely different realm from what I thought could be considered beautiful. Upon listening to some of my classmates who were more the "math-and-science" types than I was, it occurred to me that even these fields are very beautiful (more beautiful for them than paintings or photos, even) for many people. My mind was suddenly opened up to a whole new definition of beauty that I had previously not been able to see.

I still am not a math-and-science kind of person (I am pretty "right brained"), so it remains difficult for me to truly appreciate the beauty that can arise from mathematical equations or phenomena of physics experiments. Nevertheless, the fact that many of us can and do find such things so beautiful has really opened my eyes to a new world of beauty that for many plainly exists. Beauty in this sense is highly personal in that wherever one's passions lie, it is there that he/she will find beauty.

Biology professor Paul Grobstein noted how, without human perception, the concept of beauty does not exist. It is our appraisal of an object as beautiful—not the object itself—that allows us to deem said object beautiful. This notion reinforced my idea that beauty is inherently subjective and likely to vary across different individuals and cultures, and that Plato's concept of the "true forms" of beauty (i.e. a sort of fixed beauty that is independent in an object) is far too simplistic an explanation for beauty.

Take, for example, the Western beauty ideal of the blond, blue-eyed individual. If it is true that this ideal is a "true form" of beauty, how does it take into account the fact that nomads in Mongolia for instance probably do not find such an ideal beautiful at all? I feel that Plato's explanation for beauty was too narrow and too Western-centric to fully account for all that is considered beautiful in this world.

The articles about Dr. Stephen Marquardt and his "golden ratio" face mask (courtesy of Eebs) infuriated me. Here was a plastic surgeon who was not only attempting to explain "true beauty" in purely Western terms but who was also advocating the bending and shaping of faces in conformity to such terms. This man is making money by reinforcing negative cultural stereotypes that undermine the self-esteem of scores of individuals. I personally find the evidence supporting the arguments for the "golden ratio" standard of beauty questionable at best, and the fact that this standard was a product of Western culture (ancient Greek, to be exact) only makes me more suspicious. How can the golden ratio standard explain the fact that many people's faces do not fit this standard of beauty? My guess is that it cannot explain this, and that it is simply an attempt to objectify that which cannot be objectified.

For my group's beautiful texts, we did Allen Ginsberg's (my choice) poem "Sunflower Sutra" and "Angela's Ashes" (another group member's choice). The reason I chose Ginsberg was because I love Beat poetry, and I find its anti-authoritarian nature and the fact that it was written in rebellion to the Establishment to be very beautiful. In addition, the Eastern religion tinge that the poem's title ("Sunflower Sutra") contains is incredibly beautiful to me (plus the fact that the poem is written about a gorgeous flower). In general, I personally find poetry so beautiful because it is far less structured than prose, and the author has more freedom to incorporate his/her own personal style into it.

A few of my group members, however, did not share my affection for poetry, nor were they particularly impressed with Ginsberg. Likewise, I did not love "Angela's Ashes," although it was undeniably gripping. All of this again fed my belief that beauty is not only highly subjective (in that some of us liked poetry more than prose, others liked prose more than poetry), but also highly personal (much of the reason that I found Ginsberg's poetry beautiful was because it is congruous with much of my own personality and belief systems).

Finally, our discussions on the social/political consequences of beauty alerted me again to the dangers that arise when the dominant society attempts to impose an objective standard of beauty onto the masses. Women starve themselves, men overdose on steroids, and people of minority group status are discriminated against when this occurs. Saltzerg and Chrisler recount in "Beauty is the Beast" of all that women in our society put themselves through in order to achieve the ever elusive standard of beauty that society feeds to them. People's forms of beauty in reality are diverse, and when the Establishment fails to realize this, many of us can get hurt.

I have learned a lot about beauty in these last fourteen weeks. I have not only experienced other people's creations of beauty, but I have also been able to create my own forms of beauty. My beliefs have been challenged, expanded, and strengthened. One such belief that has been strengthened is my belief that beauty, in all of its forms, is subjective (in that it varies from individual to individual and from culture to culture) and personal (in that it reflects underlying aspects of our own selves and our own personal pasts). Everything that I have undertaken in this course has further allowed me to develop this conviction, and for that I am eternally grateful.

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