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Beauty,Spring 2005
Fifth Web Papers
On Serendip

What Is Beauty?

Kara Rosania

I have always been fascinated by the concept of beauty. I love the idea that certain things can have value simply for the way they make people feel about the world, rather than having utility. It is important that we enjoy the world and all the wonders it has to offer while we are living, and stop to consider all that is around us. Beauty in its many forms is what keeps us alive and makes life worth living. It is because I find beauty to be so valuable that I first became interested in this course.
I came into this class hoping to broaden my perspective on beauty to the point where I might be able to understand why I, and people in general, find certain things beautiful at the exclusion of others. At the very least I wanted to perhaps better articulate even to myself what my criteria for beauty are.
I find beauty in many things. I am inexplicably drawn to vibrant colors, shades of purple in particular. I find music in nearly all styles to be affecting, so much so that I often get chills or am moved to tears when listening to my favorite pieces. Photography is probably my favorite art form because it captures the beauty of the world as it exists without alteration or embellishment. I have been called an aesthete by a former English teacher, and I would have to agree. My fascination with beauty and my sensitivity to it are certainly excessive, and at times overwhelming.
I respond most strongly to the intricate and diverse beauty that I find in human relationships. Human beings are beautiful creatures in themselves, but it is the richness of their interactions with one another that captivate my attention. Relating to others as an art, as I mentioned in my second posting in the online forum:
Art should not simply be defined in the context of paintings and sculptures and writing, but as anything beautiful that has been created. By this definition, anyone who creates something beautiful can be considered an artist, including someone who has strong relationships with others. Relating to others well is a gift, and when used properly, can create beautiful things.

It was with these "beautiful things", human relationships, that I chose to begin my exploration of the mysterious world of aesthetics.
I wrote my first paper for the class on the beauty I experience in love. My interest in love can undoubtedly be labeled an obsession. I find a different form of it in every relationship I experience, which I think is what captivates my interest to such an extent. Through the course of writing this paper about love, I came to the realization that love and beauty have many common characteristics. Thus, the exercise led me to several conclusions about the nature of beauty.
I found that beauty, like love, "is the unspeakable connection to certain people or things for unexplainable reasons. It is very abstract, can be hard to describe, and is something that everyone defines differently and applies to many different types of things. It heightens our emotions and makes us feel truly alive. People will never lose their fascination with it, because it is inside us all to feel it, to share it, to let it fill our lives."
Most interestingly, I came to the conclusion that beauty, like love, is in the eye of the beholder. The definition of it depends completely upon who you ask. I hadn't realized that this was true when I began the course. I thought that ideas of beauty were basically universal and that as a class we would all agree on what qualities beauty possessed. I anticipated that the class discussions would involve us trying to formulate an all-encompassing definition. This was definitely not the case. Everyone had differing opinions about what beauty was and how one could experience it.
This at first made me uncomfortable. I have always had the desire to make everyone agree with me, but more strongly with respect to the topic of beauty. I found the answer to why in one of the readings for the class. Roald Hoffman wrote that "Beauty is built out of individual pleasure around an object or idea. It may be personal, but gains in strength when it is shared with others..." (Hoffman 1). We value our experiences of beauty, but value more the ability to share them with others. Perhaps this is for affirmation that our perceptions are correct, or simply related to the joy human being derive from their relationships with one another. In either case, I felt this desire that Hoffman referred to and was extremely frustrated that I couldn't share my experiences of beauty with everyone.
As I wrote in my last posting, however, "I resigned myself pretty quickly to the fact that we all had strong opinions when it came to beauty and it would be impossible to make anyone else view the world the way I do in that respect." I also came to acknowledge that there were positive aspects to having your own unique definition of beauty. Sometimes we feel better being selfish about our experiences and want them to be completely our own. I felt this slightly with my ideas about relationships. I was happy to find the connection whether or not people agreed with what I found. My conclusions made during the course were mine alone.
Additionally, it is freeing to not have to conform to a universally excepted idea because I don't have to worry about being right or wrong. As I wrote in my second post for the forum, "...if I am able to create my own standard for what is beautiful and what isn't just based on my own instincts, I don't have to feel inadequate when I am unable to find the beauty in something that others deemed beautiful. I am allowed to have my own definition that is no less accurate." There is no correct definition; there is only the one that is the truest to who you are and what you feel.
So now I was on my own in my search for what beauty meant. I could use the opinions of others in the class to guide me, but could not depend on them for concrete answers. The answer was all my own. I decided the key to finding this answer would begin with following my instincts.
We all have instinctive reactions to certain things based on the ideas that have been instilled in us. It is easy to recognize these impulses and give into them. The harder task is the more careful examination required to discover where our reactions come from. I had an opportunity for such an exercise when we studied paintings at the Barnes' Foundations. I allowed myself to be drawn to a particular painting, and then scrutinized what particularly had attracted me to it.
What I found in my self- exploration was that my affinity for the painting was due to a personal connection with it. I found that I was jealous of the subject of the piece, and that was why I couldn't help staring at her. As I wrote in a paper about the painting:
I find, as I get older, there are less and less opportunities to do things purely for your own enjoyment. And yet, here is a full-grown woman who seems to have no responsibilities or hardships. She makes me want a small, well-lit room of my own where I can shut out the rest of the world and do what makes me happiest. I know I would most likely be bored or frustrated by such a life, but it's nice to consider every once in a while.

I wanted to be her, and as I looked at the painting, I felt an experience of beauty in imagining that I was.

John Dewey defines an experience of beauty as a connection with the world:
Instead of signifying being shut up within one's own private feelings and sensations, it signifies active and alert commerce with the world; at its height it signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events (Dewey 19).

This is a probable explanation for my experience of beauty in examining the painting. I felt a connection with the woman, and as a result the piece, and it made me feel more linked with the world. I felt like I was not alone in my emotions, and that this painting was placed in my path so that I might stumble upon it and feel a little better about the world. Beauty is simply as a person forming a positive relationship with something else.
So that leads us back to relationships. The essence of beauty is things relating to one another. That is what makes mathematical equations so beautiful. As Richard Harrison recalled in Kenneth Chang's article on the beauty of equations:
I remember my son holding up the index finger...of each hand...and the moment of wonder, perhaps his first of true philosophical wonder, when he saw that the two fingers, separated by his whole body, could be joined in a single concept in his mind. (Chang 12).

Equations summarize a relationship between two otherwise unconnected things compacted so that your mind can grasp it all at once. There are two beautiful qualities present here: one is the relating of two things that otherwise would have nothing to do with each other; the other is the simplicity of the form the relationship comes in.
Simple does not necessarily equal beauty by any means. However, it is a common trait among things that people find beautiful. This is possibly because simple things are easier to understand; there is less to get your mind around. That makes it much easier to appreciate the beauty of the thing. However, if the thing is not beautiful on its own, that will be more readily apparent as well.
So this indicates that simplicity is not enough to make something beautiful. For example, the pigment that we were all so enthralled with on the first day of class, which was very simple in its form and consistency, would not have received even a glance were it not for its vibrant color. The simplicity of the way the color was packaged allowed us to fully appreciate it undistracted, but it was not what made the pigment beautiful.
If simplicity cannot make something beautiful on its own, is that true for complexity as well? Hoffman tells how in the sciences, "We construct with ease an aesthetic of the complicated, by adumbrating with reasons and causes. We do so by structuring a narrative to make up for the lack of simplicity. And then we delight in the storytelling" (p.2-3). Complexity has its own beauty to speak of, one that is caused by the joy of working through the complications. There is a sort of fun involved in the challenge of understanding, and getting to the substance of the thing. Therefore complexity in itself, unlike simplicity, can cause something to be beautiful.
This idea can be related to the topic of beautiful people. If you relate complexity with unique features and simplicity with typical ones, there is a similar pattern with respect to what is considered beautiful.
We discussed the societal standard of beauty in class, but this, like everything else discussed in this class, could not be agreed upon. People felt different pressures from society and were receiving varying messages about what the ideal of beauty was.
My theory is that this is because it is the uniquely individual qualities people possess that make them beautiful. We all appreciate these qualities differently, which is why everyone has differing opinions on the "standard" of beauty. As I said in a posting on the forum, "If people are really honest with themselves and manage to drown out what they are being told is attractiveness, they will all have very different definitions of what makes a person beautiful." True beauty cannot be standardized, nor should it be.
Beauty also should not have to be justified. We discussed the relationship of beauty and justice in society, and how people attempt to create peaceful societies. This is difficult to do because, like with beauty, everyone has a different definition of what justice is. In beauty, I find that I like everything to fit together nicely. This has to do with my peaceful nature. I don't care as much whether the world is fair and equal as I do about it being peaceful. In my opinion, justice has more to do with mercy than vengeance.
I seek peace because it is beautiful. In this sense, beauty can describe any actions where people are making each other feel good. Crime is ugly because it involves hurting one another. Still, the same thing can be said about vengeance. Many believe vengeance is just because it involves responding to one action with an equal and opposite reaction. By this definition it seems consistent with the laws of nature. But responding to an action of ugliness in a way that is equal requires another ugly action. Therefore, vengeance only makes the world an uglier place. I prefer mercy because it involves responding to an act of ugliness with one of beauty. It may not be the "right" thing to do, but it is the more beautiful.
Having an experience of beauty and thinking about what it means led to a lot of personal growth. Beauty is necessary for personal growth. It stimulates a person and makes her more aware of the world. "...everything that intensifies the sense of immediate living is an object of intense admiration" (Dewey 6).
I found that I was learning a lot in my exploration of why I found certain things to be beautiful. My senses and overall awareness were heightened to the point where I was examining every reaction I had to everything. Then it was suggested in class that the examination might ruin the experience of beauty. Was the mystery essential for the experience of beauty? Was I destroying the experience by trying to solve the mystery?
Why is beauty so precious that we have to worry about ruining a particular experience? Experiences of beauty are rare and unexpected. In Philip Fisher's writings about the phenomenon of the rainbow, he points out that "Beauty visits, never stays" (p.36). It is the elusive quality that causes us to cherish it so. Fisher also claims part of the rainbow's appeal is that it is "a phenomenon of light rather than matter. This made it unique among objects of beauty, noble in a way that the material beauty of flowers or of human faces could never be" (Fisher 36). Because the thing is intangible, it is more beautiful.
When something doesn't happen that often, the experience is more appreciated. If someone is at a party filled with interesting people, they will not much appreciate any one person in particular. However, if one is at a dull party full of people they cannot relate to, and does not expect to meet anyone interesting, when they finally do the experience is valued more greatly because it was so long sought. The rarity of this experience is what makes it special, and thus beautiful.
At the same time, I find beauty in experiences that are very familiar to me. For example, I was raised in the Catholic Church, which is very tied to its rituals. I've gone to church with my family ever Sunday since I was young, and every Sunday the exact same things happen. I never get bored of it though. I love knowing what responses to give, and knowing when to stand and when to kneel, and knowing what readings are going to be said when. I find the rituals beautiful because of their familiarity, because they remind me of my family and my childhood.
The things we know well hold a beauty for us that is very personal, one that is probably the most difficult to share with others. But perhaps that is the key to the beauty. Our familiar experiences are unique in that they are only familiar to us, and no one else. We find beauty in knowing something or someone much better than anyone else does. I think this has a lot to do with why marriage is so beautiful.
In my exploration of what beauty means, I found many contradictions such as this one of the beauty of old versus new experiences. Beauty often contradicts itself because it can be found in so many things. I meant to narrow my definition in the course of my study, but instead was forced to broaden it.
That leads me to my final conclusion about beauty. Beauty is anything that causes you to feel more strongly about life and the world around you. This is a more vague definition than I hoped to be able to come up with, but the definition must be vague in order to encompass all that beauty really is. Beauty is connections between people and things. Beauty is both simplicity and complication. Beauty is unique characteristics that are seldom seen. Beauty is rare experiences, as well as familiar ones. It is intangible, yet it is describable. I hope as I continue to discover new meanings of the world I will become even better at articulating its description.

Chang, Kenneth. "What Makes an Equation Beautiful." The New York Times. October 24, 2004. 12.

Dewey, John. "The Living Creature." Art as Experience. 1934; rpt. New York: Perigee, 1980. 6, 19.

Fisher, Philip. "The Rainbow and Cartesian Wonder" Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998. 35, 36.

Hoffman, Roald. "Thoughts on Aesthetics and Visualization in Chemistry." Preface. Issue on Aesthetics and Visualization. Hyle. 1.

Hoffman, Roald. "Narrative." American Scientist On-line (July-August 2

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