Monday, February 7, 2011

Thoughts on Beauty IV: Beauty as Pertains to the Immaterial

Last time I made a substantive contribution to this discussion, I went on for a while about the beauty of objects with regard to their functionality.

This time, I'd like to discuss beauty as it pertains to soul. But before I get to that, let me add two things:

1. That Saatchi gambit? Totally didn't work. Bummer, right? Thanks for trying though.

2. Many of you have written very thoughtful comments, and I haven't replied to a one of them in a few days. I've just been really busy - family in town, and then me out of town visiting family. I'm off to the Hirshhorn this afternoon, actually, because I'm in Washington, writing to you from a Starbucks in Dupont Circle. But I will get to the comments as soon as I can, and I really appreciate the consideration you are giving this discussion.

OK, so - beauty as it pertains to the immaterial, or for convenience, the soul.

This is the most human form of beauty, and it is visible in those things which are either human, or reflect human action, or are easily anthropomorphized as the outcome of a human-like will. We understand them by reference to ourselves.

Let me give you a good example of the distinction between the beauty of functionality and the beauty of the immaterial. It happens to come from the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In this movie, Indiana Jones is searching for the cup Jesus drank from at the last supper. I get where he's coming from, I checked behind the sofa for it one time myself.

After much ado, Indy gets to a room guarded by an immortal knight of some sort:

immortal knight of some sort

Indy knows the cup is in the room. Unfortunately, the room is full of cups:

room fulla cups

And they are all really gorgeous cups - big gaudy cups, made of precious metals and gemstones, shiny, well-crafted, and so forth. Now, Indy's plan is to drink from Jesus's cup, because it'll make him immortal. On the downside, if he drinks from the wrong cup, he will rapidly die a growdy death:

stupid Nazi drinks from wrong cup

Stupid Nazi!

So Indy's really got to drink from the right cup.

He looks around the room for a while, and then he spots it - half-hidden on one shelf is a small cup, a humble cup, wretched even. Dull, corroded, spotted, uneven. This is the cup.

Well, this scene is a dramatization of the difference between the beauty of function and the beauty of soulfulness (another example of Steven Spielberg's sterling instinct for stagecraft and viewer prodding). The fact is, both types of cup, the humble and the gaudy, are perfectly well adapted to their basic function - holding liquid. The gaudy cups have some other functions as well: showing off wealth, showing off magnificence of curve, pushing all your buttons for intensity of color and value contrast. But the dull cup is the more beautiful with regard to what we learn about humanity from it. It is made by a hand, with the imperfections of the hand, without much in the way of wealth but with a simple honesty of form. It is not a vainglorious cup, but it is a very moving cup. It is a cup good enough for a savior born in a manger.

Things that are beautiful due to soulfulness have this quality about them. They betray a richness and honesty of emotion, of vitality, of the specificity of character both of the individual who made them and of humanity as a genus. They do not so much appeal to our appreciation of the outward things, the graceful curve and right color, so much as they appeal to our memory of interaction with one another, of emotions we have felt, of our sense of appreciation of each other as conscious beings. They have a quality of voice, of a conversation we have carried on and still carry on.

I submit to you that the beauty of a partly cloudy day, apart from the palpable elements that push our neurological buttons (intensity of light and color) has beauty of soul because it is so marvelously idiosyncratic, so individual, irreplaceably individual. Consider Vermeer's depiction of an afternoon in the View of Delft, 1660-1661:

We cannot get enough of that. It partakes of the miracle of an afternoon categorically the same as any afternoon, and yet in itself, so unique, so particular, that we cannot help having a feeling - ranging from a vague twinge to a fervent belief - that the hand of Someone essentially like ourselves, subject to changing thoughts and emotions, even to whimsy, is hard at work in a workshop somewhere, making afternoons for us to enjoy.

The weather is beautiful, because the world is nearly human in its weather.

Landscapes are beautiful, because they are submerged in the same nutty, human-like individuality:

Claude Monet, Landscape at Rouelles, 1858

When we see the weather, or a landscape, we have a feeling that we live in a world that is animated in a very human way. Or rather, that being human is a discrete small part of a vast continuity which is also, in a profound way, human-like. We rest in the palm of a god who makes sense.

Similarly, we have an experience of beauty when we encounter solid objects made satisfyingly and simply:

They encourage us to recall modesty and industry, to savor our deep inclination to believe that just enough, is all that we need to be happy. They sanctify the tiniest of moments, the most trivial of activities, with a kind of clarity, of joy in the merest instances of doing and of being. This kind of beauty, and the experience it arouses, has little or nothing to do with the beauty of the ideal curve, of the magnificent adaptation. It is the beauty of the kitchen and the yard.

Apart from weather, landscapes, and tools, the beauty of soul is manifest, of course, in the human body. But not in the entire body equally: it is most manifest in the face. As we have discussed previously, we have a separate set of visual processors in the brain tuned specifically to faces. This is important - it tells us that our cognition of the face is separate from our cognition of the body.

What this implies is that we may, quite easily, be prioritizing different modes of beauty when we turn our attention to bodies, and then to faces. My own suspicion is that we prioritize for beauty of function when we consider the body, and beauty of soul when we consider the face. Consider how high a value we put on symmetry of body, and how we recoil from it in the face.

Let me give you a couple of examples of objection to assymetry in the body. First, there is the silent-movie trope of the villainous thug with the single club foot or short leg. And then there is something I get all the time in my paintings: nobody ever comments on an asymmetrical face, but if I show a model with breasts slightly different in size or shape, most people notice immediately, and some object. This is not a reasonable objection. A huge proportion of women have asymmetrical breasts. The objection drives me up the wall. The wall, I tell you.

But the issue arises in the priority system of the mind: symmetrical, functional aesthetics for bodies, asymmetrical, soulful aesthetics for faces. Which is not to say that the aesthetics of function - the curve, the clarity - do not apply to faces. Rather, in faces, the two values are more equally important than they are in most other objects, in determining a perception of beauty.

Look here - many people would be willing to concede that Greta Garbo is a beautiful woman:

But she is by no means a woman of symmetrical features. We have a correspondence in her sculpted crookedness with the asymmetrical aesthetics of soulfulness.

Let me come back to our friend Farrah Fawcett:

Her body is optimized for function, along the lines of the athlete. Her face corresponds with functional aesthetics as well, but it is also optimized for soul: within an overall functional structure, her eyes and mouth are disproportionately large and high in value contrast, allowing emotion to read extremely easily.

I once wrote a post about my favorite sculpture, Rodin's bust of Camille Claudel:

He actually made a more finished sculpture based on this study, called, modestly enough, La France:

But I prefer the Camille Claudel. The simplicity of this sculpture, its offhand, slightly damaged quality, seems to me to betray more of the hand of the sculptor, to be more consistent with the deep melancholy of that beautiful face, so utterly human and soulful.

Yes, there is neurological programming involved in our appreciation of face and body, much more than I've covered here. This entire model of beauty is riven through with places where meaning bumps up against biology, and we are prone to mistaking biological responses for meaningful conclusions. But some part of this outline, I think, also corresponds with a truth.

We'll keep trying.


  1. Nice writing and interesting ideas to think about, Daniel. The distinctions still seem a bit arbitrary to me, though. After all, expressing "soul" or emotions could be seen as a major function of the face. And a great dancer or actor can express a lot of soul through the body as well as the face. And don't studies that ask people to select the most beautiful (anonymous) faces always show that people strongly prefer the most symmetrical ones? Maybe that deeper, soulful appreciation requires something deeper, the mystique of a Garbo created by the whole apparatus of cinema culture - story, lighting and makeup, the fascination factor of celebrityhood and especially the rejection of its vulgar glare by one who "wants to be alone". If someone who had never been exposed to Garbo the Icon saw that face, minus the trappings of glamor and the craft of the makeup artist and photographer, would she be as beautiful? I think cultural context plays a big role here.

  2. Yeesh, I'm gonna try to start catching up on comments, most recent to oldest. Thanks for this, Fred, and I am totally willing to seem arbitrary here - I'm not convinced I'm right, but I'm hoping that by writing out what strikes me, I can clarify for myself the hunches I'm acting on, as well as, hopefully, provide material for your own thinking to bounce off of. I did find some of that "symmetrical faces" research, and I don't have anything convincing to say in response to it. There's a new "average face = beauty" study out, apparently, but I haven't read up on it yet. As for Garbo, what are you on, crack? You could put the lady in sackcloth and call her Jane Doe and she'd still cause traffic accidents. On the other hand, I'm planning to tackle and try to specify cultural context a bit in the next post...

  3. the new face is an animae face. a big head on top of a skinny body, huge eyes and puffy lips that wash out any other facial features. think jolie or the new madonna. it was written up in Time mag back in 2009. apparently, that is what we are seeing as beautiful these days.

    I agree with Fred about Garbo, but hey, I'm a girl. I prefer a much simpler, less glam, less made-up contrived face. girl next door kind of beauty is much more touching, imho. kinda like your claudel. but I've noticed that men who claim to love a natural kind of beauty will have a car wreck trying to get a look at any heavily made up woman walking on the street.

    I love your ideas about landscapes reminding us of our place in the world and our connection to it.

  4. I'm not saying I don't find Garbo beautiful, Daniel, just that the beauty of celebrities and icons is determined by so many extraneous cultural influences that it cannot be a simple, straightforward experience. The same applies to iconic artworks. Sure, the Mona Lisa is a great painting, but its cultural status as the Greatest Painting of All Time makes it impossible to see it separate from its status as icon.

  5. This is pathetic. I'm never going to catch up on comments. Why did *I* have to get the intelligent, engaged readers who write long comments? Dammit.

    Jade - I think the big eye/big mouth thing is one type of beauty, and sure we may be emphasizing it right now, but it'll pass, and come around again. Speaking of, I watched "Salt" last night. I think Jolie might have a little plastic in that face somewheres. Fun movie. When she kills the villain, she really slaughters the jesus out of him. He is one big heap of dead by the time she gets through.

    It's not the best picture of Garbo, but you should check out one of her earlier movies sometime, preferably a silent. They're all crappy, but she's really pretty good-looking.

    I don't know who these men are you are hanging out with, but I think you need to find better ones.

    Claudel is *amazing.*

    I'm glad you enjoyed the thoughts on landscapes. I have a whole post planned on why I suck at painting them.

    Fred - you make a good point, but I think, as with so many other branches of mental discipline, it is possible with some practice to separate out the influences and discern, not only analytically, but viscerally, what is what in how we see things. In fact, I think you believe this too; just a hunch based on our chats. I have often had to apply discipline to see the work or the person separate from the iconism or persona, but other times, simply seeing the thing in person violently ripped off the layers of acculturation - particularly with the Sistine Ceiling, the Venus de Milo, and the David. They are all profoundly different in person.