The Call of Beauty

Coming In Loud & Clear Times Are Tough. Things Look Bleak. Or Do They?

by Joel Garreau: Washington Post Staff Writer

The impossibly tall and long-limbed beauty suspended in midair is stunning, her exaggerated hourglass curves covered with iridescent multi-hued feathers and scales and trailing vines. She seems like a transcendent member of a new species — part-bird, part-amphibian, post-human. She brings new dimensions to the concept “strange.” “Oh yes,” says Wendy Steiner, gazing professionally at this mannequin, in its Thierry Mugler couture evening dress, on display at the “Extreme Beauty” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“Beauty is frequently disturbing,” she says. “It’s part of the package.”

She ought to know. Steiner is the author of “Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in 20th-Century Art,” as well as director of the Penn Humanities Forum at the University of Pennsylvania.

Her book is part of a torrent of books, articles and exhibits during the past decade, surging particularly in the past year or two, suddenly shouting the news about the passing of the Industrial Age: Beauty is back.

“Beauty is not marginal and unimportant, not merely subjective, not an effect of something else such as social power or libido, and not idiosyncratic to the individual,” writes Frederick Turner, the founders professor of arts and humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas, in his manifesto “Beauty: The Value of Values.”

He says: “It is central to all meaningful human life and achievement, it gives access to the objective reality of the universe, it is an independent and powerful experience in its own right, and it is culturally universal. . . . Its absence in the family, in schools, and in public life is a direct cause of the worst of our social problems.”

Beauty is now proclaimed as being at the heart of a universal human nature — even at the core of the order of the universe, and the essence of life itself.

A four-volume heavily illustrated opus concerning beauty is being published by Oxford University Press in June. It is by architectural theorist Christopher Alexander of the University of California, Berkeley, and has an imposing first printing of 50,000. It is titled no less than “The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe.”

Alexander tells the story of attending a short film about his discovery of a pattern language in beauty — universal aspects of beauty that are recognizable no matter what historical era or culture you’re talking about.

“To my surprise people started cheering. I was astonished. Of course touched, very moved. But to be honest I couldn’t quite understand the reason for it.”

When asked how he had discovered these patterns in beauty throughout the ages, he replied, “Well, it was not so very different from any other kind of science. . . . But we did do one thing differently. We assumed from the beginning that everything was based on the real nature of human feeling and — this is the unusual part – that human feeling is mostly the same from person to person. . . . Of course there is that part of human feeling where we are all different but . . . 90 percent of our feelings is stuff on which we are all the same and we feel the same things.

“When I said this, a sort of cry went up, people shouted and clapped again, stood up and cheered. . . . What they saw in me was a voice saying that our shared human feeling has been forgotten, hidden in the mess of opinion and personal differences. . . . That is what made them stand up and shout.”

What is this line we’ve suddenly crossed, reawakening to universal beauty as if from a long bad dream? What’s driving this rebirth? What does this buzz about beauty say about us and the presence of radical change in the world that we are entering?

Beauty started to die about 100 years ago.

The evidence is all around you. The off-white acoustical tiles crookedly suspended from the flimsy metal ceiling strips. The beige carpet pasted to concrete pillars as bulletin boards. The slate gray cubicle dividers. The dung-colored floor covering. The washed-out fluorescent light. The view outside — if you even have one — of stark boxes with identical grids of windows. We’ve been surrounded for so long by an absence of beauty that we take it for granted. We assume it’s normal, and inevitable, if we think about it at all.

Didn’t used to always be that way.

Until well into the Industrial Revolution, the importance of beauty was obvious. Asked why people crave beauty, Aristotle said, “No one that is not blind could ask that question.”

The Greeks saw beauty as self-evident, enshrined even in geometry. Certain rectangles, certain triangles held magic aesthetic powers described by the golden mean. Leonardo made his famous drawing of a man spread-eagled inside a circle and a square to help define beauty. Beauty was seen as holy, portrayed in gods and saints and Madonnas. The human form was also seen as the object of beauty in stone sculptures from the pharaohs to the Pieta. Museum walls were filled with female nudes. Beauty was seen as a virtue, deserving devotion. Its existence was unchallenged, and unchallengeable, if not very well defined or rigorously reduced to logic.

The 20th century smashed all that. With the maturing of the machine age came the modernists, eager to crush the centuries-old social encrustations of smothering aristocracy and rote religion. Intoxicated by the opportunities for power, speed and equality, enabled by first the railroad and the telegraph and then the radio, automobile and airplane, they saw a chance to make all things new, to redefine human nature and society, eliminating every vestige of the stale, unoriginal and sentimental.

Inherited, unexamined ideas about beauty curled the lips of the modernists. Who says that gaseous, blotched human bodies are beautiful? Who says that gimcrack ornament is worthwhile? The avant-garde was deeply impressed by Immanuel Kant, who held that the experience of beauty provides a taste of transcendent freedom from the human condition. Anything less — like the commonplace of the material world, or the bourgeoisie’s maddening habit of transmuting value into profit — was the enemy of liberating art. Progressives portrayed their resistance to such philistinism as heroic.

Wendy Steiner says: “Like Socratic gadflies or Shakespearean fools, avant-garde artists told a truth that undermined the pious hypocrisies of conventional existence. . . . The artist lived art in his countercultural alienation. What could be nobler?”

The problem with this devotion to the sublime is that anything less than the limitless was rejected as sentimentality.

The modernists believed there is nothing universal about taste. To them it is simply a matter of opinion – beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and thus does not exist. Beauty got hopelessly entangled in erudite discussions of charm, ornamentation, the proper role of women in society, and class. A concern for beauty, modernists feared, could obscure the quest for deep truths — especially the truths concerning the squalor of unliberated society.

The arts, Texas professor Turner notes, became obsessed with our bad conscience, about racism, classism, sexism, exploitation, capitalism, war, totalitarianism and our destruction of Mother Nature.

The idea that beauty should be the point of art became quaint. “In modernism, the perennial rewards of aesthetic experience – pleasure, insight, empathy – were largely withheld; it and its generous aim, beauty, were abandoned,” says Steiner.

The end result is our inability today to agree on something as basic as whether a building, for example, is ugly.

To be universal, Kant believed, beauty should be the intrinsic and objective property of the thing being considered. This in part fueled the modernist fascination with form and abstraction. But the more the search for the transcendent got wrapped up in the abstract, the further it became removed from ordinary human affairs. The very concept that there might be something called beauty became an embarrassment.

Oddly enough, ordinary people did not lose their interest in beauty – not just natural or artistic beauty, but also the beauty of the human body.

“Outside the realm of ideas, beauty rules. Nobody has stopped looking at it, and no one has stopped enjoying the sight,” notes Nancy Etcoff in her book “Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty.” Etcoff is a Harvard Medical School professor and practicing psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

In the real world, there are more Avon ladies in Brazil than there are members of the military (or prophets of modernism), some traveling into the jungle in canoes to cater to notions of human physical beauty. In the year 2000, 7.4 million Americans actively sought beauty through cosmetic surgery.

Nor is this universal concern for beauty the result of those master manipulators of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, Etcoff says.

“Throughout human history, people have scarred, painted, pierced, padded, stiffened, plucked and buffed their bodies in the name of beauty. When Darwin traveled on the Beagle in the 19th century, he found a universal ‘passion for ornament,’ often involving sacrifice and suffering that was ‘wonderfully great,’ ” she notes.

“We can say that beauty is dead,” says Etcoff, “but all that does is widen the chasm between the real world and our understanding of it.”

In studies of the beauty of nature, the landscape always ends up the same.

In scientists’ tests, humans prefer a grassy plain, with luxuriant but not chokingly abundant nature, running water and widely spaced but sheltering groves of trees, one of which is seen as special if not sacred. In the comfortable distance are large animals. The point of view seems to be somewhat elevated, as if from a second-floor window.

In other words, it’s a chimpanzee’s view of paradise. It’s a savanna with few places for predators to hide, plus abundant nourishment, seen from a nest safely above the fray. No accident that it is a human archetype of landscape beauty, evolutionary biologists believe.

The critical difference between today’s students of beauty, and its scolds, is that today’s advocates believe there is such a thing as universal human nature, and it is both deep and highly structured. They believe that there is bedrock reality to beauty.

These advocates of beauty cluster roughly in two groups.

One group believes that evolution shaped not just our thumbs and brains but our relationships to one another and to the outside world. They see evidence that just as human babies show a hard-wired ability to quickly learn language, evolution left us with deep-seated pattern recognitions.

The most well-known of the evolutionary biologists who see humans as substantially hard-wired — even for beauty — is Edward O. Wilson, the much-honored Harvard naturalist. Wilson recently authored the controversial “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.” In it, he argues that during human evolution, there was plenty of time for natural selection to compose human nature. “Certain thoughts and behavior are more effective than others in the emotional responses they cause,” Wilson writes. “They bias cultural evolution toward the invention of archetypes . . . the core narratives that are dominant themes in the arts.” Thus, the arts evolved with our genes.

The arts, he says, went about “selecting the most evocative words, images, and rhythms. .  Their quality is measured by their humanness, by the precision of their adherence to human nature. To an overwhelming degree that is what we mean when we speak of the true and beautiful in the arts.”

The other group believes that the modernists went wrong when they went looking for beauty as inherent in an object. Instead, these analysts believe, beauty is about relationships.

The relationship types believe that the beauty of a streetscape in old Venice, for example, is inherent in the relationship between one building and another, and between the building and its inhabitants. This, they claim, is the difference between a warm and inviting neighborhood and Tysons Corner. While Tysons has many buildings created by impressive architects, they have little relationship to each other, or the landscape, or to passersby operating at human scale — they are not seen as creating beauty.

This emphasis on relationships also is reflected in the beauty that a mother sees in her child, or a lover in his inamorata, or a museum-goer in a painting by Vermeer. In this notion, the universal aspects of human nature reside in the relationships, not in the physical objects themselves.

But why now?

Why is beauty suddenly making its comeback after more than a hundred years of carpet-bombing by the intelligentsia?

Why does there seem to be a hunger for beauty reflected in the rise of major exhibits, from the Hirshhorn’s 1999 show “Regarding Beauty” to the Santa Fe Biennial? Why is the subject of beauty rising not only among humanists but in the work of scientists ranging from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg to Donald E. Knuth, Stanford’s so-called “father of computer science”?

Some of it may be simply that modernist and postmodernist explanations are losing their juice.

For example, the Enlightenment notion that anything not rational is suspect is no longer an axiom. Feelings are now a legitimate subject of discussion.

With the collapse of Marxism, class is less of a shibboleth. Only the most devoted postmodernists now argue that just because it is embraced by an elite, a view of beauty must necessarily be wrong.

The role of women is changing. Post-feminists ask why they can’t be both beautiful and chief executive officer.

With the rise of global media and the 747, many more kinds of physical beauty are being recognized. A brief walk along the sidewalks of any American city shows the striking faces of people with origins in four or five continents.

But it’s not just old explanations that are dying. New ways of understanding are being born. Computerized views allow scientists to look deep into the brain to understand patterns of how humans think, while the genetic code is showing how humans are created, lending solid underpinning to the idea that humans have far more in common than had ever before been guessed.

Yet a third broad explanation for this timing, however, is the new need to understand what makes sense amid increasingly rapid change. Old definitions of beauty that held “Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” as Keats wrote in 1820, resonate anew in a topsy-turvy world in which we try to find coherence.

“Getting it right” is the definition of formal beauty created by Dave Hickey, the maverick University of Nevada, Las Vegas, art critic whose “The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty” is one of the founding documents of the back-to-beauty movement.

Will beauty become a quick and useful way of determining whether any complex system — human or technological — is coherent? After all, “The most general definition of beauty,” wrote Coleridge in 1814, is “multeity in unity.”

“In both the arts and sciences the programmed brain seeks elegance, which is the parsimonious and evocative description of pattern to make sense out of confusion of details,” writes Wilson.

In the wake of Sept. 11, notes J.C. Herz, the New York digital environment designer who has written two books on technology’s impact on society, “there’s been a weird kind of harmony, intended or unintended. . . . You can’t really win by ripping things down anymore. The aesthetic of beauty comes out of the relationships between things that you see in the systems.”

The virtue of identifying beauty — and thus coherence — in the ways complex human systems work, is that it frees us from a hopeless search for purity and certainty. “The longing for certainty is an intellectual vice,” says Herz. “Life is messy and complicated and you still keep living it, because it’s the only one you have. It may be coherent, but it’s not pure. Purity has traditionally been held up as a modernist ideal. But nature isn’t pure. It’s really complex.”

And it is beautiful.

The reason beauty may be making a strong comeback not just now but here in the United States, says Herz, is “America is the most pluralist country in the world. No other place has so many kinds of different people living next to each other. Far from being an empire in descent, we have a tremendous head start because we are so used to living among different people, while still feeling like part of the same thing. That’s what we’re trying to get at — a cohesive identity, even though there are so many things going on, and conflict. That’s part of what makes us strong. That’s what makes it beautiful.”

“Patterns have a great deal of power,” says Ray Kurzweil, the much-honored Massachusetts computer systems innovator and author of “The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence.”

“There is a whole elaborate hierarchy of these patterns. But beauty is right at the top of the hierarchy of patterns we deal with in our minds. Beauty is the organizing principle that demonstrates the power of a pattern.”

The reason, thus, that we are now embracing a new search for beauty may be as simple as we humans searching for a new understanding of ourselves.

“Beauty,” says Kurzweil, “is the ultimate in subtlety of human intelligence.”

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