This is the true essence of what Apercu was meant to be. A repository for the fragmentary, unworked and inconclusive outpourings of my idle mind. Thoughts Out Loud will be a series comprised of rambling idea-pieces, so please do not hold these writings to quite the degree of scrutiny of other material on the site. These pieces will reveal far more of my flaws than I could ever hope to chronicle.
I was recently challenged by the book review published in The Economist, August 27th 2011, entitled ‘The line of beauty’. Three recent academic publications were put under the microscope: Beauty Pays – Why Attractive People are Successful by Daniel Hamermesh (Princeton University press); The Beauty Bias – The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law by Deborah Rhode (Oxford University Press); Honey Money – The Power of Erotic Capital by Catherine Hakim (Allen Lane). The review focuses on the central ideas put forward in these books, amongst which are: the implicit notion that beauty is a measurable and quantifiable asset; the idea that beauty, power and wealth form an irresistible triumvirate in our modern world; the sense that beauty is a great, if not the greatest, source of injustice and inequality within our societies; and the idea that beauty can be harnessed as a commodity for the transference and enacting of power.
For some it will be an abhorrent notion that beauty be reduced to either a mathematical equation (The Golden Ratio), a logical/rational system (Zeising and Fechner), or a formal series (Vitrius and Pacioli). It becomes more distasteful then to consider beauty, or at least our shared ideals of beauty, as something defined by economic value and power. After all in a highly individualised free-market capitalist democracy (if that conglomeration of terms is even vaguely plausible) it would be expected that a coherent and unifying sense of beauty is unsustainable, if not undesirable. When the very notion of ‘society’ is being challenged by a kind of Randian fixation with the individual self, what room is there for preconceived and idealised notions of beauty? In such a ‘reality’ surely beauty becomes the epitome of subjectivity?
A lot of weight is given to the idea that beauty is something inherent in ‘nature’. This, at first, seems to soften the focus of an overly humanistic understanding of the concept. In crudely reductive terms the fact that we find the sight of a mountain peak ‘beautiful’, or that we consider a tree-fringed lake to be a ‘beauty spot’, suggests that beauty stems from something ‘purer’ and more ‘unifying’ than our commerce-fixated modern world will allow for. To some it becomes an expression of the hand of God, a clear demonstration of the genius of creation, beauty and divinity are, in this reading, inextricably linked. However the inescapable interpretative core of any idea of beauty is humanistic, even this obsession with beauty in nature.
Classical conceptions of beauty permeate our own modern ideals. The sense of the harmonious apogee of forms is something that we either actively seek to define beauty by, or against. Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is modeled on the rational proportioning of Vitruvian architectural/engineering theory, whereby the body is seen to be solid, robust and strong. In this strength and the balanced motion through which this strength operates we apprehend the usefulness of the organism, the human form. Yet Vitruvian Man is assumed to possess beauty as part of this nexus of attributes. How do we know that beauty is to be observed here? Does every human apprehend beauty in the Vitruvian Man? Can beauty manifest itself in non-pleasing forms?
These concepts of proportion, balance, harmony, are also at the heart of mathematical attempts to define beauty. The idea that what we perceive as beautiful in ‘nature’, works along the same basic principles as that which we perceive as beautiful in humanity, is one that emerged in Classical thought, but was recalibrated for modern consumption in the early Renaissance period. There is a sense that in proportionate, symmetrical and balanced forms you are beholding the manifestation of health and vitality. As we age, decay and wither, our bodies take on the distorted forms of disease and damage. In many ways our bodies become the repositories for death, maps of pain. Likewise in ‘nature’ the change from summer to autumn sees the decline and deformation of forms that have begun to die. Growth propels us up toward an apex from which we must then fall away into decline. There is a deterministic mode of thought that suggests we intuitively respond to those attributes that are most conducive to the continuance of a healthy offspring. In which case our obsession with beauty could be nothing more than an implicit acknowledgement of what is considered optimally healthful.
I’m wary of these assumptions though, as it appears difficult to extrapolate the personal from the ‘normative’, or perception from ‘conditioning’. Human civilisation has a tendency toward hard encoding specific cultural notions (such as the contemplation of the harmonious as preferable to the chaotic) to such a degree that it becomes difficult to think outside of these terms, so that they can be inferred as ‘natural’. In some ways this is why I give more weight to the abstract verification of a mathematical principle such as The Golden Ratio, because it becomes merely a formulation of things apparent within our experienced reality, without necessarily needing to be given any greater value significance, other than it is found within many ‘natural’ forms. The fact that we then might see these natural ‘forms’ as pleasing, is neither here nor there in terms of the mathematics underpinning our apprehension. This, for me, is where the true difficulty lies with the idea of beauty.
If beauty were a consistent presence in our reality, then I would argue that we could understand it within universal abstract frameworks, such as can be found within mathematics. However, does our own appreciation of what is beautiful not show a tendency for inconsistency, a lack of the harmonic? Were mountains always a source of scenic wonder and beauty? Have bodies of water always given humanity a pleasing feeling of appreciation? Do healthy forms always attract us? Do human bodies with high degrees of proportionality appear more satisfying to the eye, than those which do not? Most importantly of all, in our mobile modern times, can we honestly say that the Classical conceptions of beauty that informed Renaissance thought and by extension European mercantile and colonial thought, are applicable universally and transcend the boundaries of culture (and geography) that existed for the best part of 6,000 years?
This isn’t meant to be an organised and structured assessment of beauty, merely a collection of witterings that have been chiming away through the nether regions of my self-contained little mind. I found it difficult to fathom how a researcher like Hamermesh could compare the quantifiable (i.e. wages earned, earning potential, annual budgets, GDP) with a concept of ‘beauty’ that is surely only verifiable through a particularly narrow aperture of ‘normative’ behaviour. What exactly is Hamermesh presuming to quantify when suggesting that ‘handsome’ people earn $230,000 more over their lifetime than ‘plain’ people? I appreciate that you will carry out surveys and collate statistical data from those surveys, but like any data set how representative is this of an idea that often has the currency of a ‘universal truth’ like beauty?
Rhode’s theory seems potentially more problematic, whilst being quite perceptive. In Rhode’s idea beauty is a divisive attribute that fundamentally underpins inequalities within our societies and our systems of law and governance. The perception of physical beauty, or in this case, the perception of adhering to a ‘normative’ sense of the physically pleasing, infiltrates all the key decision areas within our societies when it comes to the dispensing and management of power. Whereas Hamermesh connects beauty to an economic power, Rhode appears to connect beauty with economic power as a means of warping the notions of ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’ (a whole different array of questions to be raised). Beauty is then a complex construct, that merges together ideas from various periods of history and civilisation, crucially incorporating that commercial/cultural border-hopper that is ‘fashion’, thus establishing specific conditions against which we base our own judgements, either positively or negatively, about what we see as beautiful. A society can thus pass judgement on ugliness, by placing it against what is considered the ‘normative’ of beauty, whilst still having room for individual expressions of dissent.
For a final thought consider that supposed relationship of beauty, power and wealth. Which way round do we correlate things? Does beauty lead to power and wealth? If that is the truth then how do you explain a majority of the worlds powerbrokers and commercial leaders, the Donald Trump’s, Bill Gates’ and Silvio Berlusconi’s of this world? If power and wealth attracts the beautiful, then again we have issues about why beauty isn’t more dominant in the boardrooms and halls of governance. The ‘normative’ beautiful in the Anglo-saxon world seem to be associated with those areas of media that are considered fashionable: film, music, fashion, art, etc. Once again, however, there is a need to see that all of these things are merely predicated on a ‘normative’ sense of beauty and the real question perhaps should be what drives this ‘normative’ (or questionably ‘objective’) idea of beauty. I’d argue that you will find very different ‘normative’ conceptions of beauty in the various ‘cultures’ on this planet. I’d also mention before closing, that the appeal of the beauty, power, wealth nexus is a strong one, however what about that return to the natural, with all of that Romantic ideology freighted into our poetic resonances with landscape? Isn’t it the case that when it comes to ‘nature’ our understanding of the ‘beautiful’ becomes far less dependent upon the commercially desirable wealth and power principles espoused above? How do we adequately place anything other than an aesthetic and experiential ‘value’ on observing a thick coastal fog as ‘beautiful’, for example?