Post from January, 2015

Beauty: A Working Definition

Sunday, 25. January 2015 23:09

Last month I posted an article entitled “An Absence of Beauty.” In a comment a friend and colleague asked what my working definition of beauty was. An excellent question. Like many people in the arts, I use many abstract terms and am confident of their meaning without ever bothering to define them in words. Now I was being forced to do that—a good thing.

In his comment, my friend suggested, perhaps facetiously, that Keats was right, that perhaps beauty was simply truth. While one might expect that a Romantic poet would know the nature of beauty, Keats’ “definition” seems to leave much unsaid—and yet the more I thought about it the more it seems that he certainly had the core of it.

For those who don’t remember, in the last two lines of Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Keats’ idea is at least as old as Plato, and perhaps older than that. Plato did not use exactly the same terminology, but the idea is the same. Age, of course, does not make the idea valid. But there does seem to be something to it.

Unsatisfied by Keats, I asked around to see how others in the arts defined beauty. A number of people stammered, searching for words, so I gave them time to think. Those who had ready answers needed at least a few minutes to put their definitions into words (I found this somewhat comforting). Once collected, the definitions represented a wide spectrum of thought, ranging from very simple to complex, qualified answers. One thing they all had in common was none even mentioned the word pretty.

Some said that a work is “beautiful” when everything works exactly right, for example, everything in a stage production goes perfectly (certainly a rare thing). This is the beauty of a fine watch, and while it does relate to aesthetics, it omits reference to meaning. Others say beauty means “aesthetically pleasing.” Still others say a work of art is beautiful when “it touches my heart, my soul.” And some combine those two ideas: “it is beautiful to the eye and moves my inner being.”

None of these seemed to provide the wording that I needed to express my non-verbal notion of beauty. Some seemed to miss the mark entirely; others were not sufficiently definitive. For example, some works of art can touch the viewer, but they don’t seem to rise to the level of “beautiful.” And stripping it down to the simplest terms (Keats’) doesn’t seem sufficient either. This example would be some war photographs which present the truth of the moment, at least from the photographer’s perspective. But this truth again may not qualify as “beautiful.”

The wording finally came from Steven King. Although he was talking about something else, the words were exactly what I was looking for. In Wolves of the Calla, Jake Chambers notes “pure joy” on the faces of those in his group, the result of “the ecstasy of perfect recognition.”

And there it was. I expanded King’s phrase to the short version of my definition: “the ecstasy of the perfect recognition of a fundamental truth.” And often that truth is more felt than rational. Sometimes it comes in flashes, a truth about humankind that appears in the midst of a novel. King’s own work is a good example of this. Or it might appear as an exquisite metaphor in a violent novel by James Lee Burke. Or it might be a complete work, an entire poem or painting or photograph or novel that manages to convey truth in a way that connects to the heart, mind, and soul of the audience member. And because it generates this reaction, the audience member wants to return to the piece again and again.

My definition may not work for you, but give it a try and let me know what you think. Here is the full version: a piece of art can be considered “beautiful” when it presents truth in a way that is fresh and carries with it a momentary perfection, the result being the ecstasy of perfect recognition of that truth.

Category:Aesthetics | Comments (2) | Author:

Write it Down!

Sunday, 11. January 2015 23:51

If you adopt only one resolution for the New Year, make it this one: write it down.

Here’s the backstory: a number of years ago, I did a lenticular that was accessioned into the permanent collection of the Kinsey Institute. Since creating lenticulars is a painstaking, complicated process, I printed only one, which I labeled as #1/5. Recently, I decided that it would be nice to have the other four, or at least one more. Since I no longer have the original printer, the interlaced image file was useless to me; files would have to be recalibrated for the current printer. Moreover, when I looked at the multilayered base image in Photoshop, I realized that I had no clear idea of how I had put the integrated image together. The upshot was that I had to reconstruct the entire process to create the additional prints. And this had to be done without reference to the original piece.

This taught me that when one has developed a process or a plan or a multi-stepped technique, writing it down would be a really good idea. Reinventing the wheel is a silly way to spend our time when there are so many new and interesting things to be done. This message was driven home when I realized that I have a number of images that if required to do again, I would have to reconstruct the steps I took to arrive at the end product. I can, as with the lenticular, look at the layers in the original file and infer what was done to arrive at the final image, but the details of the process, the order of the steps involved is completely lost—unless some memory is triggered when I look into the file. If I want to use that process again, I have to reinvent it.

Some might say that my lack of memory is simply a function of my age. It’s true that I’m not the youngest person on the planet, but a recent discussion with a much younger artist confirmed that making records of a process is worthwhile for people of any age. He told me that because he does so many different things, he has, when creating a process to do anything, developed the habit of stopping and writing down the steps to that process, whether it involves the steps for a new artistic technique (He works in many different subcategories of different media.) or installing a complicated piece of software for someone else. He writes down the process and stores it—because he doesn’t want to have to reinvent that process the next time he has to reinstall that same software after a system crash or use that particularly involved art technique a second or third time at some future date.

Reviewing my current procedures, I realized that I had been moving toward this idea all along, but had not really formalized it the way he has. Rather, I had simply made notes, usually in a notebook, as I went along. So I had already unconsciously begun this procedure; I had just not taken the next step.

That next step I also learned from my younger colleague; this is to store all these lists and procedures in one place. That way there is no question of where to look. The few lists and procedures that I had compiled were scattered everywhere: various folders on various computer, in notebooks, on sticky-notes. I have now begun to consolidate these and record them electronically. Then they go into subject-specific subfolders of a single folder called “Procedures.” If I can make myself write down the procedures as I develop them, I will have them always and will not have to reinvent or recover or rediscover the next time a similar problem comes along.

So far it seems to be working, so I have to suggest that you might consider adopting this system as well. Life is too short to keep reinventing. Write it down!

Category:Creativity | Comment (0) | Author:

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