Cactus Flower, Night Blossom
We move in wonder and contemplation, often far from the concept of usefulness. When we see natural beauty there may be truth and greater understanding. Art is the timeless effort to understand ourselves and the world beyond. William Blake, English poet in the Romantic period gave us this wisdom:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
Our metaphor is supported by a white cactus flower and a hovering moon, a possible sign of purity and spirituality. The flower is the model for the painting originated by Fadi Khraishah, 500 px.com, photo 739313.
Explaining beauty is largely subjective, but we are gaining ground in its explanations. Art historian I.C. McManus recently discussed the links between beauty and symmetry, and investigators have studied their influence. For example, a symmetrical face, with features in perfect relation, is often preferred to a face where symmetry is less evident. It is presumed that a person with high symmetry may have genetic advantages during development and beyond. Beauty among men and women may therefore reflect the
reproductive capacities of potential mates, and can be understood from an evolutionary perspective. But there is more.
McMans says that although symmetry is indeed attractive, it also lacks dynamic force, and is actually less attractive than beauty with a small flaw, such as a small “beauty mark,” tattoo, or slightly off manner. Here are his distinctions.
AESTHETIC PROPERTIES OF BEAUTY
These Traits Speak of Home,
Safety, and Provisions –
BEAUTY WITH ASYMMETRY These Traits
Speak of Opportunity, Freedom and Sublimity
Understanding that individuals can find themselves on one side or the other in these issues, suggests that beauty is not easily understood and must be related to personality and utilitarian differences. Roger Scruton, I think, comes close to a generality about beauty and art, and what it can mean (Beauty: A very short introduction: Oxford University Press, 2011):
The experience of beauty in art is intimately connected
with the sense of artistic intention. And even the
experience of natural beauty points in the direction of
a ’purposiveness without purpose”. The awareness of
purpose, whether in the object or in ourselves, every-
where conditions the judgment of beauty, and when
we turn this judgment on the natural world it is hardly
surprising if it raises, for us, the root question of
theology, namely, what purpose does this beauty serve?
And if we say that it serves no purpose but itself, then
whose purpose is that? Once again we recognize that
the beautiful and the sacred are adjacent in our
experience, and that our feelings for the one are
constantly spilling over into the territory by the other.
Scruton tells us that images around us tend to be either beautiful (e.g. beauty with symmetry), or subline (beauty with dynamic asymmetry). A field of peaceful grazing sheep in a meadow with sunshine and a running stream is beautiful, for instance, but a storm bursting on mountain cliffs at night as you wonder about your chances of survival for the next few hours is sublime. The first reminds us of home and security; the second reminds us that the power of the universe is a spiritual experience. Thus Beauty with Asymmetry leads us toward a religious explanation of the universe, well beyond the human capacity to understand.
These two forms of beauty are expressed among the ten canvases that we see here: these canvases are metaphors of identification or awe – the beauty of belonging or the beauty of sublimity. They tell a story of our lives and our hopes of redemption.
Not all beauty is natural beauty, and our landscape is filled with human creations that many would consider of great beauty, including dance, song, comedy, music, poetry, architecture, and athletic abilities, to name but a few. Scientists, too, are enchanted with beauty – the beauty of discovery that suddenly announces a universal law that before was uncharted.
The theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg reportedly said this to his colleague Albert Einstein:
If nature leads us to mathematical forms of great
simplicity and beauty – by forms, I am referring to
coherent systems of hypothesis, axioms, etc. – to
forms that no one has previously encountered, we
can not help thinking that they reveal a genuine
feature of nature. You must have felt this too; the
almost frightening simplicity and wholeness of the
relationships which nature suddenly spreads out
before us and for which none of us was in the least
Or, consider this:
Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss for the whole world!
Brothers, beyond the star-canopy
Must a loving Father dwell.
This kiss for the whole world!
Joy, beautiful spark of divinity.
These fateful and beautiful words are from Beethoven’s incomparable Symphony No. 9, Ode to Joy, from the final movement, arising from a poem written by Friedrich Schiller.
Beauty runs through our progenitor species – the spider with its aesthetic appreciation of its orbital web, with female baboons that select males for mates based on male strength, aggression, and physical adornment, with avian and mammalian species that build designs into their habitats, and even paint on canvass with vivid colors. My dog, Archer, showed his Euclidian nature by distributing stuffed toys in stunning geometric figures (untrained and not reinforced). All beautiful and subline.
Beauty is truth; truth is beauty – that is all Ye know
on earth, and all Ye need to know. What the
imagination seizes as beauty must be truth – whether
it existed before or not.
John Keats, poet
Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin, March 13, 2015