The Importance of Beauty

The Importance of Beauty

A Story by Conroynaas

Beauty matters, ideals matter, as long as they are not confined by ideology or stupefied in a permanent state of illusion and delusion. (This is more an essay or article)


What is beauty?

Human beauty focuses on the physical, particularly the face.  For a woman today, youth, clear skin, a symmetrical face and body, feminine facial features, an hourglass figure, slimness are essential, and celebrity helps. Something about highlights and eye brows, pert breasts, small nose, full lips, smaller chins, and large eyes, with a tight, firm, round bottom adds up to this fembot idea. "Maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's Maybelline."  Men who are taller, and symmetrical become more beautiful with high status, power, and access to resources. It all feeds into mutually sexual appeal and the consumption of commercial beauty products & services.Admittedly, models can get away with freckles and some unusual features if they fit the brand image.

The beauty of the design of the 250 Ferrari Testarossa , created without drawings, focus groups or customers’ input, was complemented by a philosophy of reliable technology resulting in one of the most successful racing cars in Ferrari’s history. It also achieved record-breaking auction prices. 

Seeing Fra Angelico’s fresco The Annunciation at the top of the dormitory stairs in Florence’s San Marco was a direct experience for me that bypassed thinking. Despite the evidence of damage over the years since the 1440s, its quality harmonises not only with my sense of beauty but also with personal meanings of communicating and relating with our history and culture.

The scientist, Richard Feynman argues that science adds to beauty. He points out that he, like most people, can see the beauty of a flower and at the same time he can see much more about the flower: the cells, the structure, the complicated processes that are beautiful at smaller dimensions, the fact that the colours and fragrances evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it. This means that insects can see the colour. This leads to further questions that lead to an undersanding of interdependencies in nature. For example, without bees that pollinate around 70% of all the crops on the planet, certain plants would become extinct and, in turn, certain animal species. Einstein predicted tht man would only survive a few years beyond the extinction of bees. For a scientist this knowledge only adds to the excitement, mystery and awe of the beauty in the world.

Yet, the poet Louise Gluck admitted she is “impatient with beauty, which is felt to be an inducement to stupor”. She belongs to a generation of poets “suspicious of the lyric, of brevity, of the deception of stopped time.” Well, I’m rather shocked that such a reflective and reflexive goldsmith of words should impatiently give away beauty’s meaning to those who are stupefied by it; and rather impatient with her impatience.  

I’ll admit there is a difficulty about not being stupefied by the focus on the face and figure of the “Ten Most Beautiful Women of 2013”. This is where the physical impression seems to push judgement aside. Assisted by technology, whether cosmetics, surgery or photo touch up, skin becomes smoother, teeth whiter, eyes larger, ‘blemishes’ removed in order to achieve that dreamy soft- focus stupefying effect. We have so many adjectives to apply " pretty, lovely, comely, elegant, attractive, svelte, sensual, luscious, desired, even big breasted " that describe what amounts to an average of human physical proportions and symmetry that evolutionary theorists say represent the ideal mate. There is economic sense in promoting this ideal of human beauty, because the stereotypes sell tickets in the entertainment industry.

But, we need to rescue this meaning of beauty from the  superficial notions of our time, where beauty is bought, not born or developed; where teeth are suddenly too crooked, breasts and noses too big, too small or unbalanced; where faces and bums must be propped; where truth is information, traded for branding in undigested highway words. We need to put the technology of truth and beauty in its place and break free from its cyber soul. We need to rescue the notion that the eye of the beholder also includes appreciation of their admirable qualities of truth, goodness, courage, and beauty that is enhanced by their individual physical flaws. As Francis Bacon wrote: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion” or the more recent, “a girl without freckles is like a night without stars”.

A beautiful person is not simply somebody who has a pretty face. The Aztecs had two words for face- cara, meaning the physical face, and rostro. They believed people enter the world “without a face” i.e. sin rostro . In the tribal context that demanded close social cooperation, the willing submergence of the individual in the personality of the tribe, enforced by ritual compulsion, was necessary in order to survive. And so the literal meaning of “face” needs to be understood as not only as a window of the individual personality, but as a window of the social person acting in the community. Born without a face meant that there was some learning and development necessary before the baby’s demeanour and emotions become clear.

The Spanish phrase rostro y corazón, literally ‘face and heart’, refers to much deeper meaning than the physical . It expresses what the Aztecs meant by becoming beautiful. So different from the construction of beauty as a physical attribute. Rostro y corazón, literally ‘face and heart’, means becoming beautiful in a holistic way " the intellectual and the emotional " bytaking on a role in society and learning from it. It implies being ‘whole hearted’ and ‘honest’ in taking on a role in society, developing progressively higher levels of  communication skills towards the wisdom that includes feeling and insight in the constantly negotiated community reality. So a person becomes beautiful.

The Greeks, also, had a deeper meaning  for beauty The common Greek dialect word for beautiful, ραος(hōraios), means "hour." Beauty was “being of one's hour"- coming into one's time, whether young or old, graceful, blooming, like a fruit when it is ripe, and including its unique flaws. Thus a young woman trying to appear older or an older woman trying to appear younger would not be considered beautiful. Just like our phrase “she’s come into her own”. Such beauty does not require physical perfection but includes theideas: of ‘the right time’, ‘ripe’, ‘productive’ within the community.

Saying beauty is only physical is like saying love is only feeling. Beauty, I claim, is a subset of quality.It is not merely a matter of taste, but also a matter of judgment. De gustibus non disputandum est may be a wise old saying, but like many proverbs its opposite is also the case. Taste can be questioned; must be questioned, often by questioning the underlying assumptions of the assertion, “I just know what I like”. Such purely subjective opinion indicates a non-reflective lack of awareness of the speakers' capture within the bubble of their own history and inheritance. Just like John Maynard Keynes argued that “practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist”, such opinionated declarations eschewing justification, passively accept or automatically react to the common sense deposit of prejudice laid down "before the age of eighteen".

The quality of beauty is a way of perceiving the world.The Ferrari and fresco examples above, show that the concept can imply, not only personal meaningful experiences, performance, profit, but also the wisdom, art, knowledge, skill, dedication and hard work that go into these accomplishments. It is one of those higher order human concepts that Einstein referred to when he said, “Many of the things you can count don’t count. Many of the things you can’t count really count”. It describes attributes that are important to us, important to the sustainability of our way of life, and that is difficult, perhaps impossible, to empirically measure.  It has qualitative as well as quantitative elements " science and art.

Paul Dirac, the British Einstein, used beauty as an indication for truth in mathematics. Isn't there far too much of falsity and ugliness in the world already? Witness the puerile jokes of artists exemplified by Marcel Duchamp’s toilet bowl, repeated again and again in art-school exhibitions, and the post-modern habit of sarcasm and desecration that pass for originality. By emphasising originality at the expense of beauty artists and writers put themselves on display with their tongues sticking out, often in the service of celebrity. Nihilistic art with its heaps of nonsensical garbage in galleries, its sad anomalous and reactionary character, its scorn and repudiation of ideals, its rude and confrontational approach, not only has not understood the human condition but has damaged it and delayed insights.  Its ideology demands the death of ideals, whereas beauty calls for idealism without ideology. Beauty matters, ideals matter as long as they are not confined by ideology or stupefied in a permanent state of illusion and delusion.

By emphasising the ugly and despondent we coarsen our quality of life and that of society. I prefer to pay attention to the place of beauty in everyday life " in manners, clothes, interior decoration, and ordinary vernacular buildings. I criticise the bungalow bliss and Celtic Tiger mansions that blight our countryside and the concrete with glass architecture that has such short lifespan and has destroyed cities all over the world.

We are meaning makers. This we cannot escape. Indeed, our sense of beauty wells up from within but that biological and emotional response is not all it is. To allow our senses to lift the spirits and numb the brain is to live in a world of supreme fictions.

Indeed, there are times when delusion an illusion are the only ways to maintain sanity. Sometimes a futile gesture is the only kind you can make. Sometimes poetry can be like the irresponsible snowflake in an avalanche. Sometimes a retreat into the cave may be the only option for the powerless. Who would want to be a realist in some of the circumstances we find ourselves in? I want to say, give me myth, illusion and delusion, but Unamuno’s words keep coming back - “Reality can best be understood by looking at the small histories of anonymous people”. And every so often you meet up with the extraordinary courage of anonymous people who though everything has been taken from them, still choose their attitude at the most personal level, not needing validation by the collective and seemingly purposeful activity ceaselessly taking place around them; despite all, keeping the irony or scepticism that lets the powerful have their way, at bay. There you find poets whose appeal to sympathy, thougthfulness even through cynicism, manage to be witnesses, make some redress. There is where one can find beauty in the midst of squalor, terror and injustice " not just in the language, the structure, imagery, but in the meaning, however deeply hidden.

© 2013 Conroynaas

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Added on July 3, 2013
Last Updated on July 3, 2013
Tags: human beauty, design, art, science, poetry