What is Beauty? And why I’m unable to appreciate modern art.
(Beauty is a difficult concept and I’m not trying to get into the nitty gritty of form and colour. For example, why our eyes are drawn to certain points according to the law of thirds. What this article seeks to do, however, is explain general attractions)
I just went to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan and it sent me on a whole journey of defining beauty. There’s certain things I consider beautiful: my hometown of Vancouver, the movie Gravity, my niece Kylie and my girlfriend Brenda. When I thought about all these items and my attraction towards them, my mind began to wander and I realized there’s a lot of concepts involved in describing attraction. Being that guy who loves the theory of natural selection, I eventually boiled everything down to increased evolutionary advantage.
So no,I don’t think the perception of beauty is cultural. I think everything we deem to be beautiful started around a million years ago.
If we observe some different animals, we can see that there are indeed genetic benefits to seeking “beauty”. In the case of animals, everyone wants a healthier mate. For example, female cardinals prefer the reddest partners. Redness signifies an ability to acquire food, as cardinals get redder by eating protein and red carotenoid pigments. Another example is the male peacock. The more eyespots on their feathers, the more attractive they are, because the healthiest peacocks have the most time and energy to be growing luxurious feathers.
For humans, a lot of our preferences are also evolutionary in nature. For example, symmetry in a partner’s face underlies a resistance to environmental factors and better overall genes. Height in men signify strength and protection. High cheekbones, long full hair, and red lips in women represent good genes, health, and good blood flow, respectively.
Certain scenery, such as one with large green trees and a body of water, will evoke a primitive, positive response, because it represents an abundance of oxygen and water, and these savannas were the very same living quarters our ancestors preferred. We find natural beauty in things which offer a wealth of resources. In fact, I recently read a paper about how humans across cultures prefer an area with low grass, high trees, preferably those that fork close to the ground, as an escape path from predators, varied vegetation, existence of fauna, a riverbank, and a path that leads down the horizon. Even cultures such as the Inuit find this scene to be beautiful.
So what is it in the human genome that dictates I find works by Dali so amazing? And why do I think Picasso (I’m really uncultured) isn’t that great? Dali does not paint beautiful landscapes our ancestors preferred, nor does he paint optimally proportional women. So what is it about his paintings I like so much?
The practice of art originated in an attempt, consciously or subconsciously, to woo females. The earliest form of art were hand axes, and there is evidence that suggests humans eventually started making these for decorative purposes, as opposed to hunting purposes. These axes were too large to swing, barely dented, and were made with high quality materials and are extremely symmetrical. Back then, toolmaking required certain abilities, such as planning, fine motor control, and overall intelligence. As a result, skilled humans gained an evolutionary advantage in finding mates over their less capable peers (side note: that’s really kinda sad, because it leads me to believe all technology, art and philosophy stems from trying to impress women).
After the rise of language, art began taking different forms. People started to revel in storytelling and writing to express emotions and events, real and fictional. And I think the bottom line with all forms of art is that humans are attracted to finesse, skill, and precision. People like poetry because they do the most with as few words as possible. You can appreciate a beautiful movie because the writers took time in the script, the designers scrutinized over costumes and make-up, and the cinematographer made sure every scene was detailed and specific.
The things we immediately find beautiful are the things we observe to be labour-intensive or inherently difficult. I could never do the sculpture of David or paint the Sistine Chapel, and those works of art are remarkable. I think the reason why I couldn’t appreciate the MoMA was because they exhibited paintings with literally a white blank canvas. I’m sure I’d appreciate it more if I watched the artistic process or if I took post-modern classes.