Lovely word “standard”. It means both a delineation of measurement and an emblem or totem that represents a particular group or perspective.
And in our typically thoughtless way we use the term “beauty” in both these senses, and our vague use often muddies an already abused concept.
But there is nothing unusual about striding through the day wrapped in contradiction, ambiguity, and confusion. We do it all the time. And the nature of the world and our place in it merely facilitates this. We might pretend that things are more stable and that our understandings are more concrete, but that is just one of our many delusions.
We get the first notion of beauty as a standard from perhaps as early as Plato’s use of Forms, where an ideal of beauty casts shadows in the world that approximate it to better or lesser degrees. Beauty in the world is a copy or an imitation of that original ideal. A thing in the world either partakes of beauty or it does not, and it does it either better or worse than other things. And this explanation is used to describe how we sometimes compare one beauty to another, that there are things that are more beautiful and things that are less.
According to Plato something either does or does not embody the shadow of beauty, and so the appeal to this Universal is objective. True beauty is reflected in the things of the world. We are not inventing whether we see beauty and we can’t be mistaken about the possibility of beauty. Beauty is the truth that stands behind an object. The object only ‘agrees’ with the reality behind the worldly things, but never perfectly.
And in a culture where a single set of values dominates it is easy to see how much agreement can be fostered. We are even encouraged to agree. Uniformity and conformity can be seen to go hand in hand. Beauty can seem to look all one way if there is a significant similarity in the genetics of culture and biology that it is describing. And any variations in agreement is a mere human failing. It merely points to our relative abilities to apprehend the shadows for what they are shadows of. Like failing to see that the shadow of a cat is the shadow of a cat and not some other animal.
But quite different from this experience is the matter of standards that identify separate view points, premises, and criteria. The second notion of a standard can be used to explain the obvious discrepancy between evaluations of beauty between cultures and that not everyone agrees. There are standards that point out specific things as emblematic and as qualitatively different from the standards of others. This is not mere disagreement on the same scale, but difference between the canons themselves. The evaluations are in fact alien. They are simply not even on the same table to be measured or compared.
And thus we are given the phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Rather than an ultimate standard we all appeal to, each person or tribe bears their own standard. And the interesting thing is that one perspective’s assessment can entirely deny or contradict that of others. Its not just that others disagree, but they are wrong. Some standards are simply incompatible and mutually exclusive. And in this sense the standard of beauty is typical, meaning of or from a ‘type’.
Obviously there is truth to be found in both these depictions. There does seem to be a case for universality and there also seems to be a case for relativity. People have argued one or the other side for thousands of years and they have yet to explain away the merits of what they are opposing. The reality of the world seems to contain true examples of both ways of looking at things. Funny how the world can work that way. Or maybe funny how truths can sometimes be partial or contradict other truths…. Maybe we just expect too much from this word “truth” as well? But that’s another topic….
Perhaps a third way exists that combines or ignores features of the two usual standards of beauty. Perhaps its true that every object in some way partakes of the nature of beauty. If we can find beauty in even the most surprising places then we must admit that its out there to be grasped, whether we are ready for it or not. And that some folks can’t find it doesn’t mean its not there. What it means is that they simply do not have the proper keys to unlock this door or to reveal the beauty that can be found. So seeing beauty is perhaps not a natural physical ability, like seeing color, as much as a perceptual one. Its the difference between seeing and seeing as.
Seeing beauty could be something like this picture:
You either get this image or you do not. It can be something like whether you get a joke or not: Once you see it its obvious. You get why its funny. But the joke was there all the time. And the same with beauty: Its there all the time.
Beauty, like poetry and humor, is a puzzle of meaning. You can’t always cogitate your way into an understanding. Usually the more you explain it the less of it you have. (Mark Twain once wrote: “Explaining humor is a lot like dissecting a frog: You learn a lot in the process, but in the end you kill it.”)
So, in a sense seeing beauty is perhaps more about direct intuition that it is about rational understanding. And because we are often so powerfully struck by beauty our opinions about it can have the force of faith and conviction. “Seeing is believing.” And it only seems like the frame of reference illuminates ‘the one truth’ because we fail to see our other options. Like with the duck/rabbit. If we see it as a duck its a duck. If we see it as a rabbit its a rabbit. And depending on the culture you grow up in you can be trained to see the image one way, or the other, or both.
The truth is that the ambiguity of all things is only mitigated by the strength of our convictions. Things seem certain because we hold them to be certain, when really the world is only full of possibility. And as with most things, this comes down to what we believe. Do we believe that such and such is beautiful, holds the potential for beauty? Do we have the keys to unlock seeing it as beautiful? If the beauty is already there, then its just a matter of us learning how to access it. If beauty is an aspect of the world then we need to find where and how it is hidden.
And if this is true, the less time we spend denying other people’s ideas of beauty the better. We need to spend more time trying to understand what it is they see. If the world is so full of the potential for beauty why would we ever lock it up in protective vaults? Why would we spend so much of our time lobbying for only one view of it, and restrict ourselves to the most partial perspective possible? (Great word “partial”, isn’t it?) Perhaps we should learn to be more impartial. Perhaps we should learn to be more complete.
Perhaps we face this difficulty because the human mind works to confirm its prejudices so naturally. We are not naturally open minded or willing to see things from multiple perspectives. Our nature is this limited and flawed thing. And every person who has a different perspective is proof of the impossibility of our own perfect understanding. As much as we are all right in some ways we can’t all be right in all ways. Especially if we admit to how much our opinions change over time.
But if we acknowledge our inherent imperfection, that would seem all the more reason to embrace the obvious multiplicity of our Universe. It would seem the best of all arguments to strive to be more than we are and to see more than we do. Rather than clinging conservatively to our biases and prejudices it would seem to advocate for an open-mindedness about the possibilities before us.
Beauty doesn’t just mean one thing, and it certainly doesn’t mean only this one thing that I’ve got a handle on. But if beauty truly has the value we give it in our daily lives then the humility to look beyond our partiality seems important. It means being brave in the face of the unknown, but it also means the difference between being explorers of the world and being the ones who only dust the collections of their own museums.
This past Tuesday was the day many of us celebrate our loves and especially cherish the beauty we are blessed with in our lives. So, naturally I also wanted to do a tribute to the idea and the importance of beauty in our lives. That’s part of the reason for this post. Yesterday, Wednesday, was also the anniversary of the passing of Richard Feynman, one of the most remarkable humans to have graced our planet. He was a Nobel Physicist and a humane explorer of the meaning of life. Richard Feynman inspires me. This is what he had to say on Beauty: