Standards of seeing Beauty

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:

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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7 Responses to Standards of seeing Beauty

  1. Sue Lawrence says:

    On beauty:
    A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

    Three minutes went by, and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace, and stopped for a few seconds, and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

    A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping, and continued to walk.

    A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

    The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pushed hard, and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

    In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money, but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

    No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.

    Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

    This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste, and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

    One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:

    If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?

    (this is a reposting)

    • I’d say that what this tells us is that today we too often treat beauty as a product to be consumed. We just don’t even recognise it unless its in the familiar package. Even when its staring us right in the face! Its as if we’ve lost the ability to look, unless we are being told where to look.

      And this is because we are no longer curious. That child was. But the rest of us can’t find the motivation to actively seek it out, to court beauty as if it were an opportunity for this moment in time at this place in the world.

      These days Beauty is what we get off the rack. Since we have mostly forgotten what it means to produce our own visions for beauty we depend on what others give us. We are consumers rather than creators. Beauty gets marketed to us rather than actively explored. We have evidently lost our self determination about beauty and become puppets in the hands of others.

      But that kid still knows what it means to be responsible for beauty. That kid is still at home in the Creative Universe, exploring and discovering. It takes a mind that is flexible enough to figure things out on its own, and bold enough to risk the unfamiliar surprises of the unknown. Somehow we loose this capacity the more our culture ‘civilises’ us as adults.

      And of course this is why art education is so important in primary schools. So that kids don’t lose touch with this vital energy. Once the switch has turned from creator to consumer its hard to get it back. Once we’ve forgotten what its like to be responsible for beauty we lose the knack for how to nurture it. We lose the ability to find it where it is secretly hidden. We are fed only what others give us in the familiar prepackaged forms and this is all we know.

      Sadly, it seems we are living in a culture of the oblivious. And curiosity is dead to us, a fatality of our blind ambition merely to consume, not add to the beauty of the world. And with it, undomesticated art and wild beauty disappear into oblivion. Can we afford to let things slide this far? Where amazing talents and real purveyors of The Beautiful can be so casually ignored? Like Sue asks, “How many other things are we missing?” What possible enrichment of our lives are we shrugging off by casting a blind incurious eye at the world?

      • Scott Cooper says:

        I agree with what you say here about beauty as packaged commodity and the kids’ innate ability to see the beauty where and as they find it. But to me this story says as much about how adults treat their time and attention. Having Bell play in the metro was brilliant, because there are few times more proscribed and pre-committed than the rush to be on time for a job. To control one aspect of the experiment, they should have him play in the park on a Sunday. I’d expect those same adults to linger longer, tip more and divert their plans more readily in that different context, despite it still being an unplanned and random encounter with beauty.

        I agree that part of the kids’ ability to stop and listen was that they haven’t had that impulse trained out of them yet, as you said, but also that they don’t have a schedule to keep, a daily agenda in jeopardy of falling apart if they take moments for random appreciation. That kind of agenda may be overused and a less than ideal way to spend a life, but I think it helps explain the difference between the kids and their parents in addition to the beauty as consumption idea.

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    Another fine post! I hold off on reading these until I know I’m sharp enough to process what you’re presenting; I’ve learned that you’ll probably make me rethink some assumptions, consider the actual meaning of casually misused words, and occasionally strain to see ducks as rabbits and vice versa. Not easy for the weary or under caffeinated mind.

    Interestingly, I couldn’t see it as a rabbit until I read the word “rabbit”, but then it was automatic. And that part of my brain that learns from a demo rather than an explanation lit up and got happy at discovering the implications for seeing beauty. Then I tried to see it as both a rabbit and a duck at the same time, but that’s apparently too Zen for my western mind to latch onto. (I can do American shino, if that counts for partial credit.)

  3. Scott Cooper says:

    p.s. That video is frickin’ amazing. Thanks for prompting me to watch it again.

  4. Pingback: Another lesson in seeing Beauty | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  5. Just ran across this and it seemed to belong to this post:

    “If the whole fabric of our earthly existence has to be redesigned in excruciating details; if for each detail the question of good and bad has to be raised; if every aspect has become a disputed matter of concern and can no longer be stabilized as an indisputable matter of fact; then we are obviously entering into a completely new political territory. As every one of you knows too well, it is the perverse character of all ecological questions that they branch out in all sort of counterintuitive ways. It is probably of ecology that St Paul was talking when he said: “I don’t do the good I wish to do and I do the bad that I hate.”
    … We know that whenever we prepare to change our fixtures from incandescent to low energy light bulbs, to pay our carbon expenses, to introduce wind farms, to reintroduce the wolf to the Alps, or to develop corn based fuel, immediately, some controversy will be ignited that turns our best intentions into hell. And we are no longer able to stop the controversies by stating the undisputable facts of the matter because facts are constantly disputed.
    —Bruno Latour, “A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design” (2008)

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