Golden Ratio in Art, or Bogus Bias in Brains?

There’s a pattern there, see? Bogus, Bias, Brain = B, B, B. The Universe has order. We can all sleep at night! Yay! (That’s a joke, of course)

Actually, I just read this fascinating article that debunks The Golden Ratio as a vital/essential principle of design, and rather than spewing my own long winded take down of the nonsense I’ll let that author do it for you. The article is here, but these are some of the introductory highlights:

“The idea that the golden ratio has any relationship to aesthetics at all comes primarily from two people, one of whom was misquoted, and the other of whom was just making shit up.

The first guy was Luca Pacioli, a Franciscan friar who wrote a book called De Divina Proportione back in 1509, which was named after the golden ratio. Weirdly, in his book, Pacioli didn’t argue for a golden ratio-based theory of aesthetics as it should be applied to art, architecture, and design: he instead espoused the Vitruvian system of rational proportions, after the first-century Roman architect, Vitruvius. The golden ratio view was misattributed to Pacioli in 1799, according to Mario Livio, the guy who literally wrote the book on the golden ratio. But Pacioli was close friends with Leonardo da Vinci, whose works enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity in the 19th century. Since Da Vinci illustrated De Divina Proportione, it was soon being said that Da Vinci himself used the golden ratio as the secret math behind his exquisitely beautiful paintings.

One guy who believed this was Adolf Zeising. “He’s the guy you really want to burn at the stake for the reputation of the golden ratio,” Devlin laughs. Zeising was a German psychologist who argued that the golden ratio was a universal law that described “beauty and completeness in the realms of both nature and art… which permeates, as a paramount spiritual ideal, all structures, forms and proportions, whether cosmic or individual, organic or inorganic, acoustic or optical.”

But it didn’t matter if it was made up or not. Zeising’s theories became extremely popular, “the 19th-century equivalent of the Mozart Effect,” according to Devlin, referring to the belief that listening to classical music improves your intelligence. And it never really went away. In the 20th century, the famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier based his Modulor system of anthropometric proportions on the golden ratio. Dalí painted his masterpiece The Sacrament of the Last Supper on a canvas shaped like a golden rectangle. Meanwhile, art historians started combing back through the great designs of history, trying to retroactively apply the golden ratio to Stonehenge, Rembrandt, the Chatres Cathedral, and Seurat. The link between the golden ratio and beauty has been a canard of the world of art, architecture, and design ever since.”

Read the article for more speculative, scientific, and psychological examinations of this topic. Its a good read.

And maybe you don’t need much convincing. I just remember hearing one potter explain why he attaches his handles in the place he does as reflecting the ‘Golden Ratio’, as if that was somehow important. I had to restrain myself from bursting out laughing, but most dogma seems preposterous to me, even on the surface.

Thankfully in my own work I give myself the freedom to make each of my mugs different and attach handles whatever way I feel works for that individual pot at the time I am attaching them. No appeal to universal harmonics or celestial geometry. And if I ever end up making my pots a single dogmatic way because of some idealized abstract notion, or because some authority told me that’s the way its done, please shoot me. I can handle some self delusion, (plenty, I suppose) but I draw the line there.

Peace all!

Happy potting!


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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