The Nature of Beauty
What is in the eye of the beholder?
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour — William Blake
Is beauty relative or objective? I have no idea, I tend to think it’s objective. The question has bugged me because it is both a personal and existential question. There is some universal notions of beauty. Symmetry is one example of what is considered beauty. I find many women beautiful. However, I will admit symmetry in the human body does look more attractive. In mathematics and physics, symmetry is what makes something beautiful. Even algebraic concepts themselves are based on notions of symmetry. Whenever I have a splotch on my wall or on my screen it bothers me. I think often because of a lack of symmetry. Symmetry is inbuilt in nature, where certain objects are beautiful because of symmetric geometry. We find certain flowers beautiful because they are symmetrical.
What about the un-beautiful, the ugly? I find often what we think is ugly converges and we often find the same objects ugly. A survey of ugly flowers reveals several quite ugly ones and while I would agree they are all ugly. They are not equally so.
The ugly flowers all have the same trait of being asymmetrical. There is something off about their appearance. However I don’t find all of them that bad to look at. Even the prettiest people themselves often are insecure about their look and worry about the asymmetrical aspects of their appearance. It reminds me of the neat freaks who obsess over a single spot on a couch. Maybe that’s what obsessive compulsive disorder is, the intolerance of asymmetry.
When I was in school we studied the fibonacci sequence and similar sequences. These sequences contained a symmetrical nature to them. You could expand it and add up sequential numbers and the coefficients would form a symmetrical pattern.
F(n) = F(n-1) + F(n-2) = F(n-2)+F(n-3)+F(n-3)+F(n-4)=F(n-2) + 2F(n-2) + F(n-4)
Is this a coincidence? I doubt it, mathematics itself seems to be created by us to be symmetrical. Why is this? I think maybe god is lazy, or the universe wants to complete itself.
Music has its own notions of beauty. I prefer ambient, instrumental or folk music that conveys emotion. Some people like Beethovens’s fifth, others prefer Jay Z. I personally don’t enjoy Beethoven that much. I prefer modern composers like Phillip Glass. Music that often becomes popular has two properties. Usually in a well known key like C and is repetitive. Music that is often heard will be liked again because of the exposure effect and repetitive music is easier to discern patterns in than discordant music. Symmetry in music is represented in progressions. A certain chord might be followed by another then returning to the same chord. Certain chord progressions I find very appealing like Gm — Dm-F-C and others less so like D-C#m-C. Often the sharp notes can sound unappealing because they sound dissonant. That’s why western music has developed scales and progressions, to make notes sound nicer to the ear.
Music I often listen to is calming and follows repetitive amorphous tones that seem to have no center. Is it beautiful in the same way a concerto is, maybe not, but it’s nice background sound. In fact I have difficulty functioning without some sort of musical background. Silence or the hum of life has become uncomfortable to me. Life needs some sort of soundtrack to be bearable. It is as Nietzsche claims, without music life would be a mistake.
Is there some subjectiveness to beauty, besides our collective notion that symmetry makes something beautiful. I think the fact that different music is preferred or someone might prefer a different type of artwork is evidence that to some extent beauty is subjective. However often I wonder if that is due more to familiarity than just beauty. Postmodern artwork is often seen as ugly and strange to most people outside the art world because they aren’t familiar with it. Maybe some people just become magically more beautiful because they see them a lot or are literally their french teacher. I often listen to classical and the Beatles because that’s what my dad played. I think this is often why someone might prefer their run down ghetto neighborhood to a posh suburb. Because while the ghetto might not be beautiful, it is comforting and familiar.
It might seem like a trivial question, it’s really not though. From affecting one’s self esteem to creating bias within hiring mechanisms it has real consequences. Entire industries are based around creating the perfect image and conforming to an expectation with billions in revenue. Beauty isn’t just something humans invented animals have a notion of it as well however different than a human concept. Most human men would not find a female chimpanzee attractive yet male chimpanzees must find them attractive. Beauty is often something animals are quite aware of, Darwin himself understood this. However, we often attribute everything to natural selection forgetting that there is more to biology. Why we find something beautiful often has more to do with our own experiences than some societal expectation.
If we vomited when we saw the Mona Lisa for the first time, we would likely associate it with vomit and find it less appealing. Association has as much to do with beauty as some objective ideal. Operant conditioning within a Skinner-like is often how we form our idea of beauty. Within artificial intelligence this is called reinforcement learning. Positive experiences around an object will often make you think it is more beautiful or pleasant. While negative experiences can turn you off to it. This is often a part of the exposure effect I wrote about earlier. Maybe exposure does make it more beautiful.
However there is something more important here. We often wonder why an ugly man ends up with a beautiful woman or an ugly woman finds a handsome man. I think it’s because we forget there is more to life than just beauty. Also maybe beauty is really just subjective. I think we often project our beauty standards onto others and think that they must therefore believe the same. It’s why there’s people who can’t believe why anyone would find Kanye to be a good singer. I write this listening to music I consider beautiful, maybe not everyone would. I think if we look hard enough we can find beauty in anything even the most ugly flower. I hope you take that to heart and enjoy the rest of your day.