529 – These Moments Of Beauty

Boy, talk about a delay! But it was not only laziness on my part, I really had to think about this one 🙂

Ted Byrne recently posted an essay “What Do We Do After We Go “Wow”? The purpose of beauty in art photography“, and somehow I feel the need to answer. Well, Ted, here comes the answer.

You originally asked about the sufficiency of beauty from the perspective of a viewer. You were quite surprised when, in a clever comment to your article, Michael McMurrough pointed out that the question arises from the point of view of an artist as well.

I think before we can even begin to discuss the role of beauty in art, we have to define beauty itself, and here we immediately recognize that beauty is a completely subjective concept. What people regard as beautiful is not only different for different people, the “average” even varies with geographic region, with culture, and within a culture changes over the course of centuries. Just have a look at the baroque ideal of a beautiful woman, compared to the 1960s ideal that was shaped largely by a fashion model named Twiggy.

So what is beauty? Much greater minds than mine have tried to answer this question, thus I’ll skip the idea of a final definition altogether, and only try to come up with a concept that works for me.

So what is beauty for me? I think beauty is a certain quality of inexplicable simplicity, that nevertheless has the power to represent arbitrarily complex configurations of reality. Beauty is not a state that can be constructed, it can only be approached, but it is not glaring like a beacon. Beauty is elusive, subtle and fragile. Not enough of a definition? Sorry, I have no better one,this will have to do for now.

I read a book just now. It’s Ian Roberts’ “Creative Authenticity“, that was recently recommended by Paul Butzi. In the first chapter, “Searching for Beauty”, Ian connects beauty with transcendental silence, and he concludes, that the artist’s authenticity and growth, and ultimately the work’s “resonance and truth are what will give it beauty”, meaning that beauty is something that happens as a byproduct of authentic, meaningful art. Mind though, that there is no way to force it. There are things that seem to be necessary, like – very profanely – just “showing up”, meaning constantly working on expressing yourself, instead of evading the confrontation with your creative self. This is the 90% sweat part. It’s clear though, that “showing up” alone achieves nothing.

Ian’s concept of beauty is much more elevated than your’s, Ted. For you, beauty is just one tool in the artist’s toolkit, just one possibility to open a portal to deeper meaning. For the purpose of this text I tend to stick more with Ian and his idea that beauty “happens” through passionate creative acts, but that’s more a matter of definitions, of how broad we see the range of what we like to assign the label “beauty”. I think we each know what the other means.

This semantic problem comes from the fact that the word beauty is used for a bewildering number of things in a bewildering number of contexts, and I suppose it is for a reason, that through all the history of philosophy, we as a species have not come up with a final definition of the concept. It may even be, that it is no single concept at all, and it would make sense to use different words for different aspects of “beauty”. Alas, although we are free to do so, this is not the way language works. In order to be understood, we need to use symbols with shared (or at least approximately shared) meanings. Thus we are back to the one word “beauty” and the problem of its ambiguity. That’s the deeper reason why we constantly use the word with qualifiers like in “spiritual beauty”.

We may not be able to define beauty, but does that mean we can’t recognize it? Not at all! We may ultimately not always mean the same things, but every one of us can point to certain instances of beauty, and this is a beauty that’s individually felt. Remarkably similar to religious experiences, isn’t it? That may be the reason, that beauty is so often associated with the divine.

I am digressing. The original question was about the role of beauty in photographic art, so let’s see if we have come any further so far:

When we can’t define beauty, when we can’t fabricate it, but when we still can see it when it is there, when beauty is happening through passionate creative acts, why should it make sense to worry about it at all?

And, lastly, this is my stance: I don’t care. Some of my images may be beautiful in a more than superficial sense, I believe that the number of them increases the longer I practice photography, but I simply don’t care. I pour passion into my work, and if that produces beauty at times, I let it gladly happen, and even if I wouldn’t, it would happen anyway.

Though some of my images may be beautiful in a more than superficial sense, not all of them are, and I dare say most of them are not. They may have other qualities. They may evoke feelings, invite to dreaming, transport stories, express tension, and all that is possible without actually having beauty. Some of these qualities may be less lasting than real beauty (you note the qualifier?), some may only work upon first view, some may only work for me, but these are things that I like to care about, these are things that I can define, and these are things that I can try to create. Beauty I can not. And that, Ted, that is the reason why I don’t believe that beauty is a tool.

At least not what I call beauty. Prettiness yes, beauty no. Beauty in its real sense, deep, innate beauty may cause you to go “Wow!”, but more often than not it won’t. What makes you go “Wow!” is something else, and this is what may be used up, leaving you with the question of “what else?”. Beauty is timeless and it is an end, not a means.

There is another role of beauty though, and that’s in the creative act itself, or rather in its inception, in the inspiration that comes in the very begining: At least for me, these inspirations frequently are like a glimpse of beauty, and that beauty, lighting up in a fleeting moment, too short to get hold of it, that beauty is what makes me delve into a subject, makes me want to explore it.

All Images were made with the Nikon 18-200 VR. The Song of the Day is “This Moment“, again from Melissa Etheridge’s fantastic 2004 album “Lucky“. See her perform it live on YouTube.

4 thoughts on “529 – These Moments Of Beauty”

  1. Wait…. Wait…. WAIT!!!!!

    I don’t care what beauty is. Nope… I just care what it is for!

    Do any other animals notice it? Hmmmm… well, yeah. Apparently male birds, for example, preen and girl birds go… WOW!

    But do they look at mountains against the sky and go…. “WOW!”?

    I think that beauty is hard wired to an evolutionary function. And since the primal function is producing more of us… I’m guessing that beauty’s related to that. Although frankly, I DON”T CARE!!!

    Beauty’s one thing that gets our attention . And things that get our attention are “for” something. They’ve got a utility. A function.

    I’m just sayin’ that there are a whole bunch of pretty/beautiful photos that really don’t do anything else. They are not a portal to anything. You go “WOW!” and you never come back. That kind of beauty is deep as a parking lot puddle in August. – and as lasting. The word “shallow” comes to mind. Well, to my mind anyway.

    I think an arresting result without meaning is pretty crafty. In fact it can take reeeeeeely, reeeeeely, reeeeeeely HIGH craft to pull off.

    We aren’t as distracted by the size-babes of 1670. I agree that the definition of what’s pretty is a moving target. So’s J-Lo’s, um…. bottom. And for the moment, there’s a great deal of agreement that Jenny From The Block’s a current answer for a lot of people asked about beauty.

    At the risk of redundancy…. It doesn’t matter to me what beauty is…. I don’t care… Nope, I’m fixated upon what it’s for. Artists have exploited it for centuries… Millennia …. To do what?

    I’m just askin’… What are you doing when you make beautiful pictures? What is your conscious or unconscious intention? What do you want from us after we go “WOW!”? Is that the end in itself/ Izzat all there is? I don’t want it to be….


    BTW… Sorry I deleted my original post… I found a big stupid typo that stood out like a pimple on the nose of a great… beauty!

  2. Ahhh, the wonders of semantics. Back to “beauty in a broader sense, considered as a tool” 🙂

    I don’t construct images like you do, always interwoven with a story. Sometimes I do, most of the time not. What I do is what I said: I try to express my own feelings, I try to resolve tension, I try to …

    Those things. I don’t try to produce beauty. It may be a by-product. So far for me and my intentions.

    What I want from you is recognition of my intentions. I want to be understood. What we do here is communication, and like in all kinds of communication, my efforts are wasted when you don’t listen. But in order to make people listen, they need some form of appeal. “Wow” may help tremendously in that regard, but the “Wow” need not come from beauty. It may, but shock can do as well, as can other qualities.

    Are we any nearer now 😕

  3. Which is my point. There are devices that the artist uses to pull people through their portals to consider their thoughts and feelings.

    Sure it takes craft to achieve the “WOW!” But if the only intent is the “WOW!” If there is nothing else there beyond the portal… then there is only craft… no art.

    My point is that by itself, the illustration of beauty is one type of craft… it is NOT art!

    If it is one of those devices, as you note, that leads the viewer into a CO-mmunication, an interaction with your thoughts… then it is a prelude to art.

    Of course I no more want to define beauty than I do art. I’m just sayin’ that it can be one necessary but not a sufficient condition to making art.

    A “WOW!” alone is like… like… an entirely convincingly seductive transvestite to a heterosexual guy. Um, sort of an, er, … downer.

    Hmm… thinking about that example… I wonder if it is possible that craft represented as art might even be fraud. Imagine, someone presenting the collected works of say John Coltrane as the artistic equivalent of the Greatest Hits of Donnie Osmond.

  4. I have reread your piece. I imply that visual beauty is part of a process, you sense it as a destination. Perhaps it can be both. I shall think on that.

    And thanks for thinking back at me.

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