Mar 282008

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.