“The beautiful is as useful as the useful…perhaps more so.” Victor Hugo
What is beauty? This question has burned for millennia. Is beauty an absolute, with order, symmetry, and proportion as its hallmarks? Or is it relative, as filtered through the eye of the beholder? Maybe beauty transcends a single explanation and to be really understood, the objective qualities and subjective perceptions must both be considered.
Art, architecture, music, and nature are replete with examples of objectively beautiful things. The Parthenon, Pyramids, Palladio’s Rotunda, Bach’s Fugues, the pinecone, the sunflower, and the nautilus shell are standard bearers. Beauty in the human form is much admired as well. Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is a classic example. We delight in the human form in motion- Balanchine’s ballerinas, long and lithe; the short stop, strong and nimble; and the Masai woman, erect and steady with water bucket perched on her head- a skill just as remarkable as a grand jeté or a double play.
Classic, objective qualities matter, but ignoring the considerable influence of culture, background, and education in our interpretation of beauty makes for a tale half-told. Our subjective filters are hard at work. And they are malleable and responsive to retraining and refinement. An appreciation for the classic characteristics of beauty can be an excellent companion to our raw, unvarnished personal tastes.
Can we recognize and appreciate beauty without being beautiful? The answer to this question seems quite clear. We don’t have to go on pointe, or make a gaming winning play or balance a water bucket on our head to appreciate the form and function that make these things beautiful. What a relief! Just like a reader of cookbooks who never intends to cook. Or a lover of music who listens but never learns to play. Or the art lover who can’t draw a straight line. Appreciation without aspiration isn’t a shortcoming, but rather an affirmation of the universal transcendence of beauty.
A wise and kindly reader offered this reminder, in the person of King Lear speaking to his daughter, Regan (who was not an appreciative audience). If we’re dressed only to stay warm, we don’t need pretty things that probably don’t keep us warm at all. But without beauty, man’s life is no better than beast’s. Let’s elevate our condition and strive for even the useful to have a measure of beauty. In doing so, we’ll join the lofty company of the Bard of Avon and Monsieur Hugo.