Notes on Beauty
The following notes are my attempt to bring together what I have learned about beauty. It is a vague and narrow attempt as such. Beauty is an elusive topic and any endeavor to pinpoint precise definitions around the topic is challenging. The word, the idea, escapes any attempt to capture it. Trying to do so is as if walking on a path which gradually gets more and more indistinct until it vanishes altogether. And then one is lost. The notes here are as elusive as my path, not definite but rather a gathering of notions and mental images that circulate around some of the more personally meaningful encounters I have had with the idea. These words are based on my personal notebooks which include my own musings as well as thoughts from those who have enhanced my own understanding and appreciation of beauty.
The topic is vast. Much of what is considered as beauty finds simply no room for discussion in here. The attractive qualities of someone’s outer appearance, beauty as a standard in design, the symmetry as beauty in mathematics and science and not to mention the evolutionary mechanisms behind it. These and countless other ways to approach the subject are simply out of my reach. My interest is personal. It is to learn to understand beauty as a deeper and a natural need that resides in a human being. It is about the kind of subjective beauty we can experience in our everyday life, in art and in the natural world. I delve in the topic because it is perhaps the most important theme that drives my own art.
BEAUTY AND ART
Good art is not what it looks like but what it does to us.
Taj Mahal, some say, the most beautiful building in the world. © Päivi Maria Wells
For the sake of clarity, when I talk about art, I mean art as a creative output of human expression. This expression is a normal human activity, a creative endeavor which belongs to all of us. I make no distinction between fine arts and everyday arts. In his book, Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore describes art as: “…that which invites us into contemplation”. I am fond of this definition. Good art of any kind communicates before being understood. It affects us before we rush to add our judgement, analysis and interpretations on it, labels which are often based on our strict and learned ideas of what art should and should not be about.
Art is a signpost to truth and a reminder for us of that which is important. Art helps us to become aware of the themes which, often only as a hunch, circulate in our lives. Art eases our yearning for belonging. It helps us to see that we are connected to one another and to the world around us. Art ’s power lies in sharing. Art is a communication between the artist and the receiver, or as the poet Marilyn Nelson puts it: “Art is a communal pondering”. In my view, art’s deepest meaning is to be healing both for the artist and the receiver. Art does not give us answers but it gives us perspective that encourages us to think for ourselves. Art’s job is to make us more whole and more awake in our lives. I strongly believe that art does not exist for art’s sake, but for our sake.
There is no exquisite beauty without some sense of strangeness in its proportions.
-Edgar Allan Poe-
Taj Mahal interior. © Päivi Maria Wells
Beauty in art is not merely a result of a perfect skill which is able to bring out a lovely line, a gentle curve, rhythm, harmony or color and light. It is rather an ensemble where an arrangement of elements, that is the work itself, comes together. But there is always also something else. Beauty is more than the perfect total sum of its parts. It is rather that there is something, an unknown element, an imperfection, an edge, a surprise or a recollection which makes us recognize it. Beauty is a glimpse beyond what is in front of us and that is something that cannot be structured with language, and thus, it leaves behind an air of mystery. Beauty is an interaction between that something - and us. It is a recognition that ignites and touches something deeply human inside us. There is vitality, a quickening that passes through us as it reaches our deepest most profound part of our being. Perhaps a place what we call a soul.
Art is a perfect place to reflect on beauty as it pays keen attention to life and to meaning. True beauty fills us with emotion and reveals our vulnerability yet avoids the trap of sentimentality. It gives us joy and delight. It acknowledges the fact that there is pain and suffering in our lives yet it does not justify it. Instead the experience of beauty make our suffering more bearable. As a clarifying voice for my inner workings, as well as a frame for my visual art, I often find myself longing for words as a way towards beauty. I believe writers and perhaps poets particularly, can give us back the language that is too subtle to find its way to our consciousness. They find the expression for the sensation, name for the unknown and clarity for the intuition. They give us back enough of that something that we were looking for and let us marvel with our own revelation. It is no wonder Michael Longley calls poets as the guardians of the language. Music on the other hand speaks of different kind of language. Yet emotional, it is abstract. Music is perhaps the most direct of experiences in the spectrum of arts as it penetrates us immediately and bypasses any attempt of intervention. Each art have their own context through which beauty communicates with us. The richness of the arts is exactly in the countless of ways it can do that. Performance, architecture, woodwork, gardening, painting, singing, literature. There is a something for everyone.
BEAUTY AND TASTE
There are as many kinds of beauty as there are habitual ways of seeking happiness.
Taj Mahal interior. © Päivi Maria Wells
We have all heard the saying, but still, I do not believe that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. Our taste does . Our taste varies from person to person. Beauty lies in the state of the mind of the beholder. We don’t see things as they are but as we are. The world is an outcome of what we pay attention to and we experience things beautiful because of the kind of response they evoke in our awareness. In his book, The Art Spirit, Robert Henry suggests that: “No thing is beautiful but all things await the sensitive and imaginative mind that may be aroused to pleasurable emotion at sight of them”. This then, according to Henry, is beauty. Which ever way we look at it, beauty arouses our individual sense of fulfillment and pleasure. Our tastes differ and may change within ourselves. Taste is as inconsistent and fickle as the human nature and thus what may seem beautiful and pleasing for us today, may not be so tomorrow.
Taste is a divider. 'Good taste' is something that the cultured elite likes to possess as theirs. Because of this social divide, I believe it is easy to lack confidence in our own taste. I certainly have felt foolish in front of an artwork, quietly asking myself if I am missing something, some important piece of information, or worse, an understanding of the concept in front of me. That I have failed some invisible test and that I am clearly not ‘cultured’ enough for this experience, which to me often feels a mere provocation. Alain de Botton is in the opinion that our taste is defined by our longing. He states that our preferences are a sign of what is missing in our lives. We like something because it rebalances us. We need what it represents. A more poetic suggestion was given by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said: “The love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art”.
BEAUTY AND GLAMOUR
Beauty is the splendor of truth, the clarity everything has, if we would only see.
- David Steindl-Rast-
Taj Mahal © Päivi Maria Wells
Beauty does not get devalued by overuse or familiarity but it is often misused and misunderstood as the beguiling shiny surface of things. According to Robert C. Morgan, glamour is increasingly offered in return for beauty in much of the culture, media, fashion and art world. Morgan describes glamour as commercially driven, noise inducing and fickle addition to a world which is already driven by the hum-drum. Beauty is not glamour. It is its opposite. Glamour is glossy and polished and will not survive deeper inspection. Glamour is part of a cultural narrative which is driven by perfection, success and fame. A narrative where beauty is often seen as something ‘just nice’, pretty, maybe a little childlike and should therefore not be taken too seriously. Beauty is easily seen as an idyll, a false pretense of reality.
At the same time we have a world which has violence, ignorance, greed, hunger, disease and abuse. We glorify and offer recipes for glamour and on the other hand we are constantly bombarded by negative news. This puts us in a place of paradox. It is a place where talking of beauty might risk one being grouped together with fairies. In this narrative, grim is cool and violence and glamour is entertainment. A beautiful or an otherwise pleasing output risks to translate that the person behind such work is prone to sentimentality, denies the reality and is therefore not to be trusted as a true voice of our time. Or that the person liking such work similarly, doesn’t know any better. Such view is simplistic and serves only the interest of those who promote this narrative.
Taj Mahal at dusk. © Päivi Maria Wells
I strongly believe that we have an obligation to recognize beauty again and that any kind of softer, even more velvety approach to art and to life does not make our reality distorted. What if aiming to see beauty or finding truth and meaning among the chaos and the ugly is a choice? That despite and because of the injustices and the narcissistic culture of the world, we should dare to be bold and make room for the beautiful, the softer, the kinder and the longer lasting approach. To dare to be more gentle. To allow art again to manifest and reveal beauty, as once was its core task. And to see people who resort to any such approach, not as lacking understanding, rationale or good taste but as people who see the chaos and uneasiness around us and perhaps are honest enough to seek balance and strength through it.
Rather than a cliche, the experience of beauty can be a great antidote to all the destruction, cynicism and the illusion of riches, fame and promises from the happiness industry. Beauty, goodness and truth are closely related, but only in our longing for this to be so. We know that the world can be brutal, violent and unjust. And yet we look for beauty and are able to experience it even in the most difficult times. Beauty has a quiet certainty of what is and should be so and therefore has the ability to give us directions, hope and meaning.
BEAUTY AND NATURE
It is not the language of the painters but the language of the nature which one should listen to, the feeling for the things themselves, for reality is more important than the feeling for pictures.
-Vincent Van Gogh-
Lakeside in Nepal. © Päivi Maria Wells
Though deeply important human endeavour, art in my view, will always remain as a secondary experience. A tool for our lives. It is my understanding that the true and most intimate encounter with beauty happens in the direct contact with the natural world. Products of our creativity and imagination points us towards beauty, truth and meaning, but grow pale in the presence of the reality of nature. Though our tastes and preferences on art may vary, there is something universal about the beauty in the natural world. We seem to be all touched by it. I also believe that if art is for community and sharing, nature is for solitude, for stillness and for silence.
Being in the nature allows us to go inward, to drop our thoughts and drop our guard, become who we really are. It is a place where there is a great possibility to experience a sense of oneness with our surroundings. We feel small in nature but not in a humiliating kind of way, like art, nature gives us perspective. Nature offers us silence (silence as a lack of noise rather than lack of sound) and stillness (stillness as quieting of the thinking mind, not necessarily that of the body). As Gordon Hampton says, “…silence is not an absence but a presence”. Nature offers us a moment of rest in our own awareness. This awareness allows us to be alert of our surroundings, use our senses and avoid the repetitive nature of our internal chatter. And when we are ready and open to receive, nature can give us the most delightful and endless, all-encompassing beauty.
Morning by the river, Nepal. © Päivi Maria Wells
The beauty in nature reveals itself to us almost as a whisper. It is quiet and gentle, but when acknowledged, it comes to us with firm authority. Nature has the power to heal us and to teach us. It can make us more insightful and creative. Nature never rushes yet it always accomplishes. Spending time in the natural worlds allows us to reset and sync our inner clocks with that of our surroundings. There is a spiritual significance to our experience of beauty and nature. It is an experience of unity. Nature is a place not only for self discovery but it offers us a chance to remind us that we are part of the nature, not separate from it. And most importantly, that we, our existence, depends on it.
I asked the earth, I asked the sea, and the deeps, among the living animals, the things that creep.
I asked the winds that blow, I asked the heavens, the sun, the moon, the stars,
and to all things that stand at the doors of my flesh…
My question was the gaze I turned to them. Their answer was their beauty.
Familiar landscape, beautiful to me in many ways, Finland. © Päivi Maria Wells
Though it can be hard to separate true wisdom and false romanticism, I believe, the above is not a lovey-dovey view of the natural world. Nature is not an idyll, a romance, an etheric landscape or an otherworldly, misty, evergreen scenery. It might have moments of all that but it can also be wild, raw and harsh and smell of mud and decay. There is often bleakness and ruggedness to its beauty. And it may also be that rather than some standard of beauty in scenery, it is the familiarity in our surroundings that we find most beautiful, however it may come to us.
Rather than being worried that we might be idealizing the natural world, we should be worried that for so many of us, the relationship with the natural world is broken. We have lost the connection and with that we have lost the sense of belonging and respect for it. When we are not involved, we care less and we forget our obligation to protect the environment. To loose this connection affects our ability and readiness to perceive beauty. This broken relationship with nature is the reason we are susceptible to endure so much repulsive ugliness and endless destruction around us. This makes us accept ugliness as normal and beauty as naive and romantic. This relationship can be repaired only by reawakening our natural inclination towards the natural world. A real, intimate relationship with nature can only come to exist if we spend time with it, be emerged and surrounded by it and make it so familiar that it becomes important to us. Such as love, art, beauty and nature offer us experiences that feed, not only us, but one another. They make us belong and they make us whole again, and then, they make us act on behalf of them.
THE EXPERIENCE OF BEAUTY
Beauty does not linger, it only visits.
- John O’Donohue -
Morning in the countryside, Nepal. © Päivi Maria Wells
I believe the experience of beauty is a need that is deeply planted into our human experience. Whether through arts, in the natural world or any other way it approaches us in our daily lives, we instinctively long and desire for its appearance. Beauty often comes to us as a sudden realisation. It approaches us as a quickening that runs through our belly, heart and chest and has the capacity to fill every cell of our being. Beauty may also be experienced as an effortless pleasing moment which comes and goes without much of our attention. Beauty attracts us through our senses, by hearing and seeing, by touch, smell and taste but also, by what the Buddhists call our sixth sense, the consciousness. Life is an interplay between the inner world and the outer world. Through our awareness, beauty meets us right where these two worlds come together. This experience is spiritually invigorating as it is both grounding and elevating, both real and abstract at the same time. We can know beauty and experience it, yet we can never possess or hold on to it. It is not for us to keep.
Photography is my creative outlet and my art. It is my tool for truth, for meaning and for beauty. As a practice and an exercise in observation and awareness, it is a constant companion on my life path. It is about learning to take a distance from the thinking mind and instead, learning to pay attention to life around me. Rather than trying to look, I aim to see. What I see is always selective. It is destined to be flawed and filtered though a subjective lens and thus, what it reveals is deeply personal. There is a child’s mind at play here. It is me calling to you, Look what I can see, can you see it too? Similar to the words on this page, the search for beauty is a challenging yet deeply rewarding exploration. The path it takes me onto, may only offer me glimpses with the idea, and every encounter confirms, that beauty remains in many ways an elusive and an endless idea. What beauty is, can never be finally said, or fully expressed through any form of art, but it can be suggested, and that will always remain its mystery and its charm, to which, the only response is gratefulness.
Winter afternoon, Finland. © Päivi Maria Wells