Saturday, 21 May 2016

What is Beauty?

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever seen me that I do not pay much attention (read "any attention") to how I look. So there is not really much chance that anyone is going to look at me one day and describe me as "beautiful". This is just not something that happens to someone who looks like a bag of spanners such as myself. In terms of personal appearance I have mostly been one of those who ignores the very concept. I see clothes as functional rather than fashion items, personal grooming is something I imagine you do if you own horses (and you do it to them and not yourself) and I basically never try to impress anyone with the way I look. I guess I have always found that very fake and superficial. My presumed attitude in life has been that if you aren't prepared to go on more than a subjective appreciation of how I look, on your own terms and not even mine, then, well, you don't deserve to know what goodies lurk underneath the surface, unseen.

Now it may be that one reason my life is in the hole it appears to be is exactly because I have taken this attitude to life! I am not unaware of this criticism or this conclusion. But to hell with it anyway. If one is going to have opinions or make choices then the least one can do is commit to them and be prepared to see them through to the end. I was never going to be anyone's idea of beautiful anyway. There is some self-confirmation going on somewhere in all that as people see the bag of spanners, ignore or dismiss me and, in so doing, confirm to me that the world is superficial and cruel. Of course, it was a set up because I never tried to impress anyone in the first place. We see the world we want to see.

And this is the first thing to say to the question "What is beauty?" Beauty is a faculty of the eyes, a seeing thing, that takes place in social and cultural contexts. Beauty does not, and cannot, occur in a vacuum. It is one of the qualities of appearance. We are schooled through life to judge, critically and subjectively, what is beautiful and what is not. As with all subjective opinions this means that nothing is inherently beautiful. It also means that anything can be regarded as beautiful if it meets someone's requirements for it. I am now listening to something I regard as a beautiful sound because although beauty starts with being about what we see it can be used metaphorically in other areas too. The same rules apply here as well. There is no inherently beautiful sound but every sound can be beautiful. You may question me and say what about those things that everyone seems to think is beautiful? I would describe these things as subject to a great deal of intersubjective agreement. Most people seem to like sunsets or pictures of mountains or the beach, for example. 

Of course, the subject of beauty can be both benign and also full of consequence. My thinking about beauty this week started when I saw a conversation between some people online where one of the people, to my eyes a stunningly beautiful young woman, was speaking to a friend about how she does not always like the pictures people take of her and this causes her stress. This upset me somewhat because, as I say, to my eyes this young woman appears sublimely beautiful. I imagine that most other people seeing her would agree. But perhaps she wouldn't agree herself. We have all read stories of people who become obsessed with their appearance and it becomes a matter of some psychological harm to them. We have read or heard of stories where people, often young women it seems, have surgeries or even mutilate themselves (and its a thin dividing line) in pursuit of some idea of physical beauty. Perhaps they decide they need larger breasts or something isn't the right shape or their skin is the wrong color. Perhaps they think that covering themselves in tattoos is where beauty is found. For them beauty is a definite idea they have in their head or something the culture they want to live up to is telling them they must be. I pity such people both for the stress they go through because of this and because they objectify the idea of beauty in such a way.

All this makes me think about landscapes which I often find beautiful and usually mysterious. Natural landscapes are the results of random events. No one, in the main, made them look that way. A mountain just is a mountain. A fake mountainscape, someone's idea of what a mountain should look like, would seem fake and false by comparison. But just to look at a set of mountains, as I have done in the Bavarian Alps, for example, is to be almost overawed by something mysterious and unexplainable. For me it was most overwhelming and almost philosophical in the force of its beauty exactly because no one had done this. It just was, natural, innocent. This speaks to me of the beauty of innocence which is very unlike this world of our's in which innocence is almost a crime. Beauty is something we think we can make from scratch. But its not. Real beauty is like a pool that needs to be left undisturbed and just regarded. The minute you disturb the pool, thinking you can make it better, is the moment innocence is lost and ripples from your activity destroy what was there.

So I do not find beauty in deliberation and affectation. This is not to say that with effort we cannot improve something's appearance. However, notions of better and worse appearance need not necessarily be anything to do with beauty at all. This is again affected by our cultural and social situations. Important to me is that beauty can be seen wherever someone will see it. I often look at pictures on Tumblrs of abandoned buildings. I find a strange beauty in them. It is not a beauty of cleanliness, of human effort and of perfection for, on one view, these places are a complete scrap heap, a mess. But I would find scrap heaps beautiful too. This tells me that beauty is not about perfection, something which is an idea and an ideal in any case. Any notion of perfection you could come up with would be rhetorical, a matter of debate and not fact. All ideas of beauty are challengeable. I do not even really think that "perfection" is a thing that exists when we talk about beauty in any case. I have always found the flawed more beautiful anyway. This accords with my "natural" principles and I suppose this is why I find those people who chase after beauty in themselves so disturbing. When we confuse beauty with perfection we can go to a very dark place.

The same is true when we apply beauty elsewhere. In thinking about all this I, of course, found need to express it musically. So I made an album called "Schönheit" which is German for "beauty" but can also be used as the quality of being beautiful. It contains what I regard as some beautiful sounds and rhythms. You may listen to it and find it a noisy, dissonant, off camber collection of songs with few redeeming features. But, as with all my music and with me myself, I am only existing musically for those who want to look underneath the surface. The form the music takes is almost there to make listeners choose. Are they going to look, unthinkingly, think they hear a certain thing, and then turn away without so much as questioning what they think they hear, or are they going to go beyond it and actually interrogate what they are hearing and their own ideas of what it is and why they are listening as they do? Beauty and attractiveness, as I have said a couple of times now, do not exist in a vacuum. These faculties can be taught and we can shape them, either deliberately or unconsciously. So beauty and attractiveness are not static things, givens, we can lead them on, we can push them in a direction we want them to go. My music is there as an aid to this and is part of some notional agenda in me to help create people who question themselves and why they think the ways they do. And maybe even realize they can change that and start to do something about it.

Beauty is a paradigm subject in this regard exactly because it is not a given. It is an award we give to things in regard to how we think they look or how we perceive them. You will know from previous blogs that I try very hard not to be a conventional person. Convention I regard with a barely disguised contempt in most senses. One of the reasons I don't like convention is because it is lazy. When it comes to beauty I would much rather question why I find something beautiful or not than just feel safe in my enculturated points of view. Beauty, it seems to me, is almost exactly a matter of what is under the surface yet is taken by most people to ONLY be the surface. Beauty is only skin deep, right? Well, no. Beauty is not a matter of what you are looking at. Its a matter of what you see. And they are two very different things. The thoughtful amongst my readers will ponder that difference. 

You can listen to my album "Schönheit", which ponders these ideas musically, HERE! 

No comments:

Post a Comment