What is Beauty?

TED Talk video with Denis Dutton

Philosophy emphasizes thought and reason and art emphasizes human feeling and spirit.

Whirlpool State Park

Where the two shall meet? Denis Dutton is where they meet with a Darwinian Theory of Beauty.

See the video above where Dutton talks about how the two are intertwined. I was most intrigued by the evolution of beauty. This video was an interesting journey of thought. He explores, “What the experience of beauty is…”

I think I understand the experience of beauty, or at least how it affects me. I will tell you now, but read on to find out more from my thoughts and the video.

I find beauty to be standing in awe, feeling not a chill but a sensation, a stop in your tracks reaction, tuning out everything around my being. The word itself is used excessively sometimes without heed. Sometimes we don’t know why, but we just do. Other times we don’t believe something beautiful but say so anyway.

Devil’s Hole

We look at beauty but all see it differently, most probably fashioned by our experiences. Hence the overused phrase, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Whatever has the presence to move you or touch you in a positive personal way can be considered beautiful, but is that tempered by culture and social situation as a qualifier?

Niagara Falls State Park

Shadows move over time, changing a scene and how we perceive it.

Must things we create always be beautiful? Can we find beauty in all things? A resounding yes to the second question in my opinion, even if culture determines a uniformity in what we are supposed to appreciate. The notion of “doing things well can be beautiful”, makes the answer to both questions “yes”, where question one is true and is a subset of question two.

Convoluted? No, simple.

From discussion in the video, things that are inherently non-beautiful can have the component of being beautifully conceived, like the horror movie example he gives in the talk. Professor Dutton notes that “we find beauty in something done well.” I hope you viewed the video in order to follow the line of thinking or even make sense of the information in this post.

Niagara Falls State Park

Beauty is complicated, where things we call beautiful are all so different, a real cacophony of varied subjects touching various senses. The beauty recognized by the senses is the most diverse.

What we really are looking at is aesthetics in art endeavors if we are seeing the physical art. It has more to do with the appreciation or creation of beautiful things.

Poetry is an echo, asking shadow to dance. Carl Sandburg

Dutton takes the beauty of art back to two and a half million years ago. It is pretty amazing what these primitive hominids would have created for the sake of beauty rather than the necessity of practical tools. He explains, in an entertaining way, the theory of why.

These art pieces of ancient times were made long before known language. Is art changing culture or culture changing art?  Are we presently and very slowly trading the written word for that of image or object like the prehistoric people in the example?

American Falls

Photography can be the visual literacy of telling stories by photos or a series of photos, where words need not be used. Are we changing the way we communicate, making a social modification through image?

Maybe, as photos are universal and currently over-saturating our visual space, whereas words require translation across cultures. And even more evidence – language is evolving. It is being condensed down for the purpose of speed and brevity. Texting anyone???

Upper Niagara River

So much to read now-a-days is a shorthand version or what was written before. A synopsis can be meant to be the entire story. Is that why photographs have been exerting more power with the advent of the web?

Niagara Gorge

The images used have the presence of shadow, light and darkness. As a shadow moves, so goes with it the movement of place. Shadow can be its own kind of beauty. Shadows express time without words and numbers.

Shadows are their own kind of literacy. Think about places and structures where shadowed space gave rise to a space bathed in the clarity of light. Or structures that marked time and season.  (Stonehenge, the Pyramids, Mayan structures, obelisks, temples marking the solstice, etc.).

Catch up on the series on Creative Thinking and Thoughts on Design:

More thoughts on creativity with a followup post to All Tech and Little Talent.  Tough Times To Be A Creative is for the doubting Thomases, plus the post might make you question uploading BEAUTIFUL images.

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About Donna Brok

Love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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39 Responses to What is Beauty?

  1. Devil’s Fall, splashes of autumn leaves on snow, Niagara Gorge and thought-provoking prose. Another beautiful post, Donna. I’m visiting the US in November, invited to Thanksgiving in North Carolina by an old friend. Even more excited now looking at your photos – the landscapes look so dramatic and vivid in the States – more stories to be told. Thank you!

  2. thequeenofseaford says:

    I will listen later, reading postings while the tv is on. (multi-tasking). Finding beauty in all things is a good way to look at life, whether for creative outlet or just as a way to embrace life. I marvel at your photos, snow, ice, shadows, movement, life…all beautiful.

    • Thank you. The snow photos were done on purpose because not all see this landscape as beautiful, whereas more would see the fall changing of colors beautiful. I added the shadowing because that is what makes most of the snow scenes and added the architectural/artistic reason why.

  3. Thanks for the link to the video. It was certainly very provocative, though I need to consider it for a while before I can be clear on my reaction. I guess for now I find it raises more questions in my mind than it does answers.

    For example, Dutton seems to say that the landscapes we find beautiful reflect what our pre-historic ancestors would consider a hospitable environment. OK, but then why are barren mountains, glaciers, and places like Monument Valley also beautiful?

    And those tear-shaped axes: his theory is that they were made to attract mates, but why is that specific shape aesthetically appealing – regardless of the purpose for which they are made.

    Finally, he seems to be a little too quick to dismiss the cultural component of what is beautiful – at the end he rejects that notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder too broadly, i think. It seems to me that culture is undeniably one (though not the only) element that determines what we consider beautiful. For example, consider how the standard for beauty has changed regarding women: plump versus thin, tan versus fair. Or consider how some cultures distort necks, lips, feet to achieve what they consider beauty but our own culture considers grotesque. The desire to decorate or embellish ourselves may be ingrained, but how that desire expresses itself can be wildly different in different settings.

    Sorry for this lengthy response. I do agree that there is beauty in something done really well, and that our perception of beauty is something based on feeling, not thinking. When I look at a beautiful garden or landscape, the feeling I get is one of rightness and serenity.

    • I alluded to your remarks in my comment to Karin, below, but did not look at how you expanded the questioning. I agree completely on the varying landscapes. I can look at an image of those traveling rocks in Death Valley and see so much beauty in that barren landscape with a few wind or magnetically blown rocks. Why? I think it has to do with his idea of something well done to a point, but I would further it to “how the heck was something done.” That is why I like science and technology. I see beauty in the process and beauty in finding solution and unknown.

      I believe that shaped object had significance to our ancestors. It was shaped like a spearhead to a point, but made more flamboyantly in materials, size and feel to the hand. Maybe like the male was showing the prospective misses what he can do with tools, but giving her something not a tool. Animals do this to a point. They always show off their prowess to mates. Some even bring gifts.

      Karin noted his take on culture too. I looked at it as us evolving, and to evolve, we need to acknowledge and deal with that around us, otherwise we would never change to meet current conditions, and those conditions vary so much across culture and environment. I am not sure why body shape changed so much over time in our own country, other than as mentioned, it is drilled into us by media. But oddly, the need to be thin is thwarted by our inherent need to exist in times of little, hence the body packs on the pounds anyway. If we were still in the savannah chasing our food, then thin was by circumstance. But if our ancestors sat around awaiting dinner to be served like today, they would have been heftier too. That has to be part of our development too somehow.

      I am glad you took the time to comment. You gave much to think about.

  4. Reblogged this on filmcamera999 and commented:
    …superb shots…as usual!

  5. HolleyGarden says:

    “I find beauty to be standing in awe, feeling not a chill but a sensation, a stop in your tracks reaction, tuning out everything around my being.” I like that sentence. It’s like the passionflower. I love it and think it’s beautiful. My daughter, however, thinks it is ugly and repulsive. I think part of the reason I think it is beautiful (because, really, it is quite odd) is that second glance you have to take in order to see it all (because you are in awe). A second look, realizing that even the details are lovely, seem to be what makes things beautiful to me.

    • Your passionflower is a good example. I find them very beautiful for the same reason that you do. There is information overload and color profusion in that flower, but if you study it and look at what makes it up, it really is a wonderful creation of nature.

  6. Another thought provoking discussion….I agree with his thought process; however, I think society plays a big part in defining what is “beautiful”. Consider societies pursuit of ideal beauty and how it is different in every society and has changed over time. In modern society it is even more pronounced because of the impact of social media, advertising and in your face propaganda. It is almost to the point of brainwashing society. Look at Hollywood promoting a size 0 woman as ideal beauty or the heroine chic models or go back to Twiggy. Society has changed its definition of beautiful women since the 40′s and 50′s when curvy woman where the definition of beauty. I think there is beauty in the eye of the beholder since we all have our preferences based on our experiences; however, there is also beauty that is defined and promoted by society be it physical beauty, accomplishment, inspiration, etc. I guess I question whether it is always a feeling. Doesn’t culture sometimes define what society thinks is beautiful? I know I don’t always agree with what society is defining as beauty.

    • I too questioned society and culture as influences in the post. Like you, I see it so different over different cultures and different times in history. I believe he was weighing heavily on the ‘evolution’ aspect and that our tastes vary as we evolve with the caveat of pressures from society (like you said,”more pronounced because of the impact of social media, advertising and in your face propaganda. It is almost to the point of brainwashing society”).

      I was unsure of his research that identified the savannah as beautiful across all cultures, but I inferred some reasoning from it. It seems as if since civilization and humanity is presumed to have originated in areas such as this, that he is inferring we have this type of landscape built into our very being. It is mostly based on the idea, most probably, that most reminisce about places where we grew up and places with which we were most safe and familiar, then the theory was extrapolated backwards to the first hominids and places they knew. Makes a little sense in that the first hominids likely did not travel that far unless it was very necessary to do so, therefore they knew of nothing else. Just my assumption and thought, no basis into our biology, psychology, sociology or philosophy.

      I think beauty is a feeling only because we are thinking individuals. True, we get bombarded with what we should like and appreciate, but look at us as gardeners for example. We look at garden and plant details, insects, toads and frogs, and even find beauty in what has died and withered. We picture these things in ways others find beauty. Sure not all will have the ‘feeling’, but we touch some, hence the individual wins out over what we are supposed to find beautiful. I have had bloggers tell me my spider images were hideous, and others say they are beautiful. What I find is it only matters what you find as beautiful, not what others tell you should be.

  7. Alistair says:

    Well. I find beauty in gardens, plants and the surrounding natural beauty of our countryside. I do get a little extra when I view your scenes of Niagara.

  8. I have to ask – have you ever thought of doing a showing of your photography??? Love your photography:) Happy Sunday!

  9. b-a-g says:

    This reminds me of your Word 4 Wednesday posts, which I have missed.
    My experience of beauty depends on what’s happening in my life. When I’m in a “struggling for survival” mode, I don’t see much beauty even if it’s right there in front of me.
    When I’m at ease, have time to spare, no worries – then I can look beyond my own space and find beauty in anything.

    • I think we think alike a little. I know too when daily pressures loom or my spirits sink, it take efforts to see beauty. But many times, something of beauty perks me right up. It has to do with things greater than me or my troubles I think. Like small things in nature for instance.

  10. beautiful Donna, I really love the first photo of Whirlpool state park, can’t believe you have so much snow already, Frances

    • We don’t have snow yet. The images were selected instead of pretty fall color to question what people see as beautiful. Many would just see cold trees from ice and snow and not much more. I happen to think winter is remarkably beautiful, but not everyone thinks so, especially people from our area. They just see driving hazards and not being able to get to the stores.

  11. Thanks for this thoughtful and thought provoking post.

    Denis Dutton’s talk was fascinating, though short. He alludes to the wide variety of things people find beautiful, but doesn’t discuss examples where there might be vast disagreement on whether something is beautiful, such as a Jackson Pollock painting. However, it was helpful to hear what components tend to make a landscape appealing to people, such as water and a path and some animals. Photographers will advise you include these elements, and it’s interesting to think that our appreciation for those elements might go back millions of years.

    Your photographs are amazing!

    • Connie, ready for the storm? TW Cable just predicted we will lose cable. I also saw the report of path and we are in the direct line. Did not think that would happen. 65mph gusts, I hope we still have power.

  12. Shyrlene says:

    Wow! Just taking a stroll through Blotanical (it’s been forever since I’ve been there) when I saw your post listed. Little did I suspect I’d take a 35 minute ‘detour’! The video took me back to academia, and thought-provoking study from college. I love that your posts push your readers out of their comfort zone.

    I think there is an inherent sense of ‘beauty’ that we have at our core being (from birth). Then layered on top of that, there is our personal evolution, with the nature/nurture development of ‘what is beautiful’. Your winter photos are ‘hauntingly beautiful’ to me. Then again, I am a “Mies van der Rohe’ kind of person – who loves “less than more”. Simple geometry, asymetrical design – then layer blank space adjacent to a lot of texture. It’s all very Zen, restful and pleasing. (My “nickel’s” worth.) :)

    Thanks for getting me out of just ‘brain-stem’ function!

    • From architecture, I too appreciate the less is more code made famous by Mies van der Rohe and also Buckmister Fuller. Robert Browning popularized it in a poem earlier though, but painter Andrea del Sarto was credited to saying it first. This ties in perfectly as an example of the movement of Minimalism recycling creativity, like in my previous post. Glad you mentioned this.

      I have not been on Blotanical either lately. I am surprised to hear that my post made the list since I have been quite absent. I am glad you enjoyed the video. I thought it was one of the more interesting TEDs and I loved the graphical tour through the subject of beauty.

  13. Brian Comeau says:

    Wonderful use of light and shadows. Thanks for the inspiration! I’m discovering you have many talents besides photography… I think you should add writing to the list too.

    I also saw the comment about selling your work; I’m think it would sell very well, but do understand that your architecture career is time consuming.

    • Writing – not my strong point. I like to express thoughts, but drawing is a more expressive means of creativity for me. Problem with drawing for blogs is that viewers speed through posts and I find art takes too much time to appreciate for them. Even worse, as many photos as I lose to photo thieves, I would be sorely upset losing my artwork this way. Brian, see my next post and you will see the magnitude of the problems that face photographers today.

  14. Not sure Donna what I think about beauty…it seems a complicated notion when dissected. I find beauty in words but I really detest texting…no beauty in those words…just utility…they create no images for me…I will take the beauty of words describing images.

    • The Professor did note how complex beauty is in the video. I hope you get a chance to see the video, I think you would appreciate how he follows the path of his logic. I too find texting and the subsequent use of text speak in conversation a bit of a bastardization of the English language.

  15. Karen says:

    Nice post! It won’t be long before the snowy landscape returns to New England.

  16. debsgarden says:

    Your post is…beautiful! I truly believe one can find beauty almost everywhere, if the mind and eye are attuned to it and can block out surrounding distractions. It is simply whatever pleases the eye or the spirit.

  17. lula says:

    Donna, this series of posts is a good work of reflection. I find really difficult to define beauty, but if I must say something it would be: what resounds deep inside of me, beyond words. For words are intellectual thinking, again for me. It would also be search for harmony, my harmony. And that is the tricky part of it, beauty seems to be so subjective, unless we accept that society decide on trends to follow and organizes cultural patterns, that we individuals just follow them because we are educated in doing so. Anthropology explains cultural and social behaviour in those terms, but then, you have the personal feeling, the individual spirit, the isolated vision and so on. In anycase he images here are beautiful, give me pleasure, I am happy!

    • Beauty is defined across cultures no doubt, but at least being an individual plays a strong part. With art especially, subjectivity is the case. I would have to be an idiot (in my opinion) to consider a photograph of the crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine, displayed at the Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery in Manhattan as art. Honestly, this deplorable piece by Andres Serrano will never be art in my book. Beauty elicits strong emotion, but not in this case. I can never look at his process of thought and think he is an artist in any respect or see any thing but revulsion in his ‘art’. I think this is an example of some people seeing beauty and others seeing revulsion, the extremes of subjectivity.

  18. just love the shot of the view thru the cave…and the single maple leaf on snow…superb!

  19. Thanks for sharing the video. It is food for MUCH thought as is your thoughful, well illustrated commentary.

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