The ‘But’ of Beauty




Have you ever been confronted with an artwork widely considered to be a masterpiece – say Van Gogh’s Sunflowers – and found yourself thinking, ‘it’s good, yeah, but…?’ That ‘but’ signifies a lack of connection; you can see the painting is beautiful, but you’re not wowed by it. You might even guilty, uncouth and uncultured.

You might have a similar experience with music. You might be one of the silent minority who think, ‘the Beatles are good, but I don’t get it.’ Same with films – maybe you can’t get into Fellini’s Dolce Vita – and even with scenes. Some people love pastoral, rural landscapes, others are turned on by thriving cityscapes.

What is missing? What is the origin of that ‘but’?

Beauty is a complex issue that has been analysed and discussed by philosophers since the dawn of man. Plato argued beauty is universal, Aristotle linked it to goodness, in the Enlightenment it was considered a subjective experience and Darwinian thinkers linked beauty with our evolutionary past and needs.

I think they are all correct and how can they not be? Not because philosophers or scientists are more godly than the rest of us – they are not VIP’s allowed exclusive insight into the truth of beauty. But they are, after all, human beings. So there must be some truth in what they say because they are describing beauty from the human vantage point. As an analogy imagine a scientist studying dog’s barking. The scientist can’t say, I’m going to ignore Yorkshire Terrier’s bark because it’s too annoying, it’s not wolf-like and deep, therefore it’s not representative. No, he has to be holistic, because it is representative.

And each and every one of us has an experience with beauty that is representative of the greater human experience. I believe that beauty is a deeply personal experience.

But before prying into the personal side of beauty and at the risk of being labeled a postmodernist, I will look first into the universal, innate facet of beauty.

Darwinists are correct, surely. There are traits of beauty which are universal across human culture and will be present in humanity whether we are Flintstones or Jetsons. Our love of seascapes, for example, comes from a time when, on the savannah, water was scarce and much desired. Men find youthful complexions in women attractive because it signifies health. Women appreciate men who can create art because it shows intelligence in a potential father. It really is a fascinating, enlightening view. I would recommend reading Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct for greater insight.

So next time you’re viewing a beauteous landscape, or admiring a portrait of a beautiful woman like the Mona Lisa, remember, if you were to meet an Australian Aboriginal person he would find it similarly beautiful.

It is very likely that an Aboriginal person with no connection to Western civilisation would also find the Mona Lisa beautiful. But, yes, there would be the ‘but’.

So what keeps that Aboriginal from truly connecting with the Mona Lisa? Or what keeps you from connecting with Hey Jude or a finely crafted Polynesian mask?

Here is where we get personal. Beauty is also connected with memory. Deeply connected, I would dare say. What we connect to is not solely dependent on our universal history, but our personal history too.

Childhood is a formative time for our brain as is tumultuously curious adolescence. The way neurons develop and form connections is reliant on experience. We often laugh in disbelief when we see ducklings following a human being around ‘stupidly’ thinking that human is their ‘mother’. What happens here is a case of imprinting as ethologists call it. Ducklings assume whoever they first see when they hatch is naturally their mother. Thus their genes are coded thus: you will trust and follow the animal you see when you first hatch. It is a code which is easily hacked.

But human beings are susceptible to this too. In a far more complex way, of course. Childhood is a time of learning. We have among the longest childhoods in the animal world. Our big brains have a lot to learn. So our genes tell us: what you experience during childhood is a lesson for what you will need to do to survive adulthood. As children we are primed to learn and thus everything we are exposed to is imprinted on us.

Toddlers will touch a naked flame and burn their hand. Their brains teach them to associate fire with pain, so they stop. But a child can also see his mother dancing to a Rolling Stones song, happy, and its brain will teach it to associate Rolling Stones with pleasure, and thus leaving it indifferent to the Beatles. And human beings grow up in a cultural cosmos too. So it’s not just what affects our family that leaves an imprint, but in the society that nurtures us. We are not likely to find that Polynesian mask exciting because we were never exposed to it growing up. Our brains have not had the opportunity to form an opinion on it.

On the flip side, do you ever wonder where your guilty pleasures come from? Are you a woman who likes soft-toys way too much? Are you a man obsessed with video-games? Do you like Abba a bit too much? And you know you shouldn’t enjoy McDonald’s, but, shamefully, you do.

It is all a matter of association. We are a species designed for learning. But the mechanism isn’t perfect. For better or worse. Just like the little duckling, our genetic coding can also be hacked. So, for example, if a code reads: if you sing this song other people laugh so singing this song is a good thing, it could be hacked by, say, Abba. And no matter how old you get and sophisticated your tastes become, you will always enjoy singing that cringey Abba song.

Negative behaviour can also, unfortunately, be reinforced by our sometimes simplistic learning mechanism. Alcohol and drugs do of course give us pleasure and addiction comes when the brain learns to associate being drunk or high with positive moments so it encourages you to repeat it. You might also be a bully because when you were young you punched a kid in the nose and you got a well-done from your father.

We are all susceptible to our incompatible natures.

Learning doesn’t stop in childhood, of course. We learn when we grow up and our brains keeps on making associations until the day it dies. But it also follows a dualistic template. It will learn to enjoy new experiences, new beauty, but it will always cross-check it with two templates: memory and biology.

You might go on a trip to Rome and say, to hell with the colosseum, I want to see the balcony where Mussolini gave his speeches. It could be because you always bonded with your father about World War II. Or instead of spending a thousand and one nights queuing to get into the Vatican (it’s a masterpiece, but) you’d rather go for pizza, because evolutionarily you are designed to be attracted to salty, nutritious foods.

You might get moments in your life which you would class into your retrospective bucket list. But they could be obscure and individualistic. Imagine, say, when you met a beautiful woman in Vienna and really hit it off. Or when you went to watch a Premiere of a new anime in Japan. Experiences where you feel the stars have aligned – perfect moments in the literal sense.

Those moments are unique to you, and cannot be replicated by others, because they are part of your own journey, experience, hopes, fears and dreams.

But that moment is not just linked to your past. It is also a bridge to your future. You are still a learning animal and your brain will take note of everything it’s seeing. Even, say, you found out you have a brilliant night with your friends, on the beach, under the stars; your brain will tell you, sea good, stars good, friends good. And you’ll find yourself dreaming of a holiday with friends on a Greek island.

So your appreciation of beauty is intricately linked with your own history as well as the history of mankind. And your taste for beauty is also the incubator for your dreams. As a child you dream of being a vet because animals give you a fuzzy feeling. When you’re older you dream of travelling the world because, well, it also gives you a fuzzy feeling. What you dream is bound to your own aesthetic. The rest of us will listen to your dream of collecting rare books and we might say, ‘it sounds good, objectively, but…’ And that but is the greatest celebration of individuality I know of.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. This is an excellent analysis – quite subtle but profound in the hindsight. These are the kind of posts I strive to write myself. We can also look it this way – the things we learn early in our life have higher weightage compared to the subsequent experiences and at any given time, our perception is the weighted average of all those encounters. This is where history and biology have an upper hand. If it’s a good, then great but it is not and if you realize so through your acquired wisdom, even then it takes a tremendous amount of effort to counteract your self-righteousness, unlearn and then relearn it the right way. Wonderfully written!


    1. justinfenech says:

      Thank you so much for your feedback and analysis! Appreciated

      Liked by 1 person

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