Monday, January 11, 2016

Beauty's Guidance

In an earlier post I suggested that beauty itself is a sense, an attunement to proportion, harmony of form, and orderly arrangement. Our sense of what fits, like the other senses,  is a response to qualities in the world and not an idea about them. We put a piece of colored glass by the window or three objects together on a table guided by our sense of where they belong.  If the quality wasn’t in us we wouldn’t respond, couldn’t recognize what fits and what doesn’t. When we admire beauty we participate in it. It is the beautiful part of us that understands it. Sacred geometry is part of our own design and resonates in its presence. Denis Dutton in his Ted Talk says the instinct toward beauty has adaptive survival value. Evolution favored the sense of beauty to guide us toward health and wisdom with balance and harmony as guiding principles. Just as at every organic level there is homeostasis, the ongoing adjustment to the disruptions of living, always striving for the next balanced state, beauty fortifies what will balance our connection to the world we see, for wherever we respond to beauty it’s an action of connection akin to love.

Where researchers have tried to pin beauty down to find out general preferences, polls showed that a majority of global people like the color blue and landscapes with water in them. These few commonalities are clues to the link between beauty and our spatial relation to the world. Both blue and landscapes with water suggest expanse, and having space is being free, uninhibited. Our nervous system matured learning the demands of moving in physical space. So the feeling associated with spatial reality carries universal meaning.We trust it like we trust our ability to walk. Visual art distills the essential elements, clarifies the spatial structure to resonate with the feeling of that relationship to space. Understanding visually contains a sense of knowing whereas much of verbal thinking is shadowed by the uncertainty from all that’s left out.

Immersion in what is beautiful strengthens its power to create harmony in ourselves and the world. Being drawn to a work of art is a connection to the artist and the species. The heart says, “yes” to a feeling recognized but perhaps never expressed before. We can reflect on what we can externalize. Art educates our sensitivity to beauty and primes the circuits for lively response since active circuits respond more readily. We recognize and admire the qualities that we ourselves possess and strengthen them as we find them externally. As Psychiatrist Alfred Adler said “Art may be esteemed the highest training for social life, inculcating into us attitudes of value and thus improving the nature of our responses.” Likewise, philosopher Susanne Langer felt that having beautiful objects around was essential to educating a child’s sense of proportion and quality.

Beauty inspires caring. What we find beautiful stimulates gratitude. If it looks perfect we want to keep it that way, what throws off the balance needs adjusting. Like plants have a tropism toward the sun, intelligence leans toward beauty. Balancing proportions, discerning underlying patterns and finding what fits are the tools of reasoning as well as art. Finding images you love is the most personal kind of education and now, with the internet, one of the easiest. Start with museum or gallery collections to find artists that move you and then you're off on an associative journey all your own. Knowing what you like is all you need.

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