If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Beauty & Aesthetics

Aesthetics is the study of beauty. It is a branch of philosophy that determines what is beautiful, what isn't, and why - which qualities make something beautiful.

Qualities of Beauty

Beauty is difficult to describe because the qualities of beauty change depending on the subject. Often, the same word can mean different things.

In visual art the qualities of beauty include symmetry, balance, rhythm, color, light & shadow, gesture, grace, and unity. These are all things that make an artwork pretty.

Chiaroscuro, Italian for light and shadow can be beautiful:

Olivenhain bei Torbole, by Edmund Kanoldt

It's not just the trees that make this painting beautiful. Imagine how they would look on a grey day. It's the light that really brings out and highlights (zdôrazni) their beauty.

Colours, in various combinations can be beautiful:

Claire, Angel, Lillies (detail), by Scott Burdick

Gestural Lines can be beautiful:

sketch by Rene Graua

Symmetry is when one side mirrors the other.

Day & Night, by M.C. Escher

People and faces are mostly symmetrical.

Tattoo Girl, by Andrew Domachowski

Without symmetry, a face can look frightening:

Sloth, from The Goonies.

Water acts as a mirror, creating symmetry.

El puente de Alcantara, Toledo, by de Beruete y Moret

Some animals are beautiful because of symmetrical pattern:

Symmetry and pattern (vzor) were very important in medieval art. Symmetry was an example of perfection and order (poriadok), used to represent God. 

Book of Kells, Irish, 800 AD
Balance is like symmetry, but the two sides don't mirror each other exactly. Balance became important during the Renaissance, when artists wanted to paint realistic pictures that still felt symmetrical, without being stiff or unnatural.

Look at these examples. Each of these paintings shows Mary, mother of God, with the baby Jesus. The first examples are earlier, when symmetry was more important. Notice, there are the same number of people on the left and the right of Mary:

Ognisanti Madonna, by Giotto, 1310

St. Catherine of Alexandria Polyptych, by Simone Martini, 1319

Maestà, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1335

Annalena Altarpiece, by Fra Angelico, 1445

As time passed, artists changed their designs. They wanted to make a more natural picture. The two sides didn't have to be symmetrical. They just had to feel symmetrical. Look at these examples:

Madonna del Magnificat, Sandro Botticelli, 1480-81
Botticelli's painting isn't symmetrical, but it suggests (poukazova na) symmetry:

So does this painting by Da Vinci:
Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo Da Vinci, 1506

The four heads form a diamond-shaped pattern that ties them together, creating balance.

It's not a perfect diamond or circle, but the genius of it is, Da Vinci realized it didn't have to be. It's the irregular (nepravidelný) shape that makes it feel comfortable. This next example shows a tree on the right balancing the curtain on the left.

Madonna & Child, by Giovanni Bellini, 1510

This next painting has a triangle made from three heads, which frame the baby jesus. It's balanced by another triangle formed from Mary's dark dress. It's subtle (jemný), so you might not see it at first.

Madonna della Scala, by Andrea del Sarto, 1522-23

These two triangles form a sense of balance, even though they're irregular and off center. The mother and child on the left also balance with the ruins on the right, in that they give your eye a place to rest on either side of Mary. Both the mother and the ruins are light in color and contrast so they won't distract from the main figures (people).

This next painting balances two people, one on either side of Mary, although their poses are totally different.

Madonna & Child with St.'s John the Baptist & Gerome, by Paris Bordone, 1530
In visual art, rhythm has to do with repeated shapes, lines, and colors.

The Lantern Bearers, by Maxfield Parrish

Grace was originally a religious term. An artwork filled with grace meant that it served God and portrayed his message. Now, grace has come to suggest perfection and elegance. The way a ballerina dances is graceful.

Likewise, the way an artist paints and composes a picture can be called graceful - the way the colors compliment each other, and blend together.

Carnations, by Maria Dewing

Look how the flower stems lean (uprieť sa), twist (zakrúcať), and turn (otočiť). See any relation to the ballerina above?

Unity is when all the different parts of an artwork fit well together, likes parts of the same puzzle. This is also called harmony. All the artworks above show unity, but to best explain it, imagine disharmony - cutting up different artworks and stitching them together, like Frankenstein's monster. This was done by the comedy troupe Monty Python in many of their films and TV shows. The one below displays the foot of Cupid, as painted by Bronzino, collaged with other elements.

film still, to the opening of Monty Python's Flying Circus,
animated by Terry Gilliam

In music, qualities of beauty include melody, harmony, rhythm, repetition, and the mood of a song.
The melody is the main voice of a song. Harmony in music is a voice that supports the melody, but that wouldn't sound so good by itself. Harmony isn't the song, it's the best notes to develop the melody into chordsRhythm in music is the way notes or beats are divided and organized. Some songs are in three. Most pop songs are in four. This is their rhythm. The mood of the song is how it makes you feel, happy, sad, calm, or energetic.

In people, physical characteristics include youth, good health, balanced proportions, poise or grace (the way you move and your posture), and clear, unblemished skin.

Sabinella, by John Godward

But, they also include interior qualities such as intelligence, wisdom, kindness, spirit, nobility, and talent. When you're a living, breathing human being, it's not enough to look good. You have to impress people with your character to be respected and considered great and beautiful. Nietzsche said it so, "Nothing is beautiful, only man: on this piece of naivete rests all aesthetics, it is the first truth of aesthetics. Let us immediately add its second: nothing is ugly but degenerate man - the domain of aesthetic judgment is therewith defined."
And you don't have to be a model to be beautiful:

Rose Cly, by Scott Burdick
Conversely, if your subject is a monster, not even the greatest artist on Earth can make him beautiful. To attempt it becomes an insult:

Hitler, the Standard Bearer, by Hubert Lanzinger

Debates on Aesthetics

What is beautiful, and why?

Some people debate whether beauty is subjective or objective. Some say beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, while some say a rose is beautiful to everyone. This is how Immanuel Kant described the difference between taste and beauty. He thought that taste is something unique to everyone, whereas beauty is universal. Some like brocolli, and some don't, but everyone sees the beauty in a sunset.

Others believe beauty is something we learn through culture. People in Victorian England thought African art was ugly, but a few decades later, Edwardian English described the same art as beautiful.

Context also effects our ideas of beauty. One person might love his Lamborghini as a status symbol to impress his friends, while another person might find it grotesque as a sign of commercialism and over-consumption.

Evolutionary biologists believe that we see things as beautiful when it helps us survive. Strength, athleticism, rivers, forests, etc, are beautiful, while dangerous things like spiders and scorpions are disgusting.

Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty
Does Beauty Matter?

Well, it did, at least to artists until the 20th century. In the 20th century, events like World Wars 1 & 2 created a crisis. Artists and intellectuals wanted to explore humanity's faults and inner psyche - to find out who we really are, and to ponder if there is hope for our future, here on Earth. Painting merely "pretty pictures" was seen as insensitive and shallow. There has been a downside to this trend, as described here:

BBC Documentary: Why Beauty Matters with Roger Scruton: 

Lessons Regarding Beauty

1. 'Beautiful' is another word for lovable. People who aren’t beautiful are mostly those who don't take care of themselves:

The Ugliness of Drug Abuse

There are rare cases when someone suffers a terrible accident, affecting their outward appearance, but even then, ask people who know the victim, and they'll agree that a beautiful soul shines through, regardless.

 Places that aren’t beautiful are hard to love.

Route 1 in New Jersey is a world without art,
and it goes through the entire state. How would
you like to call this home?

Making our world more beautiful makes it more lovable and respectable. It changes how we view the world.

2. Almost anything can be beautiful. A good artist can find beauty almost anywhere. A piece of trash can be beautiful:

Missionary Position, by Hermin Abramovitch

A torn piece of paper can be beautiful

Wing, by Dan Adel

A candy wrapper:

Candy Wrapper, by Jana Schirmer

Even a pair of old shoes:

Still Life with Boots, Ruksack, Sketchbooks, by Carl Dobsky

A convenience store:

Grocery Store, by Francois Baranger
A freeway:

Freeway Sketch no. 7, by Seth Engstrom

a puddle of mud:
Rain Puddle, by James Gurney  

And of course, rocks. Most people assume rocks are boring, but they're actually beautiful:

Boulders on Bear Cliff, by Charles Courtney Curran

3. Beauty isn’t a contest. It isn't meant to be judged. Some people love beauty contests:

Some love judging, and some love winning. Others find this shallow (plytký), and they blame beauty. They ask, "How can you really judge these women? Is one really prettier than the other? Isn't it arbitrary at this point?  Why are we using physical beauty as a basis of judging? Isn't there more to a woman than her looks? And, I don't even know these people, so how could I possibly choose?"

The questions are valid, but beauty isn't to blame, because...

4. Beauty isn't shallow. People are shallow.

It's shallow to apply the same standards to a human that we apply to a vase, a plant, or a picture. One scientist, named Dr. Stephen R. Marquardt, even created a mask to test for beauty:

When Dr. Marquardt wants to determine if a woman is beautiful, he sets this mask over her photo and measures how closely it fits. Then he tells you "definitively" whether the woman is pretty, and if you disagree... you're wrong.

I have two problems with this idea. First of all, beauty takes many forms. Look at these flowers, for example:

Can you really say that one is better than the rest? I believe it's the variety that makes them all so special. If gardens only had one kind of flower, they would be boring.

Second, judging beauty doesn’t make sense because all that really matters is the joy of experiencing it. Judging beauty has more to do with proving to others that you're right. But, when it comes to beauty, who cares what other people think? Just ask Shallow Hal:

5. There is a time and place for beauty, just as there is a time and place for ugly. In art there has been a long debate on the role of beauty – to present the truth, or to present the ideal. The correct answer depends on the situation, and what the artist wants to say.

In his video presentation, painter Scott Burdick complains that many artists today are ignored for painting what's beautiful. He presents a strong argument - he's right. No great artist should ever be ignored. But, he describes much of modern, abstract art as being ugly and depressing. He seems to say only beautiful art can be uplifting. I'm not sure I agree.

Look at this, for example:

City Limits, by Philip Guston

Here's a painting of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members driving around town in their little car. For a long time in America it was common for racists to drive around at night, looking for black people to frighten, beat, and even kill. A painting like this shouldn't be beautiful. You don't want to hear people saying, "Ooh, what a beautiful car! And the way he painted the folds of their robes, it's great!" No, the point of this painting is to show an ugly side of the world - one created by the people in the car, not by Philip Guston.

Now, you might say, Scott's right! That is depressing! Yes, but I find it uplifting there are people like Phil Guston who are willing to speak out against injustice. That's where I find hope.

Here's another example:

La Guernica, by Pablo Picasso

A lot of students have complained that they don't see why this is great. The confusion comes from textbooks that talk about the composition and "revolutionary style", while ignoring the actual revolution that was taking place in Spain at the time.

But, it looks ugly, right? Well, it's supposed to! It's a war scene! There are people screaming and crying while bombs drop. Beauty has nothing to do with the goal of this piece. Picasso didn't paint this so people could praise the composition, just as Shakespeare didn't write Hamlet to show off his skills of grammar. The whole point of La Guernica is to get people focused on a real life tragedy.

Here's a final artwork. This little girl was a survivor of the Nazi holocaust. When a psychiatrist asked her to draw 'home', she drew this:

Are you going to complain to her that it's not pretty enough?

Art is powerful, and beauty is just part of it. There's nothing wrong with beauty, but it has its place. It's not needed nor appropriate in every situation.

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