On Beauty

To reach its current position among our society and our psyches, beauty has had a long and arduous journey. It constantly redefines itself as human tastes evolve. In On Beauty, Umberto Eco summarized the ever-changing role of beauty thusly:

Beauty has never been absolute and immutable but has taken on different aspects depending on the historical period and the country.

Knowing that the role of beauty has been so “immutable,” I find myself wondering how we would currently define the concept. To a pessimist, the question would yield a depressing answer: one need only to glance at the stick figures in the latest Vogue Magazine to conclude that beauty is a 98-pound blonde who eats every three days.

Centuries ago, that wasn’t the case. In fact, quite the opposite was true. Women were revered for their shapeliness, as it suggested a natural ability to give birth. Birthing hips were beautiful.

The process of the evolution of beauty brings to mind a story from philosopher Daniel Dennett regarding sweetness. The question asked is, simply, why are sweet things sweet? Dennett tells us that during man’s hunter/ gatherer days, our bodies developed a penchant for sugar because we needed the calories sugar offered to fuel our long days of hunting. Rigorous activity called for many calories, and since sugary foods had high caloric content, we developed a taste for sugar as a byproduct of our lifestyle. Today, evolution simply hasn’t had time to catch up. We no longer live that way, now leading much more sedentary lifestyles (in comparison), so our sweet tooths do more damage than good.

The same could be happening to our concept of beauty.

The Turning Point

In the early 1900s, Oskar Kokoschka began to tamper with the concept of beauty. Early in his career, Kokoshka began to focus on the idea of truth as beauty, and in doing so, turned the art world on its head.

Until Kokoschka’s arrival, art was largely revered for its adherence to one concept: the more aesthetically pleasing (read: beautiful), the better. Instead of trying to mirror reality, though, Kokoschka deliberately distorted it to reveal a hidden inner truth.

Kokoshka began to create, in traditional terms, ugly things. To his mind, however, they were in fact more beautiful than works past, simply because they revealed a truth hitherto unnoticed- a truth that the traditional concept of beauty could never reveal.

The Academy of Fine Art rejected his work, stating that if he were going to skew reality, the least he could do was make reality more “beautiful.”

Kokoshka persisted in painting what he saw below the surface, and the face of art began to change: truth was beginning to rival beauty. Indeed, truth was beauty. This was his lesson to the world: a thing is not beautiful because of superficial aesthetic qualities, but for what it reveals about human nature. This is the mantra that must define the next phase of our evolution.

Our Role

The question, of course, is how to proceed. After all, the idea of realigning truth with beauty seems to be quite an abstract one. For a concrete, modern example, take a look at what Jonah Lehrer (yes, I know he’s been discredited, but the piece is still fantastic and appropriate) wrote in the June edition of The New Yorker in the essay The Virtues of Daydreaming. Lehrer quotes Virginia Woolf, who encapsulates the process of daydreaming:

Certainly she was losing consciousness of outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things … her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting.

Lehrer expands on this concept, saying “A daydream is that fountain spurting, spilling strange new thoughts into the stream of consciousness. And these spurts turn out to be surprisingly useful.”

Lehrer’s point is that daydreaming has, to this point, been largely viewed as a useless thing, the product of a lazy or undisciplined mind. The piece goes on to cite multiple studies that suggest that mind-wandering can be an extremely valuable tool in generating ideas and solving problems. More often than not, our unconscious minds are much better at problem-solving than our conscious minds are, so daydreaming may actually be a valuable tool when properly understood.

This type of thinking exemplifies a profound shift in the way we operate in the world: question an existing mode of thought, test it, and use the results to better understand our minds.

What has been done, then? Truth has been given a rank above all else, and out of that truth emerges a better world. What better definition of beauty can there be?

This type of thinking must not only persist, but thrive, and with the proliferation of the widening access to information, it’s easier than ever to do so. When anyone can publish (and read what’s published), more outdated concepts can be questioned. In fact, the collective intelligence effect may make us more adept than ever at interpreting the truth of our reality.

All around us, truth bubbles below the surface of our reality. When it tries to escape through the medium of our minds, we must recognize it for what it is: Beauty, disguised as Truth.