En route to a cafe based meeting with some colleagues, I requested a minor detour to a new independent stationery store in order to buy a notebook. One colleague suggested we could simply pop into a nearby supermarket instead, since they also sell notebooks. “But I don’t want just any notebook, I want a beautiful one” – I insisted. To which he looked at me half puzzled half sneering: “Why?”
I was astounded by the absurdity of this one-word question. And furious about the level of ignorance it came from. I wanted to say so many things: explain, argue, protest, but I could not get a word out. In my head, however, I had a thousand ‘whys’ to respond to his why:
Why do we spend so much money every year on buying nice clothes instead of just wearing a potato sack?
Why do people search for beautiful partners and not just anyone who happens to have a reproductive organ?
Why do we all love Italy?
What is the value of Beauty?
Beauty has a lot to do with being human. If we look at any era of human history, we see that the vast majority of material artefacts hold some sort of aesthetic value. Whether it’s a hand-axe from the Stone Age, a ceramic vessel from ancient Egypt or the illustrations on a medieval book cover, beauty is everywhere. Oscar Wilde said that “the secret of life lies in the search for beauty”. But today our eyes are exhausted with glass and steel skyscrapers, grey parking lots, gloomy highways and depressing airports. So what happened? Did we forget about the value of beauty?
Famous Austrian graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister based in New York explains what it is that “brought us from the relative darkness of the middle ages into the complete utter blackout of the 21stcentury”: “in the event of Modernism in the 1920s, the human being was designed out of the design context”. Sagmeister refers to Bauhaus (lit. construction house), a movement that started in the post World War I period in Germany. With the purpose of combining art with industry, Bauhaus raised craftsmen to the ivory tower of artists and changed the focus from beauty to utility. The new functional, plain and square-cut designs were well-suited solutions for cheap and fast mass production, introducing an era of machines.
So, what does a world designed for utility and not for beauty look like? In his TED Talk, author and social critic James Howard Kunstler challenges modern architectural solutions (he calls “architectural garbage”) and identifies their biggest problem: they are places not worth caring about. He displays a series of pictures of modern buildings and public spaces, which not only look ugly but induce anxiety and depression. Legendary architect Renzo Piano argues in his beautiful talk from TED2018, that making buildings for beauty makes cities better places to live in. And better cities make better citizens. “Architecture doesn’t just answer to need and necessity, but also to desires, dreams, and aspirations.” – he explains.
Did the Bauhaus movement sacrifice beauty on the altar of functionality?
According to Sagmeister, it was all a big misunderstanding: “the real fight is not between plain and complex, or between simple and ornamental. The real fight is between designed with a lot of love and designed without care.” Functionality and beauty aren’t opposites, they belong together and can enhance each other’s value. “A housing block can become more human, meaning people want to live there if it’s beautiful.” – the graphic designer argues. “Beautiful things are also more sustainable, because people care about them more.”
What is Beauty?
In a world full of filters, photoshopped pictures, make-up and plastic surgery, it seems like beauty has lost its credibility. Distinguishing the fake from the real has become exceedingly difficult. Therefore, to better understand the true nature of beauty, we might need to look back in history and see how it was perceived in pre-Instagram times.
If we examine old medieval philosophy, we will quickly learn about transcendental theories, which study the fundamental properties of ‘being’. These so called ‘transcendentals’ are: truth, goodness and beauty. They are not only present in every category of being, but they’re also connected to each other. In other words, truth, goodness and beauty belong together. Human beings have a sense for these qualities and seek them in forms of science(truth), religion(goodness) and arts(beauty). The philosophical disciplines around these transcendentals are logic, ethics and aesthetics.
And indeed, we find that we humans very much do care about true, good and beautiful things. Some of us are even willing to risk our lives to find out the truth: that is why we have reporters going to war zones. Many of us will choose to do good even if we don’t benefit from it: let’s think of all the volunteers worldwide helping other people in need. And beauty? We’re chasing after beauty in each and every holiday we go on.
Is Beauty in the eye of the beholder?
We often hear the argument that what we find beautiful is subjective, especially if we compare different standards of beauty in various cultures or if we trace back the evolution of beauty ideals throughout history. While these claims usually refer to women, women’s bodies and women’s appearances, it is certainly a legitimate observation.
However, Dr. Johannes Hartl, German theologian, speaker and author, emphasizes the common confusion between taste and objective beauty. While we might say that we prefer Mozart over Bach, it is clear (to everyone with a greater understanding of classical music), that Bach was objectively big in musical history. Likewise, we might say that Rubens’ paintings don’t personally appeal to us, but it’s different from saying they’re not beautiful.
So could it be that beauty is not only subjective?
As a matter of fact, there are certain structures in science, nature and the arts, that we humans consider fundamentally beautiful:
- Symmetry is an agreement in dimensions that we find more beautiful than asymmetry. Symmetry can be found everywhere in nature and we usually relate it to health and a sense of harmony and balance. This is why we find people with symmetrical faces more beautiful.
- The Golden ratio is a mathematical formula we human beings find aesthetically pleasing. There are two parts in the golden ratio: and the proportion of the smaller part to the larger part is identical to the proportion of the larger part to the sum.
- The Fibonacci sequence is another mathematical pattern that is closely related to the Golden ratio and is innately beautiful. In the Fibonacci sequence, each number is the sum of the two preceding ones: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13… These numbers create a spiral much like spiral galaxies, a snail shell or the composition of many flowers.
- In music, we find consonant sounds more beautiful than dissonant sounds. Musical consonance is associated with sweetness, pleasantness and acceptability while musical dissonance is associated with harshness, unpleasantness and unacceptability.
Dr. Werner Heisenberg, German Nobel Prize winner for physics, gave an astonishing lecture about the meaning of beauty in natural science. He reported on the fact that when scientists were searching for a formula, among all formulas that came into consideration, the most beautiful one repeatedly turned out to be the right one. This means that the elegance, simplicity and beauty of a mathematical formula is an indication of its objective accuracy.
The deep-rooted presence of beauty in various sciences defies the common notion around its subjectivity. Because if there is one thing we learnt in math class, it’s this: mathematics is anything but subjective. However, it’s beautiful.
It is claimed that Einstein had said: when we’ll find the formula for the world, the Theory of Everything, it will be two things: simple and beautiful.
Why is Beauty important?
Imagine a world without flowers, without mountains, without birds and without sunsets. Without colors, without fragrances, without music, without art. Imagine a world without beauty. Would you like to live in this world?
I hope I answered you, my dear colleague, why I needed a beautiful notebook…
Beauty is important.
Beauty is powerful.
Beauty can heal us and make us forget about ourselves and our problems.
Because beauty is bigger than us.
And it can make us better human beings.
We need beauty.
And I choose beauty today and every day.
“This is the beauty that can change people into better people. By switching a special light in their eyes. (…) This universal beauty is one of the few things that can change the world. Believe me, this beauty will save the world. One person at a time.” – Renzo Piano