Thursday, 2 February 2012

A Thing Of Beauty

Vincent Van Gogh. Wheat Field with Cypresses at the Haute Galline Near Eygalieres Saint-Rémy - June 1889
As a materialist, one of the accusations often thrown at me is that materialism cannot account for our aesthetic appreciation; of our understanding of beauty. Now, I'm no philistine. One of my enduring passions in life is art, especially impressionism, post-impressionism and modern art. I also get enormous aesthetic pleasure watching wildlife and looking at plants, even the mundane and ordinary. In fact, nothing in this world is really mundane to me. I can see beauty in a pebble, a lichen-covered wall, the roots of a tree, a spider or a beetle.

I also enjoy classical music, especially that of J. S. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Elgar and Vaughn Williams, and could listen to the great classical guitarists like André SegoviaJulian Bream or John Williams all day long.  Oh how I wish I could play half as well. Although not my favourite piece of classical music, I once totally converted a girl who worked for me to classical music by playing her Pachelbel's Canon in D.

The nave of Winchester Cathedral, England
So what is this sense of aesthetic appreciation? And why do religious people assume they hold a monopoly on it and that somehow it comes from some supernatural being? Presumably, they believe either that they are somehow being told that something or other is beautiful so they believe it is, or they are seeing what they think is their god's work and marvelling at the god rather than the object it supposedly created.

To me, these things debase the object of beauty. Neither of them seem to recognise the inherent beauty of the thing itself. The idea that I should regard this thing as beautiful because I've been told to, or because of who supposedly made it, rather than for what it actually IS, is almost abhorrent to me. That's not to say I don't appreciate good craftsmanship of course. I love churches and cathedrals not for their function but for the craftsmanship of, very often ordinary and completely anonymous, craftsmen - the carpenters and stone masons, stained class makers and iconographers - who actually created the place.

A stooping peregrine, a tree, a hunting cheetah, a swimming seal and a diving whale are all things of great beauty and wonder to me and my wonder is no less because I understand a little of how they work and how they came to be what they are; the evolutionary forces and the balance of competition in their environment which selected those best able to compete from amongst their ancestors.

Water Lilies; Claude Monet, 1906 (Art Institute of Chicago)
The sense of peace and relaxation I get from looking at Monet's Water Lilies is no less because I know a little about Monet and how his work developed and the influences on him. I can see the illusion he is creating and admire the skill with which he insinuated the most obvious thing in his painting - the surface of the water - without actually painting it at all. Here is a master craftsman at work; a man who has spent a lifetime honing his skill. I can see that, and I can still see a phenomenally beautiful painting; a painting which works on so many levels and can exert such a powerful influence of those who stand in front of it and yet which is 'just' paint on canvas.

Can we analyse beauty and come up with a universal definition? The Star-spangled banner can inspire most Americans to patriotic fervour, but to a bat it's probably a cacophonous sequence of discords, and to an Englishman, just another national anthem. Beethoven's Ode to Joy is for me the essence of the EU and it stirs something in me for it. The German national anthem is still, after 60 years, a little sinister. Does 'uber ales' really mean 'above all else' or 'over everyone'...?

Audrey Hepburn
The human face is surely one of the strangest of all the mammals with its flatness, receding mouth and silly little triangle sticking out for a nose, yet what a face! What a thing of great beauty! How did Audrey Hepburn, Jean Shrimpton or Mohammed Ali look so good with such unpromising material?

No. We can't define or analyse beauty because it means different things to different people and probably nothing at all to another species, no matter how intelligent. To coin a cliché, beauty is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.

So where did we get this aestheticism from?

As a materialist, and of course an evolutionist, I know that we must account for it in terms of a benefit conveyed to our ancestors from back in our history, or it is an ability which co-evolved on the back of some other evolving characteristic. Did we evolve our sense of wonder and appreciation along with our intelligence?

Did we become 'hooked' on the endorphin rush we have when we see something beautiful or relaxing? Is it part of our sex-selection where there is a clear survival advantage for our genes in selecting 'beautiful' partners because what we think of as beauty is actually an assessment of good health - symmetry, good muscle structure, curves in the right places, breasts, and yes, genitalia.

Does our appreciation of nature (does everyone have that?) convey a benefit for a hunter-gatherer because it helps us learn and understand nature, the better to find and eat it, and the better to avoid being eaten by it?

Watersmeet, Devon, England
Do we like a scene with water in it - and almost everyone does - because possession of water supply would have been so beneficial to us? What more could we ask for in life than food, shelter, company and a clean (= babbling, trickling) water supply?

We know our aesthetic values are determined to a large extent by our culture and our back-ground. Would Vaughan Williams 'Lark Ascending' mean so much to a Bantu or Inuit? Why do I find the singing voice of a Bollywood actress quite unpleasant and yet it can send someone from Karela or Gujarat into raptures?

You see, even contemplating the possible reasons for our aestheticism opens up more questions and make it more wonderful for a curious mind.

Christchurch College, Oxford
The poet Keats once light-heartedly accused Isaac Newton of spoiling the beauty of the rainbow by unweaving it and reducing it to a prism of colours.

Certainly, my atheism has not lessened my love of nature for the great beauty it holds; and that is not diminished in the slightest because I have tried to understand it. Quite the contrary, it has immeasurably enhanced it because the more I learn the more I realise just what a magic world in a magic universe we have the great good fortune to experience for this brief instant of intelligent life that chance has given us.

Rainbow Stag Beetle, Phalacrognathus muelleri

Perhaps the real beauty of the rainbow lies not in it colours, nor in the way these are split up by rain drops, nor even in the way we see and perceive them.

Perhaps the real beauty of the rainbow lies in understanding why we perceive it as beautiful in the first place.





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6 comments :

  1. Couple o' thingies buddy. If Gawd is responsible for all beauty, then what of NOT beauty. Can "they" just give the childish answer of Satan, pure evil, definitely not their god. second, someone should start a comprehensive list of all that "they" hijacked from the rest of the world. They have cornered the market on beauty, good deeds and love (their belief being one cannot have any of those without their specific god). I;m the kinda atheist blogger that is into the battle for secular Society (give us our public square back), but while we're at it, let's take back beauty and love...it's for everybody,

    Kriss

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  2. Nice piece. Do you know how many popular songs are based on Pachelbel's Canon? Worth a Google. The girl who worked for you probably likes most of them without knowing why.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the spelling correction :-)

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    2. Ah yes, the Pachelbel rant is well worth a watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JdxkVQy7QLM

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  3. Your infantile attempt to impersonate me again has been deleted. Did you think I wouldn't notice, Manuel?

    ReplyDelete

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