The World, Seen: On Beauty and Bedrooms
Slowly, but as surely as ever, the outdoors fade from glorious summer to tired winter. Sleeves that only just covered the shoulders begin to cover elbows, and soon will cover wrists. The occasional evergreen stands in ever-increasing contrast to its surroundings. But instead of monotonic thermal decline, the natural world offers one last burst of vibrancy, a burst that makes autumn the loveliest time of year to live in the Pioneer Valley. For the next month, gusts of red and gold and green leaves will draw our eyes upwards to contemplate the polychromatic canopies blanketing our world, and will elicit what must be one of the most-often-heard phrases on this campus: “Memorial Hill is so beautiful!”
With that image in mind, I now ask you now to consider a very different landscape. Most of us, myself included, moved into Amherst College dormitories about a month ago. People not only set up their rooms just as they like them, but try to anticipate all of their life’s variation in the year to come and prepare their room accordingly. They leave space on bookshelves for textbooks; their hamper is aptly placed to hold all dirty clothes in a convenient but out-of-sight location; their desk is filled with pencil jars and organizers and containers of all sizes. Nevertheless, one month later, what do you find? In most cases, and certainly in my own, you find a terrible mess.
Here is the question that I want to ask: why, if we find the arboreal horizon of Memorial Hill so beautiful, do we not find similar beauty in a messy bedroom?
After all, the two situations have significant abstract similarities. They both offer a wide variety of color splayed over a large portion of the visual field, and often the various colors are bright and compelling, be they changing leaves or crumpled clothes and scattered papers and books. They both strongly symbolize aspects of our worlds: Memorial Hill reminds us of the greater outdoors and the high vantage point that grounds Amherst College’s academic philosophy, while our bedroom symbolizes hominess and comfort, filled with the physical objects that define our identities. So, what is the difference?
An obvious way to approach this question is to break the concept of beauty into its components by asking what makes beautiful objects beautiful. Defining beauty’s components was the central goal of aestheticians in the British Enlightenment, best exemplified by the work of Edmund Burke. Following the Third Earl of Shaftesbury’s definition of beauty as “unity in multiplicity,” Burke goes even further by broadly claiming that beauty is the summation of qualities such as smallness, smoothness, delicacy, and “clean and fair” color. Rather than tying myself to Burke, I would like to look at what I think would be a more modern set of qualities of beauty: symmetry, balance and harmony.
Symmetry, in the context that I intend it, refers to spatial identity across an axis. It refers not to colors, but to shapes and forms themselves; after all, an unsolved Rubik’s Cube displays symmetry without any color alignment. In our example, symmetry offers a clear advantage to Memorial Hill, which offers a wide expanse of trees that are approximately the same across a central axis; while some two-person bedrooms might offer similar symmetry when clean, they are almost never symmetrically messy.
By balance I mean a property similar to symmetry, but instead of referring to form, it refers to color-intensity. A balanced photograph, in this sense, would be one that, for every strong color on the left, has a similarly strong color on the right. Monet’s paintings of water lilies exemplify this balance, as do many of the Hudson River School paintings hanging in the Mead Art Museum. Here again, Memorial Hill wins out; its relative uniformity of intensity is almost assuredly more balanced than the random color field of a messy bedroom.
Harmony is the most difficult of these three qualities of beauty to define, but it has something to do with colors’ relationships to each other. In music, a major chord harmonizes with itself, while four consecutive notes do not do so; colors have similar properties, as anyone with a fashion sense necessarily knows. It seems unfair to say that Memorial Hill is such a harmonic image, because the changing colors of autumn leaves likely contribute greatly to what we think of as “harmonizing colors” in the first place, but the superiority is obvious nevertheless.
This strategy of breaking up the qualities of beauty, then, effectively explains what anyone would find immediately obvious: that Memorial Hill is more beautiful than a messy bedroom. However, something seems woefully insufficient. After all, this kind of “definition” of beauty implies that, while Memorial Hill may be more beautiful than a messy bedroom, a perfect pentagon would be more beautiful than Memorial Hill, with its ideal symmetry and balance. You might believe that my breakdown of beauty is under-identified or incomplete, but I think that is the wrong moral for this story. The strain in the belief that beauty is a composite of well-defined property-components is not in the components themselves, but rather that beauty is effectively modeled as a composite in the first place.
Here is what we know: something about seeing Memorial Hill makes us want to see it repeatedly, to linger over it and to show it to others. Noticing similarities between beautiful objects is helpful, and can help divide objects that we find beautiful from those we do not, but it can also lead to confusion about the relationship between experience and language. Language may model experience, but the two are distinct; no explanation is equivalent to the thing that it explains. The reason that we do not call messy bedrooms beautiful is not that they lack symmetry or harmony or balance, but that we do not find them to be beautiful; they don’t give us the beauty-feeling. Ultimately, if we want to break beauty down and talk about it, it is that beauty-feeling, not beautiful objects, that we need to examine. My next column will pivot in that direction.
Previous articles from this column: On Beauty and Women, On Beauty and Advertising