Beauty is Neither Harmony Nor Symmetry

by Dwight Furrow

Beauty has long been understood as the highest form of aesthetic praise sharing space with goodness, truth, and justice as a source of ultimate value. But in recent decades, despite calls for its revival, beauty has been treated as the ugly stepchild banished by an art world seeking forms of expression that capture the seedier side of human existence. It is a sad state of affairs when the highest form of aesthetic praise is dragged through the mud. Might the problem be that beauty from the beginning has been misunderstood?

The Ancient Greeks were the first to define beauty. Using the perfection of geometrical bodies as a paradigm, symmetrical, perfectly proportioned objects connected the world of finite human beings to the infinite, divine world. In the Symposium, Plato has Diotima regale Socrates with stories of the soul ascending towards beauty, driven by Eros, the god of love, leading from the sensible world to the intelligible world and ultimately the discovery of Beauty in itself. In theory, beauty could be extracted from objects via reason if we were sufficiently expert geometers.  Beauty is a concept, a ratio, a specific proportion between parts which gives us insight into the ideal structure of the cosmos, a manifestation of something eternal. The neo-Platonists emphasized that such an ideal harmony must exhibit unity, all difference and multiplicity swallowed by an intelligible whole, a state of pure integration governed by a principle that organizes the elements and to which the elements must conform.

However, conceptually, these notions of perfect symmetry, unity, and harmony are problematic.

It isn’t obvious what perfect conformity to a principle means in defining beauty. If the elements of a work are identical to the principle that organizes them, then the issue of conformity never arises since the principle and the elements are the same. But if the elements are not identical to the principle that confers order on them, there must be something about the elements that differs from the principle and are not captured by it. In the real world, there can be no ratio of essential properties that are unaffected by contingent properties—perfect conformity could not exist.

Even if we leave this classical notion of ideal, perfection behind for a more relaxed conception of conformity to a principle, where such conformity needs only to exhibit some form of unity, we are still well short of beauty. If the elements of a work are unified via conformity to a principle, the principle must contain all the information relevant to producing such order. Thus, the elements can’t contain novel information unrelated to the principle. In other words, the elements must be predictable from the point of view of the principle. But this would preclude works of art that include genuinely novel elements from being beautiful, a conclusion that seems manifestly implausible given that art is a domain that thrives on novel effects. The history of art is a history of novelty.

The idea of symmetry as sufficient for beauty is equally problematic. Symmetry means that all the relevant components of an object conform equally to the same principle. But that is a description of homogeneity which when pushed to the extreme is a form of ultimate disorder. Absolute entropy is a form of perfect symmetry. When all elements of a work look alike we have perfect symmetry, but that hardly is a prescription for beauty. The kind of repetition associated with symmetry requires something non-repetitive, a break in symmetry, if we are to avoid boredom.

The revolution in aesthetics induced by Kant’s 18th Century theory of beauty dispenses with idea of beauty as a ratio or conformity to a principle of perfection.  Kant places beauty firmly on the subject side of the equation—beauty is a function of a certain kind of experience and the pleasure we get from it. According to Kant our basic understanding of the world is conceptual—we understand a particular object by subsuming it under general rules that define the kind of thing it is. I see a tree as a tree because it satisfies the logical conditions for being a tree. By contrast, according to Kant, when we experience beauty, the imagination presents us with a multitude of sensations and thoughts that go beyond these logical conditions and are not unified by logical rules. Thus, for instance, in addition to seeing that tree with a trunk, branches, and leaves, I might see it as a ghost, an old man with deformed limbs, or an instance of a trapezoid gone haywire. Kant conceptualizes this kind of experience as the imagination in “free play with the understanding”. In this distinctly aesthetic experience, the multitude of presentations supplied by the imagination seems inexhaustible leading to multiple interpretations of the experience and its object. When this multitude of thoughts and sensations seems coherent, harmonious,  and unified, Kant claims, we take pleasure in this harmony and experience it as beautiful.

Yet, unlike ordinary cognition, no concept or rule determines this unity. Kant describes this harmony between the understanding and imagination as an experience of “purposefulness without purpose”. We sense the object is unified by a purpose despite the fact we can’t say what the purpose is. The tree, when experienced aesthetically, is no longer seen as giving shade or serving an ecological niche—yet the tree as beautiful, ghost-like specter has a unity that we can’t help but see as purposive despite it no longer functioning as a tree. Importantly, despite the significance of pleasure as the indicator of beauty, Kant thinks all properly situated observers ideally should find such an object beautiful. The non-beautiful object by contrast will leave us bored with no fodder for the imagination.

Kant thankfully abandoned the classical idea of beauty as a rule of symmetry or a ratio but the ideas of harmony and unity, now applied to the faculties of the understanding and imagination, are nevertheless fundamental to his view. The problem is it is unclear what this unity and harmony amount to. Since the 18th Century, commentators have offered various accounts of what Kant might mean by purposefulness without purpose. But to this day there is no agreement and the original texts appear contradictory.

To my mind, by this “free play with the understanding” Kant is suggesting there is a link between the logical attributes of the tree, or painting of the tree, and the train of aesthetic properties that it brings to mind. The properties of the tree-as-ghostly specter are related to the actual properties of the tree without which the tree-as-ghostly specter would not make sense as an interpretation. (Contemporary philosophers call this relationship superveniance) He seems to think the aesthetic attributes need not be precisely the same for every person but every beautiful work will be rich enough to provoke some set of associations related to the concept of a tree that produce pleasure. But it is hard to see how this accounts for beauty. There are any number of imaginative associations plausibly related to the actual tree that would not be beautiful.

Kant’s view represents progress over the classical view. An artist cannot produce a work of beauty by applying rules which determine when something is beautiful. Yet he still insists the artist’s creative activity is somehow rule governed, stating at one point that “every art presupposes rules” and that art objects are models that function as a “standard or rule by which to judge”. To this apparent contradiction, he postulates a capacity for “genius” by which “nature gives the rule to art”. A genius has a natural ability to create objects we judge as beautiful. But this is a punt, the word “genius” a substitute for a mystery that he can’t explain.

Kant suggests in some of his writing that rational ideas–themes such as God, morality and its absence, freedom, totality, etc. –are ultimately what supplies unity to works of art but then it’s unclear how this applies to music or natural objects that preoccupy Kant for most of writings on aesthetics. Thus, despite Kant’s attempt to view beauty in terms of the unity and harmony of our mental faculties, we are no closer to understanding exactly what unity and harmony are. Perhaps the best we can do with these notions is to posit that works are unified when they seem complete, when adding something or taking something away would harm the aesthetic experience. But it seems one could say this about objects that are merely pretty or pleasant.

However, Kant’s notion of the understanding and imagination at play is useful and suggestive of how we might make some progress on this difficult notion of beauty. In the notion of play between the understanding and the imagination there is the suggestion of a feeling of life and active motion which sustains our attention yet must remain in a state of indeterminacy if it is not to collapse into a rule-guided concept. Art objects that sustain our rapt attention induce a state of wonder and mystery that suggests a lack of completeness, unity in abeyance, indefinitely deferred. Art objects that fascinate produce multiple sensations and interpretations that are so dispersed as to resist being gathered into a whole. Purposiveness without purpose suggests a unity that is always on the horizon, an indicator of a future harmony never fully present and forever out of reach. Thus, if we take what seems right about Kant’s theory and ignore the contradictions we are left with a notion of beauty that severs the connections between beauty, unity, and harmony that have burdened theories of beauty since the beginning.

What I find odd about the classical view of beauty is that when I think about harmony, symmetry and related concepts, it’s pretty or pleasant objects that exhibit them. Pretty pictures have all their elements working together with balanced colors and graceful lines, nothing jagged or garish. They have unity and feel complete. Pretty, nice, pleasant things have nothing of difficulty about them. They effortlessly enter our lives producing no conflict and providing many moments of modest joy precisely because they exhibit harmony, symmetry and balance.

Beauty by contrast is something less comforting. Objects become beautiful when some difficulty is introduced, something that disrupts harmony and makes us think or react emotionally. The intensity of beauty comes from contrast not symmetry. A symmetrical face is pretty; it becomes beautiful when animated by the complexities of a personality that hints at something tumultuous just below the surface. Musical passages are beautiful when they contain sufficient tension to elicit powerful emotions. The great composers are masters at building tension that never fully resolves. What makes a painting such as Monet’s Water Lilies beautiful, and not merely pretty, is that it draws us into a maelstrom of swirling color that has no border so we feel on the edge of the infinite, bound to something beyond comprehension.

Beauty lost its cachet in the art world because the conventional association  of beauty with unity and harmony was in constant danger of collapsing into the pretty and comforting and was thus inadequate in expressing the full range of human experience. Beauty can be revived if we admit that it is the unraveling of good form, the wild and untamed, which fascinates.

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