From Ethical Politics
Beauty was once part of the high trinities of Greek and Indic philosophies (“Truth, Beauty, Goodness”, and “Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram”). In recent times it has slipped from the place Keats accorded it in his famous ode: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know“, to an ingredient that can be added to one’s hair, face and wardrobe.
Beauty and subjectivity
A question often asked about beauty is whether it is ‘skin deep?’ For all practical purposes, the collective answer has been ‘Yes’, because that is exactly where beauty is usually located these days: on the visible form, and quite literally on the skin. Beauty has become almost completely superficial. Beauty, the word, has become a rather general and amorphous adjective – used interchangeably for good, pleasing, terrific, wonderful, great and excellent, even being used to describe bombs and wars.
The contemporary confusions about beauty include the subjectivity associated with beauty – captured by the popular adage: ‘Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder’, and the valid need to resist discriminative definitions of beauty – such as fair skin – in many cultures. Such notions of beauty – which make some things and some people beautiful and others not, with all the attendant problems of who decides what or who is beautiful, and the culture and gender issues that are wound up with it, have resulted in a post-modern abandonment of beauty itself.
The issues of the slippery subjectivity of beauty and the tyranny of absolute notions of beauty are, in a sense, related misunderstandings. Is beauty subjective? Yes it is. Is beauty fixed and definable? No it isn’t. But this does not diminish its importance. These are problems of a worldview that gives undue importance to the non-subjective, the measurable and the absolute, and which is out-of-sync with the dynamic, interlinked and relational reality of the world.
These problems of subjectivity vs. absolute inherence, of surface vs. structure, and of appearance vs. being, might be obviated by a view that understands beauty as an experience and not an ingredient, not the property of any object or thing. Objects, or other stimuli, can and do create the beauty experience, but like all experiences, beauty is temporary and relational.
The experience of beauty, though triggered by different stimuli, has commonality across people and cultures. Beauty is commonly experienced as pleasure, gladness, wellness, delight, joy, spaciousness, connectedness, timelessness, integration and wholeness. All deep beauty experiences are imbued with feelings of harmony and balance, and of proportionality and rhythm. In the Indian view, these experiences have the potentiality for inducing ananda, a bliss that is transformative.
Beauty forms in the relationship between viewer and object, and, beauty deconstructed comprises the relational values of balance, harmony, proportionality and rhythm. Profound experiences of beauty bring together and integrate opposites. They create higher levels of transformative understanding of harmony and balance, and of the cycles and rhythms of life.
In all cultures there have been attempts to discover patterns of harmony and rhythm, proportion and goodness, which have been found in physical, spatial and mathematical relationships, for instance, as well as in sound and music, in colour and form – such as The Golden Mean and the musical scales.
Beauty and the arts
In the arts, beauty was for long considered a vital purpose. This idea was dismissed in modernism and post-modernism when beauty became suspect – decorative and elitist. Recently beauty has begun to re-enter the arts again as it has been remembered that the deep, profound experience of beauty is transformational, and that the transformational role of the arts cannot be limited to protest and conceptualism.
Beauty, through art and music, has been celebrated and used in systems of prayer, worship and meditation as it helps brings inner and outer worlds into harmony. It connects people with the world around them - to sense and perceive the world and to experience delight. Internally, whenever the beauty experience occurs, attention, thoughts, feelings, senses, and emotions become integrated and harmonized.
Beauty can also be an activator of consciousness and conscience. At an intuitive level, the absence of deep beauty is the trigger mechanism for conscience – the sign that something is wrong, out of alignment, asymmetrical, in disharmony, discordant. Recently people like artist-philosopher Shakti Maira have begun to theorize beauty as a fundamental organizing system of the ‘relational’ world, and suggest that with its embedded values of harmony, balance, proportionality and rhythm, it could be a master key to solving a range of problems that stem, in part, from the contemporary confusions about beauty.
We increasingly recognise that all life and social systems are webbed, networked, interconnected, inter-related and interdependent, new ways of living - ecologically aware, cooperative, sane, balanced and harmonious - are being imagined and developed that are more consistent with this understanding, and beauty is once again finding its deeper and more profound meaning.
Author: Shakti Maira