Beauty is in the Gut of the Beholder – An Essay by Kathryn Aedy

Kathryn - credit to Alexandra Waespi

Photo Credit: Alexandra Waespi

A couple of weeks ago I began asking friends, family and strangers to answer a 2-question survey. Since I conducted it at random, I expected a range of answers, mostly pertaining to the physical. But a trend emerged, and internet research has produced similar findings: A personal recognition of beauty is an instinctual one.

At random, and usually one-on-one, I introduced the survey by saying, “Can I ask you a question? And I’d like you to answer honestly.” Most people produced an answer without much thought or hesitation.

The first question was:

What to you, in essence, is beautiful?

The second was the same question, only in terms of ugliness. As people discussed one notion, it further reinforced their thoughts on the other.

Below is a shortened list of survey responses:

1. Beautiful is:

  • Selflessness, charity, sacrifice
  • Positive energy, mindfulness, very personal  
  • Personality
  • Natural
  • “Beyond human creation. … I don’t think love is beautiful, it’s wonderful, for sure, but we’re capable of love, we’re not capable of creating a brilliant sunset.”  
  • The thought of loving someone
  • Loving someone so much that the fragility of life feels tangible
  • “Ugly things are beautiful – ugly colours, sounds etc. and finding the beauty in something unlikely

2. Ugly is:

  • Hate, deceit, thoughtlessness, abuse of political power
  • Negativity, ego, vanity, industrialisation
  • Personality
  • Too much effort in appearance
  • “How self-absorbed people are. We constantly need a shock to wake us up to the problems of others”
  • Lack of presence or awareness in one’s thoughts or actions
  • Cheating, lying, deception, and greed

Without being told, how would you deduce with certainty which answers were offered by someone who is blind, by someone who is deaf, someone who was born with or has developed any sort of sensory impairment, or someone who has not?   

When presented with the topic of beauty, a few stereotypical images may come to mind:  roses, sunsets, feminine objectification etc. But to what extent are these notions of beauty our own? David Halpern’s Happy City, refers to a study that demonstrates how our perception of what is physically appealing to us can be significantly influenced by what we are taught. In the study, an architect and former adviser to the UK government first asked a group of volunteers to rate the attractiveness of human faces and buildings. All respondents had more or less the same response to faces in terms of attractiveness. However, in rating buildings, a diversion in taste was most apparent amongst the participants who had studied or were in the process of studying architecture. Their opinions often differed from those of the ‘crowd.’ Most participants rated Disneyland’s main street USA lined with Victorian-style houses as highly attractive, while the architectural group instead preferred Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe’s Seagram building (which in the book is described as simply a ‘black box’ covered in beams). This type of categorising has been explained psychologically through our hippocampus in the brain, which is a librarian for all of our memories. Essentially, frequent exposure to cultural information changes the way our brains function. So we may often make automatic decisions regarding what is attractive to us based on repetitious patterns we’ve developed over time.

Human experiences have long proven that we don’t need to see beauty to know it. Evidence of beauty’s power to transcend the visual, yet remain at the core of the human experience is illustrated in a viral video where various people who are blind describe what they perceive to be beautiful. Some of the answers include, people who are beautiful on the inside, people who clearly care about others. One man says losing his sight has been a blessing because “I don’t care what nationality somebody is, I don’t care how tall somebody is, I don’t care how big or small they are. A person is beautiful because they are true to themselves.” And while admittedly the majority of people I asked to reflect personally on beauty have the ability to see, I rarely received a response about something visual. Another video featuring Tommy Edison, who has been blind since birth, almost mocks visual beauty. In the video he shares his impression of things that people commonly refer to as “ineffably beautiful or moving.” The Grand Canyon, he presumes to be “a gaping hole.” He sarcastically describes a sunset as: “a big yellow ball, or red, and when it lowers, colours appear. Nice.”   

Alternatively, in 1790, Kant philosophised that a sense of smell plays no role in one’s true appreciation of the aesthetic of a beautiful garden. With its well thought-out shape and form, the appearance of a garden was beauty enough for Kant. However an anosmiac might argue that one’s appreciation of a garden’s beauty heavily depends on a person’s ability to smell. Many anosmiacs – those who have lost their sense of smell, including my sister – lament about the ways in which the richness of life is dulled. People with these experiences share how food loses its taste, and some have even expressed that sex doesn’t feel as good. A speaker at The Fifth Sense, a support network for those living with different smell disorders, told a tearful audience about a moment on holiday with her family when her husband stopped the car at a service station. “He had an expression of such exquisite pain on his face,” because she was unable to enjoy the beautiful smell of the pine trees as she once had.

Meanwhile, other 18th century philosophers insisted that “the tactile experience of handling an artwork” is necessary in order for one “to fully appreciate its beauty.” Denis Diderot stated that touching parts of a whole were necessary for a blind person to call something beautiful.  

In an incredibly touching YouTube video called Alive Inside, an older gentleman who is seemingly unreachable –unable to answer simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions or react to words or photos – is effectively brought back to life by music from his younger years. In the film, he sits at a table, unresponsive. A woman puts headphones on his ears. As the music plays, he immediately LIGHTS up, his eyes widen and he grins widely as he sings along to the lyrics. The woman takes the headphones off, and asks “Do you like music?” He exclaims, “Yeah, I’m crazy about music! Get new really beautiful music!” He immediately starts naming his favourite artists and songs, and for a brief moment, becomes present in himself again.   

Can beautiful music be enjoyed without being heard? Devices such as the graduate project invented by Dimitri Hadjichristou suggest that it could. The interactive tube allows users to touch sound, which when trialled in a group of children offered a sensory experience of music for those with a range of hearing impairments. Moreover, a few children with autism who tested it were mesmerised by the device and stared at it for 30 minutes straight.  

There are many more ways that people can potentially experience beauty. Beyond the 5 senses we’re traditionally taught – touch, taste, smell, sound and sight –the brain can receive innumerable senses through our bodies’ interactions with the world. Included in the list are natural sensations such as hunger, thirst, bodily pain, and even echo-location, which one US team of blind cyclists reportedly uses to go mountain biking.

More obscure concepts of beauty include that which is human created. This is not to say artificial, but instead crafted. Designer, Sam Hecht discusses how, “There’s something very, very beautiful about being able to spend 90 minutes playing a football match within a set of rules that are made up that everyone abides by.” To him, the construct of the system is beautiful. Even more, the way that the net moves when a goal is scored is beautiful to him for the fact that “you’ve broken through that system.”   

Conventional notions aside, my ‘survey’ and research has indicated that beauty ultimately comes down to a sense; a feeling towards or within someone for having had a certain experience. Perhaps Maya Angelou’s poem Phenomenal Woman captures it best:

“Pretty women wonder where my secret lies./I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size” …”Men themselves have wondered/What they see in me./They try so much/But they can’t touch/My inner mystery.”

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