What is the Essence of Beauty?

Nimai AgarwalDecember 8, 2016Beauty and the SensesThe Big Question
What is the Essence of Beauty?

Artwork by Niti Majethia

Humans have always searched for the elusive epitome of beauty.

It has evolved over time, and continues to express itself in new forms. There are many kinds of beauty, and many aspects. There is beauty for the eyes, the ears, the tongue… but all these forms of beauty are unified by one thing which never changes and is present in all the variations: love.

Art is one of the most widely seen expressions of our ideals of beauty. When did art stop being “art?” Could a canvas painted in a single color be considered complete and beautiful? For example, Renaissance artists were redefining art with revolutionary levels of realism, focusing on very polished popular scenes, like those from the Bible or portraits of wealthy figures. Artists further stretched the concept of art, and moved to showing the plight of the working class. These paintings were gritty and unflattering, but found many admirers. Artists later experimented in minimalistic and abstract styles. Could a few simple geometric shapes be as meaningful or beautiful as a smoothly rendered portrait? With so many ideas of beauty and art — some of which directly contradict the philosophy of others — can there be such a thing as an “essence” when dealing with beauty in art?

In addition to art, the idea of beauty has undergone great changes in many other realms. We see advertisements for beauty products on television, in malls, and on billboards. The media advertises the idea of beauty to strive for. It tells women to be skinny, with flawless skin, and men to have six-pack abs. Bottled beauty, they say — put it on and you can achieve the ideal that’s advertised. Centuries ago, the ideal of the perfect body, immortalized in painting and sculpture, would be considered undesirable by many today.

Beauty is a breathing, changing thing that evolves within different cultures and societies. For example, the Kayan women of Burma wear steel coils around their necks, adding more rings as they age. While they view this practice as a sign of elegance and beauty, others might find it frightening. The epitome of beauty varies from country to country, from group to group, from person to person.

Aside from the pleasure of the eyes, we seek beauty for all our senses. Music has many genres, each one unique. My mother can’t get behind the idea of dubstep, but it has many fans who swear by it! The diverse genres of music are an example of how the condition of one group of people can affect what they create and consider beautiful. Hip-hop was formed from the social and economic turmoil of the 1970s in New York City. One of the ways people dealt with such turbulence was by creating music as an outlet for the strife in their lives. Some define beauty as being the marriage of harmony and variety. Music, with all its variation but intrinsic unity, represents that concept.

Blind people can experience beauty as well. They find it in forms that are available to them, such as smell, taste, and sound. In a recent interview, a blind man said that he is attracted to a person by their personality or their smell, relying on his other senses to make up for the lack of sight. Humans can find beauty in unique places according to their physicality and conditioning. I believe it is our nature to seek beauty, just as a plant grows towards light.

However, it does seem that beauty is relative. It is linked to our perception of an event or thing, and therefore its epitome is different for each individual. Stendhal famously defined beauty as “the promise of happiness.” But even though beauty is relative, does it have an essence?

For this I turn to love. Love and beauty are closely related. When we see something that appeals to us, we appreciate it and label that experience as “beautiful.” By this logic, the phrase, “drawn to beauty,” is redundant, for beauty by definition labels something we’ve liked or been drawn to. There are many things we appreciate in the world. For me it can be the sound of birds, a good book, tasty food, an engaging thought. But, the highest kind of acknowledgement or appreciation is love. And therefore, it is the essence of beauty. It is when we love something that we see the beauty in it. Call it a bias, but reality as we see it, is always biased. We feel through the faulty instruments of our senses, and filter experiences into boxes of “beautiful” and “ugly.” These boxes are shaped by biases we form through our lifetime. A mother might have a child who is thought to be ugly and useless in all respects, but the mother will still see her child as beautiful. That is because she loves him. Love is the essence of beauty.

Modern art is an example of how love influences our conception of beauty. I went to the Museum of Modern Art recently and saw a lot of, in my view, seemingly unexceptional paintings. Some were plain canvases or jumbles of abstract shapes; these perhaps had exceptional value to their creators but not to my eye. These pieces were perhaps beautiful to the person who created them and to others who viewed them, but to me it looked just like what it was — a few shapes on a canvas. That is so with all art. Paintings are two dimensional; they are simply surfaces with different shapes and colors applied. Yet, when we see a painting of a flower, we love that painting, for we love flowers. We find that particular assortment of shapes and colors on a flat surface appealing because of love.

The world is full of beauty and wonder. There are always new things to experience: sounds, smells, sights. There are numerous ideas of beauty in numerous cultures and traditions. Beauty can change according to the conditions of a person, a group of people, or a society, and is truly in the eye of the beholder. But even though beauty is so varied, there is a thread of unity that connects all these ideas. Love is the connecting factor, for where there is love, we find beauty.

Nimai Agarwal is in 12th grade. He has been practicing Vaishnavism, a monotheistic tradition within Hinduism, since his childhood.