WHAT IS “BEAUTY”: Thoughts on This Hard-to-Define Concept

I’ve been thinking about beauty lately, and find that as much as I love to see it, and love to make beauty with my work, I can’t really put my finger on what it is. At least not with any precision. I can certainly sense beauty (and its absence), I spend crazy amounts of time trying to create beauty in my own life, and I long to experience as much beauty as I can. Why would I bother thinking about this at all? The main reason is because beauty in our surroundings is so important, far more important than many people realize.

What Is Beauty?

In my own case I’ve sometimes gone to insane lengths with my projects to bring beauty into the world, and I’m still at it. The 31 years it took me to build a stone house is a case in point. Why bother? When I talk about beauty here, I’m only focussing on beauty you can see or hear. Someone could be called a “beautiful person” because of the way they treat people, or you can have a “beautiful day” if things go well for you. But for here and now, I want to talk only about visual and audible beauty to see if I can figure out exactly what this mysterious thing is. If you’re like me, and beauty is one of the most compelling things in life, perhaps hammering out an understanding of what beauty is will help make it easier to create more beauty in your workshop, your home, your property and your life.

What Beauty Is Not

We’ve all heard the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, so let’s start there. First, I not only believe this statement is wrong, but misleadingly wrong. Sure, we all have personal preferences, and sometimes these preferences are very different from one person to the other. My favourite colour is sky blue, and yours might be a rich red. Does this mean I think blue is more beautiful than red? No, I don’t, not in an absolute sense. But when someone says beauty is in the eye of the beholder, what they’re really saying is that beauty is only what you or I feel, and it could be anything. Nothing more. In other words, there’s no such thing as absolute beauty that transcends personal preference. Put yet another way, beauty is only about preference, therefore it doesn’t really exist beyond each of us. Let me try and prove this idea wrong with numbers.

What Is Beauty vs Ugliness: The Numbers

Florence, Italy, is considered by many to be the among the most beautiful cities in the world. So is Bruges, Belgium and Charleston, South Carolina. Caracas, Venezuela; Mexico City; and Amman, Jordan are three cities rated as being among the ugliest in the world. Are these two lists just a matter of personal preference only, with nothing beyond that? No, I don’t think so. Here are some numbers to prove my point.

The figures below show the annual tourist traffic in the beautiful and ugly places I listed, in terms of number of visitors in relation to population:

  • Bruges, Belgium: 70x city population
  • Charleston, South Carolina: 46x city population
  • Florence, Italy: 20x city population

When it comes to cities rated as ugly, figures for individual city tourism are hard to come by, perhaps because the numbers are too low to consider. The only numbers I could find are for the entire countries of Venezuela, Mexico and Jordan. But for what it’s worth, even though country-wide numbers give an unfair advantage to the ugly places, here are numbers for countries with some of the ugliest cities in them. Please pay attention to the decimal points. It’s astonishing:

  • Jordan: 0.5x entire country population
  • Mexico: 0.3x entire country population
  • Venezuela: 0.2x entire country population

Is it simply differences in “the eye of the beholder”, en masse and for many years, that brings 350x more tourists to the one city, Bruges, compared with the entire country of Venezuela when compared to population? Will Caracas, for instance, ever eclipse Bruges in visits from tourists, most of whom are looking to experience beauty? I don’t think that’s possible. Do you? Is there a sane person anywhere who considers the slums of Calcutta to be more beautiful than Venice? So if there is some absolute component to beauty, as these numbers suggest, we should be able to put at least a finger on what this thing called “beauty” is.

So, What is Beauty?

When I find myself in the presence of a beautiful building, or I hear music that centuries of people from different cultures have regarded as beautiful, I feel good inside. That’s pretty simplistic, but doesn’t the whole experience of beauty not start there for you? So, what is this good feeling?

As near as I can tell, the human reaction to beauty is an emotional recognition that this thing, whether it’s a house, a table, a farm, a city or a classic car is one version of “the way it’s supposed to be”. I know that’s not much to go by, but I think it’s a valid start.

Another component of beauty seems to be its connection with the natural world, and this applies even to things that are not “natural”. The Golden Mean, for instance, is a ratio that’s found all throughout nature, but also has applications in architecture and mathematics. The Golden Mean ratio is 5 to 8, and it keeps appearing in everything from pine cones to sea shells. Ancient Greek mathematicians first studied the Golden Mean and it became part of Greek architecture that’s still revered today. When I designed my house, for instance, I used the Golden Mean to determine footprint size, window shape and other details. I still find the outcome highly beautiful.

One More Thing About Beauty

Here’s one more thing I’ve noticed as I try to understand beauty, to court her, and to bring new beauty into the world. Beauty never happens by accident. It’s easy to make things ugly because when it comes to human activity, ugliness happens by default. To create beauty, on the other hand, requires effort, care, time, money, hope, good judgement, patience and perseverance. My daughter Ellie mentioned something at lunchtime today that I think is true: “No one ever created true beauty without suffering.” I’ve been trying to think of an example that refutes this but I haven’t come up with anything yet.

I’m afraid this article didn’t go very far in determining an absolute definition of beauty, but I hope it does at least one thing. I hope it convinces you to consider beauty as you go about making and choosing what to bring into this world and what to leave out. Decisions you make about beauty actually turn out to be quite common and relevant.

Are you a creative person? Do you like to make things using wood, metal, gardens or stone? If you feel the urge to make things, I’d encourage you to consider beauty in a deep way, especially given the understanding that when we make things – beautiful or ugly – we’re launching something into history. Doesn’t it make sense to pursue beauty in a way that allows your part of the world to reflect a little bit more of “how it’s supposed to be”?

Do you have some thoughts about beauty you’d like to share? Email me at [email protected]

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– Steve Maxwell