It’s often claimed that beauty is “in the eye of the beholder.” It’s not a view entirely without merit.
Thankfully, when it comes to human beings, there’s a fairly wide range in what we consider beautiful, in spite of the Madison Avenue promotion of a certain body type, facial appearance, and even skin color. Some of us like tattoos and piercings; others wonder why anyone would do anything like that to themselves.
Certainly, the sense that different types of music are beautiful differs, and so too with works of art. Some of us prefer a certain type of architecture, others, others. And ideas of beauty change over time. Remember the enormous tail-finned and chromed-up automobiles of the 50s and 60s? Most of us now consider all of them the way people considered the Edsel back then—garish and tacky.
And yet, when we perceive the world we live in, there seems to be broad agreement about beauty while cultural differences are fairly small. Asians are said to prefer a more manicured form of nature and westerners wilder and vaster landscapes, but a quick empirical check shows the differences are actually quite minor. I have yet to meet the European who does not find a carefully-crafted Japanese garden lovely, and one only needs to spend a bit of time in Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, or in Zermatt and Chamonix beneath the towering Alps, to see that there are nearly as many Asian revelers as Caucasian, despite the distance they must travel. Moreover, we seem to be inspired by many of the same cities—Rome, Florence, Venice, Prague, Copenhagen, Vienna, Istanbul, for their intimate people-friendliness and loveliness of design; Seattle or Vancouver for their physical setting.
THE BIOLOGY OF BEAUTY There seems to be a biological basis for our tastes, born of the slow process of evolution and survival. According to some studies, our most popular landscapes resemble the African savannas where Homo sapiens originated. Verdant grass, enough open space, trees for shade and protection, a source of water, a pastoral setting with scattered animals, a sense of harmony. That makes a lot of sense. We can imagine living in these places—they are life affirming, life enhancing.
It’s harder to find a biological basis for our love of grand scenery amid which we might easily die without proper equipment and food—the highest peaks, the bare glaciated rocks, for example. The kind of scenery Edmund Burke described as “sublime” instead of merely beautiful. He conceived the two as diametrically opposed esthetically, one, beauty—safe, comfortable, feminine; the other, the sublime—awesome, masculine, evoking fear and the power of God.
Yet even in Burke’s time, travelers to the Alps were finding the sublime less threatening and more inviting than had previous generations. They contain an organic harmony, from the flowered and meadowed valleys to the jagged summits. The parts belong together, and they speak to our sense of wonder and love of exploration.
Aldo Leopold wrote that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Perhaps we have instinctively known that, and our love of wild landscapes comes from the deeper understanding that they are ecologically whole and stable over a very long run.
BEAUTIFUL CITIES The cities we love also have this quality—the beauty of their design is a sign of loving creators; think of the Gothic cathedrals that took centuries to build and what love and hope it took to work on buildings whose completion you would never see. The cities of antiquity and medieval times combined the sublimeof cathedrals and coliseums and the humbler beautyof tiny homes and narrow streets, with plazas, open-air markets and fountains as gathering places.
We admire the long histories of these cities, where the “biotic community” has continued for centuries, and the intimate quality of them that feels cozy and comfortable—the human-scale streets that never extend for more than 200 meters without a market or a church or a park being visible ahead, instead of the endless monotonous highways and massive boulevards designed for cars instead of people.
My friend Hermann Knoflacher, a transportation engineer in Vienna, has measured how such small streets with their variety of residences and shops,” produce energy in people like a battery,” while our mammoth geometric concrete towers drain energy away and leave us quickly tired and cranky. Add to these intimate places pathways fronted by trees and flowers and easily accessible parks and you find a graceful combination that reduces stress and enhances happiness.
While the sublime no longer frightens us, and we now seek it out, we cannot do so too often, or such places would by crushed by crowds, something already happening in hot spots like Yosemite Valley. So, we also need the beautiful closer to home, not merely in urban design, but in accessibility to trees and grass and flowers where we live.
A love for nature, the place where our species was conceived, is in our genes. Florence Williams, in The Nature Fix, has assembled a host of studies showing how access to nature, even in the city, calms us, improves our health and makes us happier. Hospital rooms are now built to look out at green spaces because people get healthy quicker that way. But in a sense, this knowledge is not new. John Muir, Thoreau and countless other visionaries promoted “the nature cure” for stressed urbanites.
A hundred years ago, in her 1918 memoir, One of Them, Russian immigrant Elizabeth Hasanovitz, a textile worker, wrote of how much access to Central Park meant to her fellow New York tenement dwellers. They would rise before dawn or stay up late to spend an hour among its healing lawns and woods. Now, part of that park spends much of the day in the cold shadow of immense steel towers—the 1,000-plus-foot behemoths of 57thStreet, so-called Billionaires’ Row, where apartments go for $20 million. Some refer to these towers as “designer trash cans.”
IN SUCH AN UGLY TIME On the other hand, there seems to be an evolutionary basis for our sense of the ugly as well. People of every race and nationality recoil from garbage dumps, oil spills, polluted rivers, strip mines, and even, if less so perhaps, from tacky strip malls and other haphazard commercial development. I think this is instinctual; we react much as we would to a gash on our bodies. Ugly is life threatening instead of life affirming. The strip mine is an open wound, the oil spill is flowing blood, the polluted rivers, garbage dumps and strip malls speak to carelessness and instability. There is no integrity in the cast-off bits of steel and plastic that find their way into the ocean currents and the gullets of seabirds, killing them by the thousands.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can restore our cut-off, stripped-out mountaintops, stop the pipelines and mindless drilling that leave oil spills in their wake, reduce our mindless “use-it-once-and-throw-it-away” consumerism, save our cities from the auto and fill more of our empty lots with trees instead of cookie-cutter condominiums. I’ve started an organization And Beauty for All (www.andbeautyforall.org) to encourage such a change.
Fifty years ago, folksinger Phil Ochs wrote that “In such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty.” Today, at a time when even our discourse is ugly, may beauty infuse the vision for which we protest.
John De Graaf is a writer, filmmaker, and author. Since 1977, he has produced more than 40 documentaries, and dozens of shorter news stories and films. He has written dozens of articles for such publications as The Progressive, The Nation, The New York Times and many others. He is the author or co-author of four books, including Affluenza, which is an international best-seller.