I awakened this morning to a sunrise of surpassing beauty. As I drove to work, I remembered that the first poems I recall ever writing were about the wind and about dawn–perhaps I wrote other poems as a child, but these two are the only ones I remember: poems that celebrated something I found lovely in nature.
After the vivid morning sky, we had a day of rain; and on my commute home, a compelling sunset bookended the working day. I call these skies “beautiful” and would definitely regard my experience of looking at them as aesthetic.
And yet, it’s only the sky, some clouds, the sun, phenomena that science has explained. What makes it beautiful?
David Rothenberg’s 2011 book Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution has accompanied me for the past week; I have been reading it when I can find time to read and to cogitate. Rothenberg speaks directly to the question of what makes us experience beauty, whether beauty is a human-only construct, and from where the qualities of aesthetic experience arise. He explores among other things whether beauty (especially in the form of art) evolved along with us, what makes it timeless (if it is indeed timeless), and whether our grounding in nature as earthly beings formed the grounding for what we deem beautiful.
And he considers symmetry and biology and abstract art and math and music. There’s quite a good deal of synthesis and speculation going on in this book.
Rothenberg writes that he is interested in whether humans’ developing education in abstractions–concepts and abstract arts–might produce an outcome that increases our appreciation of things in nature and the cosmos. He writes:
It might seem this century has freed us from interest in any kind of constricting form or function in art, but I want to test out a different theory: that abstraction in the arts has made us find more possible beauty in the natural world…as art exalts pure form and shape, the laws of symmetry and chaos found in mathematics and science seem ever more directly inspirational. Aesthetically, we become more prepared to see beauty where before we saw only the clues of beauty, its glimmers or possibilities…our minds are more attentive to an abstract kind of beauty that we can discover but not necessarily build or create.
It takes him several chapters to braid together the many strings of his interdisciplinary inquiries; but the upshot is that while I feel he does not answer the questions he begins with, he does deepen the reader’s thought process about art, beauty, and the evolution of ideas as well as of organisms. He says the interesting discussion lies not with what is or is not art, nor how to evaluate the individual merit of works, but rather “how artistic expression changes how we think in ways only art can accomplish.”
Rothenberg concludes with some ambiguity about aesthetics and evolution, which suits his book-length and life-long explorations on the interweavings of these ideas; but he adds with certainty that “[b]iology is not here to explain away all that we love in terms of the practical and rational. That is not how nature works. Nor should we shrink from our natural astonishment at the magnificence evolution has produced.”
He mentions John Cage’s work and approach to composing, and I think Cage’s main point in so much of his work is getting us to listen, to see, getting us to be attentive. Viz Rothenberg’s words quoted above, maybe an integration of abstraction does open us to be more attentive to the beauty that exists in the world without any artist making it. We could not, in the past, have appreciated the fractal values of river deltas viewed from airplanes; and perhaps only natural (or trained) artists noticed how the twigs of a tree reiterate the shapes, angles, and curves of the branches, boughs, sometimes even bark. Now we know about Mandelbrot sets and fractal geometry, and those abstractions can generate beautiful patterns. Now we know the Fibonacci sequence of numbers–an abstraction–appears in snail shells and sunflower seed-heads.
We do not have to be mathematicians, chemists, art critics, environmental scientists, physicists, sculptors, violinists, composers, dancers, college professors or biologists to recognize patterns and symmetries, or to find that slight variations in the pattern enhance the experience through the kind of surprise and delight that I discover in great poems.
We just have to be attentive.