Friday, November 09, 2012

On beauty

I frequently muse about works of art in these postings. These have ranged from the highly abstract to the ultra-realistic, from the Middle Ages to the present. Often they have been paintings that I used for a while as a desktop on my computer, such as the work above, "The Cornish Coast," by the early-20th-century British impressionist Laura Knight (click to enlarge). I pick these desktop images on a whim -- Vermeer's "Milkmaid," Homer's "Cracking the Whip,' or Caravaggio's "Rest on the Flight Into Egypt," for example -- and then slowly come to understand what it was that attracted me in the first place.

I saw Knight's "Cornish Coast" in a journal and a spark was struck. Easy enough to find a reproduction on the web, so onto the desktop, where I have lived with it now for a couple of weeks (cropped to fit the aspect ratio of my screen). I have fallen a little in love with these two women, the one rather prim in posture and dress, the other more fashionable and hands-on-hips saucy.
The standing woman has her face turned away, which of course only heightens her air of mystery, her desirability. I wonder, too, whose shoes those are half hidden in the grass, since it would appear that both women are shod. And the dog -- to which woman does it give its loyalty?

But infatuation is not enough to explain my attraction to the painting. There is also the matter of a sensual response to composition and color. The painting hovers on the brink of abstraction -- those blocks of red, black and teal -- yet there is a human tension too. Whatever it is, something lights up in the orbitofrontal region of the prefrontal cortex of my brain. And the brain calls it "beauty".

Does beauty reside in the work of art itself, waiting there to be perceived, or does beauty lie in the eye (and orbitofrontal region of the prefrontal cortex) of the beholder? It is an ancient question in philosophy, perhaps no closer to a solution now than at any time in the past. I have suggested here before that beauty is a resonance of flickering neurons in the brain with patterns of order in the world, nature's signature of truth, but even as I write that now the explanation seems lame.

"Beauty feeds us from the same source that created us," writes my erstwhile friend Scott Sanders. "It reminds us of the shaping power that reaches through the flower stem and through our own hands. It restores our faith in the generosity of nature."