The most wonderful property of the word beauty is that it describes beauty without commitment. There is no absolute point of reference to the meaning of beauty. Which is not to say we understand nothing of the word. For we indeed have a loose intuition about the meaning of beauty. However, when we look closely at specifics of beauty, we all find something quite different. What he finds is not quite like what she finds; afterall, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
We all understand beauty as something enjoyable, pleasurable, aesthetic, and to be held in high-regard. A loose intuition of sorts. But never can we know, more clearly, the loose intuition until the reference is made clear. Never can we know what exactly is being considered to be beautiful until the speaker or listener points to something.
When I say “that is beautiful” after watching a movie, then we can infer that my usage was in regards to something about the movie; when I say, “she is beautiful,” then we can be certain my usage is reference to a very specific person, or that human appearance, in general, is what composes beauty.
And in those cases, what constitutes beauty is much more clear and well-understood, as a result of context. But the amazing thing about beauty is we can consider the notion independent of any context. We can consider what constitutes beauty, what belongs to the category of beauty, without ever deriving our conditions of satisfaction or abstract intuitions from some context.
That is exactly what I want to do. To contemplate some of the many different ways in which we can think of beauty, and how that impacts our view on the affairs of life more generally.
Beauty as Ordinary or ODD
Beauty can be either ordinary or odd. And when we take one or the other as beauty, we get incredibly different worldviews.
When beauty is ordinary, we get whatever surrounds us as being that which is beautiful. We look to nature, we look to humans, and we look to commonality of all sorts when we view beauty as ordinary.
We are dazzled by the mossy bark found amidst dense, damp forests; we are amazed by the refractive nature of clear water found in unpolluted ponds, far away from cities and populaces; and we are awed by the brilliance of a mountain when we stand at it’s base, contemplating how inadequate all the photographs of mountains have truly been thus far. Nature has in her possession many great works of beauty, when beauty is ordinary.
But so does civilization. We are surrounded by civilization so frequently that it is perhaps, of all things ordinary, the most ordinary. And despite its being most ordinary, and despite it having some rather nasty scars, civilization, when beauty is seen as ordinary, has many wonders as well.
We are without fail dazzled by those who have beautiful bodies or minds; we love to marinate in the ramblings of great thinkers or story tellers, and we love to pursue, hedonistically so, those of great physical beauty. We are without fail amazed by incredible architectural feats. Massive structures that are much like mountains in their physical dominance, towering high above us; yet modern buildings likewise look nothing more like mountains than the fact that they share stone together. One is sheer brute force, the other is a reliance on skill.
What we find around us, put otherwise, is what becomes beautiful: beauty as ordinary.
But when beauty is odd, we have something rather different. Much like the untamed desires of an abstract artist’s imagination, we find repulsive what is ordinary and seek out what is odd. Symmetry becomes mundane and unpalatable. Anything with a solid colour or less than three colours becomes dull.
We find the impeccable similarity between trees to lull our senses to sleep; each leaf as green as the next is one more sheep passed over our bed. Purest and cleanest of waters are nothing more than a blank canvas: borderline non-existent. And despite the initial awe of incredibly large mountains, a rather quick and equally strong disappointment follows; when we view beauty as odd, mountains drop us from the highest peak to the lowest valley, once we discover the similarity amongst them all.
Still yet, when we view beauty as odd, humans go from beautiful to unappealing. Our rational conception of beauty as odd, inevitably, leads us to find the human form as too symmetrical and too repetitive in colour. It is as though someone had painted a triangle that is equal on all sides with one and only one colour. A marvel for those who prefer to work with equalities, but less so for those who prefer inequalities. And alongside the rather non-unique humans comes their non-unique buildings. So many cities try to impress upon their inhabitants a sense of respectability through their buildings, yet all do so in precisely the same way: taller is better, more windows is better, wider is better. These are the repetitive design philosophies behind many human architectural feats.
So for those who find beauty as odd, neither forests or mountains, nor cities or humans come across as beautiful. No, much rather, zebras and lizards, or ancient ruins and ancient stories are far more fantastical.
The many colours of a lizard, despite its repetitive body, can please those who seek non-linear design; and the incomplete records of an ancient ruin add intrigue. More so, the many stories of inconsistent worlds, such as Norse, Greek, or Egyptian mythology, where powers come from odd places or characters do odd things, please those who find beauty in only the odd things.
Thus, wherever asymmetry or oddness reside, some shall find beauty. Not everyone enjoys the ordinariness of life.
Beauty as Ideal or Average: Embedded Standards
Unlike beauty as odd or ordinary, we can also view beauty as Ideal or average. But before we can even discuss this further, we now must make a distinction between things like ideal, average, and ordinary.
It is true that ordinary and average can mean very similar, if not precisely the same, things. We can say, “I own an average pair of shoes,” or, “I own an ordinary pair of shoes,” without losing the least bit of meaning. And so they can mean the same thing. But for us, average has a different usage.
Imagine, if you will, two buckets, side-by-side. One bucket, the left bucket, is where all things ordinary belong; and the other bucket, the right bucket, is where all things odd belong. When we look into either one of these buckets, we see their respective contents all piled up inside. But if we were to begin to sift through either of these buckets, we would begin to notice averages.
Let us suppose in the bucket of ordinary things we have a set of dogs. We see each dog has a tail, four legs, two ears, and two eyes. That would, on average, be true for every dog inside the ordinary bucket. But now suppose, we have a dog who has all the average features of a dog, except he has only two legs rather than four. In that case, he would be less representative of the average dog, inside the ordinary bucket.
Now even furthermore, let us suppose that each one of these dogs would want, in an ideal world, to have six legs. And suppose we happened to stumble across one six legged dog. Here, we have a dog that is ideal and not average.
From here, we can now see what is meant by average and ideal. And how ordinary and average are not quite the same, in regard to our usage.
To be ideal is to be what is considered perfect, even if perfection is beyond what is average; and to be average is to be what is common of a set of things, even if those set of things are something ideal like six legged dogs. Put otherwise, even the bucket of odd things possesses an average, despite their already being odd. We would expect of the odd things like the skin of a lizard to have an average of five or three colours, for instance.
So goes our distinction, we have an ideal and an average for both odd and ordinary buckets. But what exactly is ideal and ordinary will depend on whether we are ourselves in the ordinary or odd bucket.
When we are in the ordinary bucket, and we think of beauty as ideal; then it is not only that we find humans beautiful, but that beauty in humans must strive toward an ideal form. For those who find ordinary human beauty in ideal form most pleasurable, nothing short of a greek sculpture in physique or german philosopher in intellect is desired. The most perfect of human qualities must be had.
Yet others in the bucket of ordinary beauty find the average of ordinary things to be enjoyable. For them, a body of a greek god speaks too much to self-love, and the intellect of a german philosopher speaks too much to preoccupation with intellectual affairs. Whatever those who love ordinary are after, assuredly they find ideals too fictitious or unpleasurable.
Now when we are in the odd bucket, and we think of beauty as ideal; then it is not only that we find asymmetry to be preferable, but that the most asymmetrical things are the most pleasurable. A lizard is lovely, but a lizard with three legs that drinks coffee and writes books with its tongue is yet even more pleasurable: more ideal. Ideal for beauty as odd trends toward more and more asymmetry and deviance.
But beauty as average for those who prefer the odd things in life are content with average oddness. Their thirst for further and further asymmetry ends at a threshold much more typical than those who prefer ideal oddness.
Thus, embedded in ordinary and odd are ideal and average. Both buckets can be broken down by sub-standards of ideal and average, and as a result develop a wider variety of preferences for ordinary and odd conceptions of beauty.
Now, unfortunately for those who find beauty as odd, we are left with a rather ordinary juxtaposition. We have, on one side, those who find beauty as ordinary, and, on the other side, those who find beauty as ordinary. Much like yin and yang, or black and white, the two compose a rather ordinary juxtaposition. Odd and ordinary.
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