Beauty isn’t a fixed property of something. It’s the way we engage with whatever we find beautiful. There are a vanishingly small number of things in the world that are beautiful by fact; most thing we find beautiful, we can appreciate, because we learn to appreciate it.
What we appreciate about beauty varies from time to time. Sometimes it’s symmetry, other times, it’s a lack thereof. Sometimes it’s purity, and other times, it’s persistence despite its absence. Whatever the particulars, beauty is the way we engage with something, not something we just stumble upon. Most beauty, I find, is learned, and I submit that we should fight more vigorously against the risk of forgetting the beauty we’ve learned together.
My favorite example of this kind of “learned beauty” is jazz. In my experience, jazz is the art of finding balance and movement in dissonance. Much of the typical “vibe” in the sound of jazz comes from “jazzy” chords and chord progressions. Jazz chords differ from the more traditional chords that proliferate both classical and pop music in that jazz chords are far more complex, both in terms of music-theoretical nuance and the amount of ink spilled on the page. A musician might call these more complex chords “more colorful” or “richer”. Jazz chords stack normally dissonant harmonies on top of each other, sometimes tightly packed, other times spanning many octaves.
Good jazz musicians find ways to combine these dissonances so that the extra sounds add layers of dynamism or add a more complex sense of direction to the song. Rather than a simple progression of notes that move up together, a song might step into a chord where the middle-voice slips into a more moody, minor harmony, and then resolves back into an even, major chord at the end. In well-composed music, these subtle independently moving voices blend together to create clouds of sound that carry some feeling as a whole, but buried in these chords are still layers of dissonance. And until an audience learns to look away from the dissonant pieces and appreciate the motion of the whole, jazz can be off-putting or uninteresting.
There is beauty in jazz, but it has to be learned.
We can find another other great example of learned beauty in architecture. For a while, during the Enlightenment, classical architecture was synonymous with beauty and class. Architects emulated the style of Greece and Rome from the antiquities, erecting columns and buildings that harken back to the geometric symmetry and visual vocabulary of the archaeological structures being rediscovered at the time. The United States Capitol and Supreme Court, despite (surprise?) not having been built by the Ancient Greeks or Romans, inherit that same architectural style, because it’s generally appreciated in a timeless way, and especially so during the Enlightenment era when they were built. The classical style of architecture is a kind of a beauty, and at its height, in Europe during the Enlightenment, architects studied it, as we study mathematics or anthropology today.
The beauty in classical architecture, we also learned to appreciate.
I think we dramatically underestimate the diversity of kinds of beauty that people have learned across the world, and I’m concerned by how little of the world’s collective cultural capacity for beauty we fail to appreciate.
To take an example close to my life, I find Korea’s historical architecture to be really beautiful and exquisite. Having seen these palaces and temples in person, I can tell you that these structures combine natural materials, spiritual ideas, and artistic talent to create something unparalleled. Modern architecture in Korea sometimes inherits the best parts of this heritage, and I’m often struck by how well these ideas carry over to today’s more modernist styles of concrete skeletons adorning glass and metal clothes. It’s not uncommon to find brand-new buildings in Korea with vertical gardens or streams unraveling through the halls, and only in retrospect am I beginning to realize, there’s a reason for that. Korea has learned this kind of beauty, of blending nature with structure. It’s not to be taken for granted.
I think everyone has some learned capacity for appreciating a kind of beauty little-known to the world at large. A more connected global culture has improved this in some ways, like spreading niche musical styles. But in other ways, I think it puts the more niche kinds of beauty at risk of being forgotten. Traditional Irish music, Aboriginal art, the Western film genre… these are kinds of beauty, I think, with diminishing communities who can appreciate them at their best.
What do you think is beautiful that others might not? What do you know about it that helps you appreciate that kind of beauty?
In this way, I think beauty is like language. We’re born with some limited capacity and intuition, and a lot of potential for understanding much more. As we grow, we learn exactly the languages or kinds of beauty that we encounter in the small world that surrounds us. But if, for some reason, fewer people learn and remember it over time, whether we’re talking about a niche language or a unique capacity to appreciate something as beautiful, we risk humanity forgetting.
Beauty, like language, is a part of culture, not a part of things. And beauty has to be learned, and beauty has to be remembered over time. We can record and photograph and write about beautiful things with all our might, but as a book in a niche language is rendered silent when its last speaker dies, records of a beauty we’ve forgotten to appreciate becomes plain, bland, generic. We should take each such loss to be a tragedy.
Humanity is so much more interesting when we can appreciate many more kinds of beauty. It offers new perspectives and sheds light on details and colors previously invisible.
Look out for beautiful things around you previously unseen or unnoticed. Learn to appreciate them in their depth, and share the beauty you’ve learned in your life in all its technicolor detail. Of all the things worth remembering, surely, at the top of our list should be the many ways we can find new color and warmth and beauty in the simple things around us.
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