I’ve been reading an article which attempts to answer the question ‘Why does beauty exists?’ by analysing what happens in our brains when we experience beauty. The author, Jonah Lehrer, argues that according to recent research, the area of our brains that lights up is that same area which piques when we are curious about something. Could it be that beauty is linked to curiosity? Finding something beautiful maintains our attention, we dwell on it maybe trying to work out the pattern or to find the deeper meaning in it.
I can identify with this to an extent. I like various forms of art, both painting and photographic, but to me the least interesting art is that which presents the object as it is. Some painting attempt to depict things in an almost photographic quality. Whilst I can see the skill in creating it, the image itself is not so interesting as I may as well look at the original object. My favourite paintings are those which point to the original object, but play with it in some way, or draw out a theme, an aspect, or a deeper character. For example, Vermeer’s work is beautiful because of what he does with light, whilst Monet and Seurat because their painting techniques give a feeling and ambience to the picture. One of my favourite paintings is the one above, Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage, depicting the vision she has of the Archangel Michael. This is a physically huge painting, on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and I can gaze at it for ages. In it, Joan is almost photographic but she is set in the more impressionist style background of a dreamy garden, giving the effect that she is physically protruding from the painting. Bastien-Lepage has painted this in such a way that we ask, “What could it have been to have transfixed her so entirely?”. And if we know the story, we hear it is a spiritual experience.
On the other extreme, some forms of contemporary art are not beautiful to me because they are so far removed from what they are trying to depict, that they make no sense. Or they are not depicting anything at all. In these, there is no underlying pattern or deeper truth that I find discernible.
In this sense, the writer asserts that beauty may be useful, as it draws us in a points us onwards.
The problem beauty solves is the problem of trying to figure out which sensations are worth making sense of and which ones can be easily ignored.
Speaking of music:
One way to answer these questions is to zoom out, to look at the music and not the neuron. While music can often seem (at least to the outsider) like an intricate pattern of pitches – it’s art at its most mathematical – it turns out that the most important part of every song or symphony is when the patterns break down, when the sound becomes unpredictable. If the music is too obvious, it is annoyingly boring, like an alarm clock. (Numerous studies, after all, have demonstrated that dopamine neurons quickly adapt to predictable rewards. If we know what’s going to happen next, then we don’t get excited.) This is why composers introduce the tonic note in the beginning of the song and then studiously avoid it until the end. They want to make us curious, to create a beautiful gap between what we hear and what we want to hear.
I’m sure we can all agree with this one. Nursery rhymes quickly get boring as there is little variation in pattern. Mozart was hailed as ahead of his time for the way he played with and adapted the melodies and underlying chord patterns. I also love Bruckner, who tantalisingly gives you half a melody and plays around with it.
To demonstrate this psychological principle, the musicologist Leonard Meyer, in his classic book Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956), analyzed the 5th movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. Meyer wanted to show how music is defined by its flirtation with – but not submission to – our expectations of order. To prove his point, Meyer dissected fifty measures of Beethoven’s masterpiece, showing how Beethoven begins with the clear statement of a rhythmic and harmonic pattern and then, in an intricate tonal dance, carefully avoids repeating it. What Beethoven does instead is suggest variations of the pattern. He is its evasive shadow. If E major is the tonic, Beethoven will play incomplete versions of the E major chord, always careful to avoid its straight expression. He wants to preserve an element of uncertainty in his music, making our brains exceedingly curious for the one chord he refuses to give us. Beethoven saves that chord for the end.
“For the human mind,” Meyer writes, “such states of doubt and confusion are abhorrent. When confronted with them, the mind attempts to resolve them into clarity and certainty.” And so we wait, expectantly, for the resolution of E major, for Beethoven’s established pattern to be completed. This nervous anticipation, says Meyer, “is the whole raison d’etre of the passage, for its purpose is precisely to delay the cadence in the tonic.” The uncertainty – that crack in the melody – makes the feeling.
I wonder, could that be the case for all beauty. Are we created in sure a way to see and appreciate beauty, but for that beauty to be, in some way, incomplete – to point us beyond onto something else? If we’re all made in the image of God, and the universe is his creation, coming out of the mind of The Creator, perhaps is it not inconceivable that the curiosity that beauty stirs in us is actually a curiosity for God himself. Beauty entices us to know more, to appreciate more, to understand his mind.
His conclusion is that beauty is useful:
We know just enough to know that we want to know more; there is something here, we just don’t what. That’s why we call it beautiful.
And I don’t want to argue with that. Surely if it points us beyond and piques our curiosity, then it can be useful. Beauty points us to God and if we discover him through his creation or the beautiful works of humanity, that is great. Theologians would call this general revelation: a certain knowledge of God can be discovered through the natural world, philosophy, art, or general reasoning.
But is that all it is? The Westminster Catechism, written by protestants in the 17th century states that the purpose of mankind is to “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever”. If beauty is to point us to God, and God is to be enjoyed, then surely beautiful things are to be enjoyed too. Just as we can rest in the presence of God, we can rest in the presence of beauty, and enjoy that scenery, painting, sculpture, piece of music, or so on. In this sense, beauty doesn’t need a purpose. It just is to be enjoyed.