The Properties of Beauty
Welcome back to the Bible is Art where we are currently in a series on a Christian Guide to Beauty and Design. If you haven’t seen the videos up to now I would recommend you watch those before you watch this. But if you’re ready to move on, today, we’re talking about the properties of, or, what makes something beautiful.
One of the things that I’ve hated in many aesthetics books I’ve read is how long it takes to get to any punchline, any insight into beauty, so let’s just list the fundamental properties of beauty right at the beginning. Something is beautiful when it has the following properties: unity, diversity, hierarchy, layers, balance, and form.
Quick note, something doesn’t actually need all of these to be beautiful. For instance, a circle is beautiful but it doesn’t have layers. We’ll talk about this more in the video on levels of beauty, the fact that some things are more beautiful than others. Anyway, back to the video.
Now this is certainly not an exhaustive list but it is necessary. Beauty is deep and mysterious and we can never comprehensively understand its nature, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot truly understand its nature. Just because I cannot know all things about prime numbers does not mean that I can’t know some things about prime numbers. Skin is also mysterious and deep. We know that skin is made up of cells and chemicals, and the fact that we do not know the smallest particles that make up the parts of skin does not negate our knowledge that is is made up of cells and chemicals.
In this video, I want to briefly review each of these properties of beauty because we will have videos on each one of them individually. But before we look at each of these properties you might be thinking, “wait, this seems kind of mundane, matter of fact. How do you know that these are properties of beautiful things“?
Well, one of the hazards of giving the punchline in the beginning is that you don’t get to set up the joke, I’m giving you the assertion before the argument. So the justification is coming. But if you haven’t seen the first video, I recommend you watch that because I deal with that question there. But a quick and dirty answer is the following.
We know anything from four sources, revelation, reason, tradition/history, and experience. So just telling you some of the foundational properties of beauty is the same thing as if you were to ask me what water is made out of and I replied to hydrogens in an oxygen, A simple answer but it took a very long time, and a lot of hard fall to get there. But now, to the nature, the properties of beauty:
- Unity and diversity - these are the two most fundamental aesthetic properties. From the beginning of the artistic task you start with unity, a blank page, and your next task is to diversify adding an element in addition to the white page. And as you keep adding new elements you cannot add them indiscriminately. You must add them in a way that retains unity. I have a principal I use when I’m evaluating a piece of design that comes on my desk. And you can get it this principle by asking is this design confusing or boring? If it is confusing, then there is not enough unity, and if it’s boring, there’s not enough diversity. Furthermore, this principle of unity and diversity is not just an aesthetically fundamental principle, but philosophically and theologically as well. It is fascinating that one of the earliest philosophy questions was regarding the one and the many. So also one of the first theological questions of the church was how God can be a unity and plurality, how there can be one and three.
- Hierarchy - Once you start adding things, words, images, shapes, to a blank page, increasing the diversity, in order for it to not be chaotic, there must be a hierarchy. If there are, for instance, three objects, most of the time there will be 1 that is most important, and that needs to be indicated visually. If there is no hierarchy established, people will not know where to look. A good designer leads the viewers through the work, like a story teller who begins on page 1 and ends on the last page.
- Layers - One of the happy byproducts of creating hierarchy is that it naturally creates layers, multiple levels of information and meaning, creating parts that are clear and others that are hidden and in this way it makes the artistic experience into an adventure and a game. But layers of meaning can and should be created in other ways. For instance, perhaps the most common technique of layering levels of meaning is the matching of form and content. A good example would be Caravaggio’s painting The Incredulity of Saint Thomas where you see Thomas inspecting the wound in Jesus’ side and on Thomas’ tunic there also appears a wound, a symbolic wound. This communicates that Thomas is taking on the death of Christ in himself, becoming conformed to his life. Thomas, the notorious doubter and thus far away from Jesus’ character, with his hand in Jesus’ wound, has been reversed to take on Jesus’ identity. This symbolism is a layer deeper than the surface and it takes work, attention, and delight to unearth it.
- Balance - Every great work of beauty is balanced. This does not mean that every work of beauty has a slavish symmetry. Balance is as subtle and deep as the other aesthetic properties. But there will always be a sense of proper proportion, that one side is neither too heavy or too light, but there is visual equity, resolve, and rest. To return once again to The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio achieves balance in a subtle way. There is, of course, a balance of the four men, two in the middle and one and each side, but it is not exact. The mathematical middle is slightly to the right of the visual middle. And Caravaggio needed to do this because of the weight of luminance, or brightness. The largest bright portion of the painting is Jesus’ robe and chest, and as the eye is drawn first to the brightest things, that throws a large weight on the left side. Thus Caravaggio needed to balance it. But he did not want to balance it with light because for obvious reasons he wanted Jesus to have the most light, so he chose another property of space to create weight. He put more space on the right side to balance the light on the left.
- Form - Beautiful things have shape and edges. They will have multiple distinct parts that are harmoniously and delightfully combined to create beautiful objects. Things that are indistinct and formless lack the language to say much at all. Art and objects that do not have form are not necessarily wrong or ugly but may simply occupy a lower level of beauty. For instance, the semi-formless work of Jackson Pollock was not intrinsically ugly but not a high form of beauty. This was tacitly affirmed when Vogue chose Pollock’s paintings as a background for a photoshoot with female models. That is, Vogue understood that there was a hierarchy in forms, in beautiful objects, and they placed the thing of higher beauty, the woman, as the main visual element and the thing of secondary beauty, Pollocks painting, as the background, the secondary visual place, subordinate to the highest beauty
So these six properties are fundamental attributes of beautiful and well designed things. Once again, there is much, much more to beauty but there is not less. In the next videos we’re going to look at each of these properties with examples from painting, architecture, and graphic design. And we will also be explaining how each of these are grounded in God’s nature.