Unity and DIversity | Aesthetic Properties

Unity and diversity are the most fundamental aesthetic properties. That is, for a work to be beautiful or well designed it must have both unity and diversity. In this post I want to talk about why this is and provide some evidence.

In most of the arts, you begin with unity. If you’re designing a brochure you will open up a new document in InDesign or Illustrator and you will immediately have a work of unity, a blank page, defined by one color and a few sides. In music you begin with blank ledger lines, completely unified. The work of art is, of course, boring and doesn’t do and communicate what you want it to do so your next act is an act of diversification. You add a shape, an image, a note. And then another and another. But as you keep adding elements you cannot add them indiscriminately, without thought to the other things you have already added. Each new element must retain and contribute to the unity of the whole.

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the questions I use when evaluating a piece of design that comes across my desk that doesn’t feel right is, is the work is boring or confusing. If it’s boring, that means there is not enough diversity, enough elements to keep my attention, keep my eyes interested and moving around the work. If it’s confusing, that means there is not enough unity, coherence, the elements are not harmonious enough to be one thing, but compete for attention.

We have developed ways to ensure that unity is maintained. For instance, in music there is a key signature and the time signature. These maintain a consistent, a unified harmonic tone and rhythm.

In graphic design, brands and companies have style guides. A style guide will ensure unity so that the company communicates in a consistent tone. It will indicate the type faces, the colors, patterns, and use cases for the logo and imagery.

And problems arise when you abandon unity or diversity. In architecture the rules of unity are regularly abandoned. A famous architecture firm will be brought in for an urban building and ignore the aesthetic of the city in favor of their aesthetic predilection. But if you would transpose this architectural situation into a graphic design or branding situation it would never be allowed.

The whole process of creation is working with and balancing unity and diversity. And the necessity of both was accepted throughout most of artistic history. Interestingly, the modern period saw forms of art that erred on both extremes. We have seen innumerable works that are boring and confusing.

Aesthetic properties are instinctual; we naturally have them just like our moral and mathematical sense. This can, of course, be developed and trained so that you become more aesthetically astute and aware or they can be deformed so that you become less aesthetically sensitive, less able to know and appreciate when something is beautiful and well designed. Just like you can develop in your moral and mathematical understanding or you can deteriorate, become less able to distinguish between good and evil, wise and foolish, less able to understand mathematical structures. But there is a kernel that we have been created with, that all of us have

And this trans-cultural aesthetic sense can be seen in our most common and natural reactions and vocabulary that we use when we see different works. A lot of our language can be neatly split into words of unity and words of diversity.

For instance if something does not have unity we will say that it is confusing or chaotic or it’s hard to understand or weird. These are all words that are fundamentally about lack of unity. So also if we say that something is boring, mundane, easy, simple, we are communicating that lacks diversity.

But why are unity and diversity fundamental? Unity and diversity are fundamental aesthetic properties because they are fundamental theological properties.

And it’s fascinating that these fundamental aesthetic properties were the fundamental theological properties at the beginning of the church. One of the most striking historical confluences is that the question of unity and diversity was one of the first questions in both philosophy and theology. The philosophical name for this is the question or problem of the one and the many.

In philosophy, the pre-socratic philosophers puzzled over whether everything was fundamentally one thing, unity, or many things, diversity. This is because we observe both diverse things and unified things and that naturally leads to the question as to whether one or the other is fundamental.

The two main opinions have come to be represented by Parmenides and Hericlitus. Parmenides believed that everything was ultimately a unity and the diversity was simply an appearance but not reality. Hericlitus belived that change was the ultimate reality and any unity was appearance.

In the early church, this debate was transposed into a theological key. At the first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea, they debated the relationship between Jesus and God the Father. While this may appear to be a different question, the underlying issue was the foundation of the unity and diversity in God.

As Louis Ayers noted about Nicaea,

“The first and the most fundamental shared strategy is a style of reflecting on the paradox of the irreducible unity of the three irreducible divine persons” - Nicea and its Legacy, 278.

That is both unity and diversity are fundamental in God, neither is more primary.

Indeed it was the doctrine of the Trinity that is the answer the philosophical problem of the one and the many.

That there is plurality which man must seek to relate to some underlying unity, is patent to all men. From the earliest dawn of reflective thinking it has been the effort of man to find unity in multiplicity. But the difficulties that meet one when trying to speculate upon the question of unity and plurality are that if one begins with an ultimate plurality in the world, or we may say by regarding plurality as ultimate, there is no way of ever coming to an equally fundamental unity. On the other hand, if one should begin with the assumption of an ultimate abstract, impersonal unity, one cannot account for the fact of plurality. No system of thought can escape this dilemma. No system of thought has escaped this dilemma. Many systems of thought have denied one of the horns of the dilemma, but all that they have accomplished by doing this is to find relief in the policy of the ostrich. What Augustine and all theistic thinkers after him have done is to say that in God, and more specifically in the triune God, lies the solution of this difficulty.

– Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology p. 47

What van til is saying is that both unity and diversity are equally ultimate because God is irreducibly one and three or many, he is tri-une.

Thus the visual necessity that we feel for unity and diversity is an image of the unity and diversity of God. These aesthetic properties are necessary because the ground of being, in whose image we were made, has unity and diversity in himself.

God is unified in that he is one divine essence or nature. He is also unified in the loving relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

And the ground of all diversity is in God’s tri-personal nature as father, son, and Holy Spirit.

Thus when a visual work lacks either unity or diversity it becomes a poor reflection of God himself. Jackson Pollock lacked Unity. The minimalist moderns lacked diversity. Both of their works are untruthful, poorly designed. They were visually poorly designed because they were ontologically faulty, they did not speak correctly.

When done correctly art communicates ethically and ontologically that difference can reside in a peaceful loving unity. The world is neither boring nor chaotic but peacefully and lovingly diverse just like God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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