I started reading Vanessa Musson’s blog Bonkers about Perfume very recently. Had I known how quirky and funny her writing was, I probably wouldn’t have waited this long. So of course I had to ask her to weigh in on this very important subject of beautiful things…:-)
Here are her responses:
1) What do you mean when you call something beautiful? Do you have different definitions when you talk of different things like faces, art, landscape? Or is everything you find beautiful characterized by something similar?
2) Is there something that you find beautiful that is an exception to the above definition or which lacks the above characteristic/s?
Beauty to me is an aesthetically pleasing interplay of variables such as shape, colour, layout, texture, light effects, sound etc that ideally also stirs the senses and/or moves the soul (whatever that may be, as Prince Charles famously said of ‘love’).
There are very broad, generally agreed definitions of beauty: in the case of faces, for example, features being a certain distance apart and more or less symmetrical is considered important – which is why we refer to someone as ‘classically’ or ‘conventionally good looking’. Yet the old adage ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and my mother’s favourite gnomic utterance of ‘Handsome is as handsome does’ also hold true, namely that outside the received wisdom of such narrower definitions, perceptions of beauty remain hugely subjective. Some people (me included) find more quirky variants on this classical ideal as attractive if not more so, not least because I think I might tire of perfect beauty more quickly than a slightly wonky interpretation.
Now the notable exception to this is babies: all babies are described as ‘beautiful’, even if they are tiny troglodytes with scrunched up faces. I tell a lie – I was a rather plain infant, and when I was presented to family and friends, they typically remarked: ‘Now there is a baby!’, which had the twin merit of being evasive but factually correct. In terms of my own personal response to beauty in all its manifestations/media, this affection for the offbeat or the imperfect is a common thread. Another aspect I am often drawn to but I won’t state it more strongly than that would be a moody or melancholic facet, which could be a plangent piece of music in a minor key or a brooding landscape with jagged peaks and wind-blasted vegetation in shades of murk and sludge. Yes, I tend to seek out imagery that is not ‘chocolate box’ pretty, but has some kind of edge to it.
3) Do you make a distinction between aesthetically pleasing (or appealing to the senses) and beautiful? Can you call something one without it being the other? Is something that is aesthetically pleasing to you also defined by the characteristics described above?
Yes I would, but it is a subtle distinction, and when beautiful objects fail to move me they default to a position of merely being aesthetically pleasing, blurring the boundaries in the process. Case in point: an Art Deco chair in a leather fabric I would call aesthetically pleasing, but not beautiful. A more dainty shape of chair covered in a Zoffany damask I might call beautiful, and feel a visceral desire to have in my home. Then a sumptuous Louis XIV chaise longue I might consider beautiful objectively speaking, but too ornate to appeal to me personally. A different (human) example of relegating beauty to the level of the aesthetically pleasing would be Gwyneth Paltrow. By any yardstick she is beautiful, yet her aloof, repressed, wheatgrass-infused good looks do not move me a jot, so she slips back a notch too.
4) Do you have physical reactions to beauty? (e.g. eyes opening wide, tears etc)
I cried at a piece of music only the other day, but that is unusual. My favourite music regularly makes my heart beat faster, especially when heard live. Oh, and I can think of one or two other physical responses to beauty that are probably not suitable for publication…;-)
5) Could you list examples of ‘things’ you find beautiful under the following categories
Paul Lessing Klosterhof im Schnee
The Lessing painting is not reproduced on the web so I photographed a book I have with it on the cover! But sadly it only features a small section. I found a crude painted copy of the original, but it doesn’t do it justice.
Lawren Harris Snow,
my own print of it :
David Gleeson, Eggs in a bowl (hanging on my wall)
how long have you got?!
nag champa, a specific kind of pinky peach rose
d) Male Face
NB : I slept under Pete Duel’s face (on an Athena poster, admittedly) from the age of 10 to the age of 26, when I thought it was perhaps time to put away such mooning childish things. He doesn’t look handsome from every angle, which is another reason I like his face. Also, it is friendly and open, and not too self-aware.
e) Female Face
Elisabeth Moss, Gina McKee – planes and angles to die for…
f) Music from your own country
g) Music from a foreign country
6) * Is there a piece of art (or ‘thing’ or face) that you find particularly beautiful even though you are in the clear minority in that opinion? If so, could you discuss it and explain why it appeals to you?
Wind farm in Mojave desert– some might consider it a blot on the landscape, but to me this was a majestic sight, like a canopy of giant daisies.
Peeling paint on a boat hull or a door – the object in question is technically damaged, but I find the muted colours and textures you often find on weathered wood to be more appealing than a pristine paint job.
Specific instances of graffiti – the very act of defacement can challenge expectations and give a façade a vibrant new lease of life.
7) Is there something that is renowned to be beautiful that either doesn’t appeal to you or that you don’t find beautiful? Could you explain why?
Mona Lisa – she has no eyebrows or eyelashes as far as I can tell
Van Gogh Sunflowers – not feeling all that yellow!
*sounds of stifled laughter*
One of my favorite things about collecting responses from various people has been discovering pockets of beauty that I was previously unaware of. I googled Connemara while listening to Bliss by The Monochrome Set (a band I hadn’t heard of) and was blown away by the pictures.
Is there something new and beautiful you discovered through these posts on beauty?
* Question 6 was suggested by Suzanne
Picture Credits Photographs of Vanessa,the paintings/illustration and the Wind Farm on the Mojave Desert via Vanessa Picture of Gina McKee via United Agents Picture of Graffiti via karostar.de