"What is the most beautiful thing in the World?"
It was me asking this question to one of China's most prominent art aesthetics professors while I attended Shandong University's Conference of Comparative Art Aesthetics in Fall 2007. The professor smiled and laughed out loud but quickly regained composure and straightened his shoulders as if preparing to deliver a mini-lecture to me right there in the hallway of the conference center. My question was, of course, not merely hypothetical or dreamy in it's phrasing. Asking a Chinese Aesthetics Professor such a question was an invitation to invoke a discussion steeped in sobriety, regiment and sureness. I was told with no uncertainty by this revered Chinese Professor that the most beautiful thing in the world was "The Mountain".
Such was the root of the debate being waged at the conference. That there should be a premiere definition of beauty seemed fascinating to me, because in the West, our definition can vary so greatly. Or does it?
An interesting article on the internet caught my eye today, and prompted me to consider the vast implications of codifying beauty, and more importantly, the great risk that many artists have taken when rejecting that ideal in order to instead embrace something distinctly "ugly".
The article on the web was titled: Sense of beauty Partly Innate, Study Suggests.
It outlines an Italian study made where 14 volunteers were asked to rate and respond to images of great classical Renaissance style sculptures, and then do the same with the same images which had been digitally distorted, causing proportions to become irregular. Brain scans of the participants depict an interesting relationship between sculptures described as 'beautiful" and the insula, a brain structure that mediates emotions. It seems that participants who responded favorably to the perfectly proportioned classical images also showed an increased activity of the insula during the viewings.
Participants were shown different versions of the same image. Here, the center image is the correct original image. It relates to the perfect golden Ratio. Participants described it as beautiful. The purposely distorted altered versions on the right and left were described as being less beautiful.
"...the researchers also had them judge how beautiful or ugly each was. The images thought of as beautiful activated the right amygdala, a brain structure that responds to memories laden with emotional value. (The original images were often judged by the test subjects as more beautiful than distorted ones.) The results indicate that the sense of beauty is based on hard-wired notions triggered in the insula and one's experiences, and then activated in the amygdala."
Most of us reading this text and seeing the accompanying images showing "ideal proportions" would have no trouble believing that this is how the West chooses "the most beautiful " among us. Well proportioned men and women are held up as desirable models, to be sought after, idolized and coveted...(even when carved in stone).
This states a "finding" that would not be shocking to most artists. But let us go further with this discovery.
Advocates of classical beauty and those who wish for a return to traditional values in any area of human activity do so because of the sense of familiarity that accompanies such experiences. Indeed, "beauty" as defined by proportional criteria such as "The Golden Ratio" and other mathematical formula might expectedly set off an inner biological sense of harmony, rightness and comfort.
Conversely, this could explain why artists individually (and periodically as a collective culture) have often sought out something other than this "bullseye" of beauty. When honestly attempting to express sensations other than harmony, artists become consumed with capturing emotions of vital tension.
Tension is one of the greatest feelings that great art can elicit. Whether through subtle giddiness or pending confrontation, tension best describes some of our richest moments of living. Think for a moment: Feelings of other-worldliness, spiritual growth, the breaking of habits, the uneasiness of being on unfamiliar ground... all of this richness might best be conveyed through the opposite of comfort.
What tension do I speak of? Discomfort? Disproportion? De-harmonization?
Well, if the human brain seems to find harmony in "memories laden with emotional value", than the presentation of something new, without president, would be one of the riskiest tasks an artist could enact.
What is the opposite of comforting beauty? It is the surprise that comes from a sense of wrongness.
This is what the greatest of artists grow to understand.
Of course, "the surprise that comes from a sense of wrongness" cannot be created through lame tricks, goofy pranks or a lazy-assed work ethic. Great masters of the past either developed a love for it in their work from the beginning, or else they came to embrace it in their maturity.
It springs from the heart and mind as the answer to a deep need. The surprise that comes from wrongness is a tool. For artists it is the powerful solution to a problem.
Consider this: In the West, the ideal of harmonic beauty was based upon "the golden ratio" and found its first practicianers in the ancient Greeks. The conquering Romans did their best to copy, solidify and proliferate these ideals of beauty across the hemisphere until the collapse of the Roman Empire. Without the math, it seems that Western art and culture fell into a dark age of a thousand years. The greatest sculptural group that best represents the pending fall of the Roman Empire exists in Venice, Italy, on the south-eastern corner of Saint Mark's basilica. It is a forth century artwork from Syria called The Four Tetrarchs.
The statue depicts Diocletian and his three fellow Roman Emperors: Maximian, Constantius, and Galerius. By the time Diocletian became Emperor in 284 AD the empire was incapable of being ruled by Rome as a single entity. The empire was therefore split into four parts, with a ruler designated for each geographic chunk. The style of the sculpture reflects this change The traditional representation of the Roman rulers as gods is replaced with the sense that these four leaders are frightened, huddled mortals, dependent upon each other to fend off the barbarians who will ultimately gain power. The tension here is remarkable. Surely it would not have been done as a criticism. It was a battle cry. It was an appropriate symbol of defiance against a world that would not bow down to order. Harmony is gone in the world, and so disharmony is forced upon these four figures.
A thousand years later, the early Renaissance was born as a result of builders digging up trashed Roman art as they excavated ruins in Italy. We can only wonder today at the feeling artists must have had in the pits of their stomachs as masterpieces like Laocoon were unearthed , challenging them to rethink their skills and abilities. Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael were all responding to the newfound notion that man represented the perfection of god. The Golden Ratio was rediscovered, along with the laws of perspective. The many Italian artists of the day were brilliant craftsmen, yet much religious art from the period resembles shopping lists of tricks and devices, rather than heartfelt images of devotion. Ask any honest traveler to Italy about their impressions and they will swoon about the beauty of the place while admitting a wish to never see another Madonna and child...ever again. The beauty, the harmony and perfection becomes a blur. The beauty becomes invisible over time.
In my own ventures to Florence Italy, I became passionately moved by the disharmony of a single painting that haunts me to this day: Jacopo Pontormo's “Deposition” in Santa Felicita.
As a true believer in sensual design, I found myself unable to resist the a trip to Italy. For the art-lover, there are few countries in the world that can compete for sheer volume of inspiring and important works to see. Florence was the cradle of the Renaissance in western art and architecture.
I was met with Chaos. I visited Florence and was overwhelmed by the crowds. I had always dreamed of Florence as a serene and balanced place. I had pictured it in my mind like a postcard with the Duomo rising proudly above rows of quaint villas and olive trees. I imagined that the laws of symmetry and grace reigned in the great renaissance city.
My first real view of Florence was from the window of my train car. We arrived at the Central Terminal and for a moment I saw the Duomo peek through electric wires, billboards and apartment buildings. My wife Martina and I made our way through the crowds, elbowing past families, throngs of school children, pickpockets and frantic tourists.
The crowds swelled in number at the museums. A weariness fell over us all. We were unable to stretch out or stand in one place without being jostled about and swept into the mass movement. I’ll admit it was disorienting. I felt...tension.
This was not what I had expected. Walking through the streets we had to squeeze into tight spaces to avoid being trampled by pedestrians or flattened by Vespa motor scooters. Where was the city of reason and balance? The Ponte Vecchio, the “old bridge” that spans the Arno river marks the most dense meeting place of these crowds.
As we neared it, I decided that I could not brave the act of navigating across. “No more crowds,” I mumbled. “I need some peace.” The Santa Felicita Church on the south side of the bridge tempted me with its open doors. Needing tranquility, we crept inside. My eyes adjusted to the darkened interior. I hungered for a calm renaissance alter piece to contemplate but instead found myself gazing at an image of chaos.
Jacopo Pontormo’s “Deposition” loomed before me in the dimness. I could see the figures sharply delineated and crisp. The color was bright and strange. I knew this painting from books but only now did I understand its strength - its ability to define real emotion. I found a coin in my pocket and fed it to the box that powers the lights to illuminate the painting. With a pop, the colors sprang to life. My throat went dry and my heart pounded.
Although the church was quiet, I did not stand feeling alone: Pontormo had created a crowd.
Imagine the guts it took to create this picture. Imagine the risk. Imagine the insight.
Pretend for a moment that you are Pontormo, living in Florence during the end of the high renaissance. Michelangelo and Leonardo Di Vinci have walked the streets of your city, and their achievements are already legendary. Their powerful, balanced works of art are thought of as sublime. As an artist, your wish is to surpass them. Or at the least, answer their call.
Florence in the sixteenth century was undergoing great change. Power struggles, wars, religious upheavals and plagues were wreaking havoc throughout Europe. In this turbulent atmosphere, Jacopo Pontormo was commissioned to paint a ten foot tall altarpiece depicting the removal of a tortured man’s body from a cross.
Pontormo would have known of Michelangelo’s famed “Pieta”.
Michelangelo’s famed “Pieta”.It depicts Mary cradling her dead son, Jesus, in her lap. They are unified as a whole. The renaissance ideal of harmony compels Michelangelo to show a moment where the two actually seem close and intimate. There is a tenderness and a quiet solitude. We are shown the dignity of a mother and child together for the last time.
Pontormo’s answer to this challenge is to reexamine this same moment, and to fully confront the dizzying numbness that might occur when we are confronted by death. He begins by restaging the primary actors in the play. He tears the limp body of the son from the mother. Without shame, he plugs Michelangelo’s serene figures, and transports them into a scene of bustling movement and anguish.
In Pontormo’s painting, the mother seems to faint. She reaches out to touch her son’s flesh for a last time, but she cannot make contact. A woman in the crowd blocks her way and tries to console her, but she cannot be consoled. She droops like a dying flower as her son’s body is unceremoniously lifted away. He is gone. Both characters are swallowed up by the swirling crowd. There is an amazing sense of claustrophobia- of things falling apart. Nothing in this moment appears stable, and no person appears to stand solidly on the ground.
The colors are like patches of a quilt- torn apart and dispersed across the canvas without reason. The acidy pinks, dull greens and yellowed flesh are all colors suggesting fever, nausea, and hot flashes. Maybe Pontormo was searching for a way to express feelings of human sadness. How many of us have felt this? The loss of a loved one, a waking dream. The stomach fills with butterflies and the blood drains from the head.
Sickly sweet curves link the forms. Everything seems to move in slow motion. The body of Christ will soon lurch towards us, out into space, leaving Mary to collapse further back into her fussing swarm of attendants. According to the varied expressions of the crowd, no one feels or understands the grief of the Mother who seems alone.
A unifying theme has not been overlooked by the artist: Contemplate the drooping body of Christ. His limp form creates the unifying form that repeats over and over throughout the composition. Everything is collapsing amidst chaos. The golden Ratio is rendered useless.
When I left the sanctuary of the tiny church and returned to the street activity outside , I had discovered a new sensibility, and a new understanding of the way Pontormo brought his image to life for the people of Florence. The surprise of wrongness had delivered a blow to my soul that I will never forget.
Of course, Michelangelo himself was a master of this wrongness, just as he was a renowned master of proportional beauty. His early Pieta depicts remarkable proportion and beauty. Yet the Virgin mother's body is vastly out of proportion with that of Christ's. Although her tender head is the same size as her dead son's, her body is huge. If she stood, she would be seven feet tall. Obviously, Michelangelo planned this, and allowed her body to be larger, expressing her strength. His late Rondanini Pieta exhibits a greater surprise of wrongness. Created when he was eighty six years old just before his death, the distortions override any sense of harmony.
The pain and depth of life and dying are unmistakable. Michelangelo destroyed many of his works that he did not approve of. The fact that he kept this work alive meant that he was aware of this wrongness and it's power to say something that traditional beauty could not.
Two hundred years later a pictorial example of this surprise of wrongness exists in the powerfully sensitive work of Spanish court painter, Diego Velasquez.
After painting flattering and direct portraits of the King of Spain, he turned his attention to depicting the court dwarves and deformed jesters. In painting their "wrongness" however, he managed to fill them with more humanity and nobility than nearly any portraits in all of history.
As humans, this aesthetic lesson holds the secret to gratitude and appreciation in nearly every otherwise discomforting aspect of our lives. For artists, this lesson should provide a more clear comprehension of our present choices. Define beauty for yourselves.