I was thinking about the line “beauty is truth, truth beauty” – which, it turns out, is from the poem Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats, but I first heard on The Simpsons and had not until now bothered to find its origin, much less to read it (fortunately I’ve outgrown being embarrassed by only knowing culture through The Simpsons and Weird Al). I tend to think a lot about what truth and beauty are, what they mean to us, and what the relationship is between them, so I’ve always found the line of thought implied by this line intriguing – though, perhaps in the cause of rhythmic license, a bit abrupt and incomplete. What is beauty? Beauty is understanding. What is understanding? It’s the recognition of underlying patterns, seeing the symmetry and balance of cause and effect, perception of purpose and intent and reason. It is insight into how the part relates to the whole.
This is lofty, so let’s take it down a notch or two earthwards. What things tend to be visually pleasing to us? Bright colors, repetitive patterns, and smooth elegant shapes – traits which increase visual clarity and which help us to understand overall shape and intent, even when we have incomplete information. Similarly, what sorts of sounds do we enjoy? Rhythmic patterns, primarily in the human vocal range, with audible mathematic relationships between its different notes. We like these things because they’re presented for our understanding, and understanding is inherently joyful. Thus is beauty truth – however, just because something can be comprehended doesn’t necessarily make it true, so I would say, rather than beauty being truth, that beauty is plausibility, is consistency, all of which is itself readily perceived as true by those who crave a truth in that shape. If you instead perceive it as being misleading, though, then you will probably reject it; so, rather than beauty truth, perhaps perceived falsehood is ugliness, and its absence beauty by default.
Okay. So what? The importance of this idea is that it means our capacity to perceive beauty shifts dramatically over time – that not only is beauty in the eye of the beholder, but that eye gets trained over time to see different types of beauty. This has interesting implications for artists, because we are responsible not just for creating work to the best of our abilities, but also for becoming sort of evangelist/educators for our prospective audience. Especially if you tend to eschew common forms or styles for your work, whether by aversion or deficiency, it becomes part of the work to convince people that, no, these choices were not mistakes, that the work was genuinely intended to be this way – that there is something here to be understood.
Fortunately, many people are interested in understanding art – perhaps not very many, but enough are willing to put in the effort to understand why weird or experimental things are they way they are to make strange art occasionally catch on. There is joy, as well, in understanding that there is something in a work to be understood, and in working towards that moment of recognition, all the sweeter for its distance, and it’s a sensation some people crave.
It’s crushing to imagine how much beauty in this world we may never see with our eyes cast firmly towards the ground. It is good to make something beautiful: It is better to make that and make something you believe to be true as well, and some people never get the knack of it – or perhaps never even stop to consider what they believe to be true in the first place.