Beauty seen, beauty sought – Beauty by Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh

Echo and Narcissus, by J W Waterhouse


Beauty, Stefan Sagmeister & Jessica Walsh, Phaidon: London, 2018, hb, 280pps

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever” Keats effused in Endymion – “Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.” His 1818 poem about the shepherd so handsome he was beloved by immortals was poorly received, and Keats would regret publishing it. But whatever about Endymion’s demerits, his outlook attests to a time when “beauty” was taken seriously, regarded as a worthy aspiration for artists and as subject of intellectual attention. 

For Keats, as for many others before him and since, beauty was associated intimately with the classical world as reflected in Arcadian myth, or represented by Ode-worthy Grecian urns and the astounding statuary then being salvaged from Levantine rubbish-tips and carted back to English country houses by Grand Tourists. But he was also a Romantic, so combining within himself the twin poles of Western aesthetics, the conflicting-complementary blend of classical-formal and Romantic-naturalistic impulses which also coexist in each of us. But now, two hundred years on from Keats’ confidence, any consensus about the nature of beauty has been broken – part of a wide repudiation of all things canonical, ridiculed as male-pale-stale or pastiche, or at best just one possibility among many potential choices. Or has it? 

In this sumptuously produced contribution to aesthetic theory, the well-known New York graphic designers Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh assert that actually there still exists a widespread consensus about what beauty is, even if it is not necessarily reflected or even aspired to in twenty-first century architecture, or high street fashions, or Turner Prize winners. They peer backwards into philosophy and history, and forwards into science to try to define this elusive attribute – and prove that humans have an intuitive recognition of beauty in colours, shapes, smells and textures, which could and should be utilised to improve the quality of life, from Coke cans to airports, and modern art to mountainsides.

“Beauty itself is function”, they argue, contrary to the twentieth century dictum that form should follow function. It is possible to create things that are not just ornamental, or not just useful, but an optimal blend of both. The Pantheon has never been destroyed in all of Rome’s upheavals, solely because it is, by any conqueror’s standards, beautiful. Architectural beauty, the fifteenth century Florentine Leone Battista Alberti remarked, consists in

the harmony and concord of all the parts achieved in such a manner that nothing could be added, or taken away, or altered except for the worse.

Alberti’s aspiration can easily be extended to music, paintings, people, products, scenery or sculpture.  

Sagmeister and Walsh examine what “smart people” over the centuries meant by beauty, consider how notions of beauty and order appear to have existed even before Homo became Sapiens, how we respond when faced with beautiful things, and how we can, or could, be uplifted by surrounding ourselves with lovelier things and living in more beautiful places. “The Beauty Project: A Manifesto” commits them to “translating the arguments and findings of this book into our daily lives”, developing “smart strategies” to “reach and outreach” and “infuse beauty” into ignored, neglected, overlooked or ugly areas. These sound banal, but there is no cause to doubt the authors’ sincere desire to make the world handsomer – and this matters, because improving people’s surroundings improves the people.

But what is this beauty they (and we) want, and has its “loveliness” increased? And whatever it is – or was – is it passing into “nothingness” at the hands of caustic cultural critics? It seems no longer enough to say, as Shakespeare did in The Rape of Lucrece,

Beauty itself doth of itself persuade

The eyes of men without an orator

Beauty – whether of art or nature, animals or people – was long intimately associated with proportion – even in music, wherein beauty has been defined as

…sound uttered with a due sense of proportion and with an accurate estimate of its suitability to its individual setting and surroundings (Edmund Fellowes, The English Madrigal Composers, 1921)

Symmetry is also inseparable from traditional ideas of beauty, as John Brophy noted in his 1945 minor classic, The Human Face: 

The physical beauty of the human face is a delicately balanced composition of many elements, chiefly the configuration of the whole face, the complexion of the skin, the colouring of hair, eyes, and lips, and the shaping and relative sizes of the features…for aesthetic satisfaction, the face must be pleasingly proportioned to the head, and the size of the head to the height and breadth of the body.

Beauty has also long been linked to bodily health, strength and youth – although there have always been discussions about the existence (or otherwise) of “inner beauty” and “spiritual beauty”. It has also created and perpetuated hierarchies of distinction, inequality and separation, and highly specific ideas about what is beautiful and what is not.

All these interrelated notions stretch back to Pythagorean reflections on connections between visual proportions and musical harmony, which were developed by Plato, Euclid and Vitruvius, amongst many others. For these, the loveliness of a face or place, or the elegance of an argument, or the charm of ‘the music of the spheres’ could be part-explained by geometry and reasoning, but they also rose above the quotidian into a wholly abstract and Elysian realm. There was the magical-mathematical character of phi, the Greeks’ “golden mean” for buildings – and everything else.

Such ideas continued shaping European civilisation for centuries after the fall of Greece and Rome, the early Christian idiom shaped by all the Hellenic and imperial centuries, Divine dominion preached in buildings evoking ideas of old earthly Magisterium. Early medieval architecture was called Romanesque for good reason – although in the Byzantine sphere there were also strong Eastern influences. Even during the Gothic period, the old mode was never forgotten, buildings still being erected in that style, or borrowing from it. Then during the Renaissance, Vitruvius was rediscovered by Alberti, Palladio and others, giving rise to countless new buildings in quondam styles, while the surge of interest in the classical authors betokened burgeoning interest in old-school aesthetics. Artistic conventions and examples for this Christian and humanist Europe were shaped by proxy by the pagans Apelles and Praxiteles, even though none of their works had survived, because their originals had been copied so often by later (and, it was felt, lesser) practitioners.

By the end of the seventeenth century cultural arbiters had turned decisively against the generic “Gothic”, with its perceived disorderliness and extravagances, its lack of cohesion, rhythm, rules or scholarship. Beauty now was cooler, more idealised and restrained – exemplified by the wall-to-wall white marble statues of the Farnese Collection, Versailles, Sanssouci, Whitehall, Chatsworth and many other places.

The new century was to show a new spirit, the spirit of order; the reason, not the heart, was to govern man in all his works,

as John Steegman observed in his 1936 The Rule of Taste. The new Augustan “correct taste” was policed by Whiggish connoisseurs and dilettanti, as well as Tories like Dr. Johnson, who were temperamentally averse to all “enthusiasms”. 

Inevitably the reaction impelled a counter-reaction from radicals and Romantics. In his 1753 Analysis of Beauty, William Hogarth – who had been stung by academic scoffing at his “coarse” and “vulgar” style – asserted that beauty, whether in nature or art, could be defined by a formula, an S-shape curving not only in linear direction, but also in its planes, that combined such unmistakeable intangibles as balance, elegance, grace, simplicity, variety, and distinctness. Hogarth’s “Serious and Comical” survey of beauty in everything from skin colour to chair-legs was satirised brilliantly in Paul Sandby’s The Analysis of Deformity, but it was already too late for the academicians and formalists. For more and more artists and thinkers, the standard face derived from all those Greek examples suddenly seemed to lack expression, and life-drawing started to edge out neoclassicism. 

Far beyond artists’ ateliers, there arose experimental houses like Horace Walpole’s Gothic Revival Strawberry Hill and William Beckford’s Fonthill, which spurned cool classical orders in favour of supererogatory curlicues. Even gardens became a battleground of conceptions of beauty, as the Mannerist French template began to be replaced with the “artfully informal” landscape gardens of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, then William Chambers’ “sentimental” ones, and eventually Uvedale Price’s “Picturesque” landscapes – these movements sometimes as much political reaction against all things French as well as an alteration in aesthetic sensibility. Lines of sight in these gardens were lines of beauty; particular features, or follies, or plantings, were supposed to evoke particular emotions, or gratify certain senses, or the whole horizon was to be seen in uplifting unity. These literal groundbreakers would have been intrigued by the work of mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, who in 1975 posited the idea of fractals, which broke down landscapes (or cloud-banks, or animals) into mathematical constituent parts, to prove there was often a gratifying underlying order even to the ostensibly chaotic or random.

Romantic literature started to prioritise self-realisation over self-restraint. Emotion became seen as more becoming than edification – and even royals aspired to “pastoral” pulchritude, Marie Antoinette famously dressing as a faux-shepherdess (the apparent “authenticity” the ultimate in affectation). That unhappy Queen’s doughtiest Britannic defender Edmund Burke wrote the most celebrated study on aesthetics of his century, his 1757 Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which sought (often unconvincingly) to separate “dark and gloomy…vast…rugged and negligent” sublime objects from “comparatively small…smooth and polished…light and delicate” beautiful ones. The Sublime, he averred, was a masculine principle, surprising and potentially dangerous – the Beautiful was feminine, sweet and decorous. Hume averred, contra Plato, that beauty only existed in the eyes of beholders – another big gun salvo in a then urgent debate. In his Discourses, Reynolds advocated educating oneself to appreciate the beauties in Old Masters.

The conflict and interaction between the classical-formal and Romantic-natural aesthetic tendencies have continued ever since, the latter camp having the best of the exchange. Tastes have turned over constantly since the end of the eighteenth century and ever more quickly, as democratisation, science and technology offered ever more opportunities for experimentalism. There was still an insatiable appetite for beauty, suggested by the nineteenth century notion of beaux arts – but it was defined differently, and changeably. The classicisers and formalists were well on their way out – and they have not yet gained reentry to the salon – their ideas misunderstood, their books unread, their buildings less desired, their canvases stacked against walls, their lyres metaphorically unstrung. Ever since, new movements have been sweeping across all arts – Neo-Gothicism, Impressionism, Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, Neo-Primitivism, Vorticism, Cubism, Art Deco, Abstraction, Outsider Art, Modernism, Atonality, Bauhaus, Brutalism, International Style and many others jumbling and tumbling over each other as the intellectually curious middle classes sought new perspectives, proportions and sensations. Some of these movements brought beautiful things of their own, and others were at least fresh and interesting – but their overall effect seems to have been to bewilder.

In recent decades, any ideas of beauty have too often been ignored – most obviously by house-builders, town-planners, for whom beauty just means expense. Big business-friendly conservative politicians have long been complicit in the uglification of urban centres or the coarsening of culture in the interests of cheapness and convenience. Very recently, there have been attempts to reverse the disastrous town-planning decisions of the 1950s-1980s – low-rise, mixed-use districts, daylighting culverted rivers, and so forth – but they have only been tentative, hindered by lack of vision, lack of leadership, lack of money, and the increasing unwillingness of Westerners to mingle in our distrustful diverse societies. 

Civic and corporate neglectfulness troubles Sagmeister and Walsh, as one would expect from New York graphic designers who have worked with the likes of Brian Eno, and whose firm’s website waxes nostalgic about creating

50 illustrated works protesting Trump, encouraging people to register + vote for Hillary, and promoting love, tolerance & kindness.

But there have also been actual attacks on ideas of beauty by the alienated or publicity-hungry. Marcel Duchamp’s notorious 1917 urinal is seen by Sagmeister and Walsh as a harbinger of the new utilitarian ugliness – although they excuse it as an understandable product of the Great War’s moral desolation. 

Beauty has always had its sceptics – as the proverb about beauty being skin-deep suggests – but now it is sometimes viewed as innately bad, because ageist, disablist, discriminatory, elitist, racist (not helped by Arno Breker’s coldly proficient supermen) or sexist. The whole idea of there being a canon of taste or standard of beauty has been offending more and more intellectuals since 1945, and they have responded by trying to make us see beauty in the boring – think Andy Warhol’s soup tins (the authors would argue that soup tins don’t need to be boring, and if they are it will affect sales) – or the outright ugly, like Jeff Koons’ ironic kitsch (which Sagmeister and Walsh defend).  

Today’s expanding – in every sense – “body positivity” movement is a conscious rejection of long-standing aesthetic ideals. The October 2018 Miss Britain Beauty Curve competition, which requires competitors be a dress size 14 or over, attracted a record number of entrants – but then there is a larger than ever pool of eligible women, as the average UK dress size is now 16 (it was 12 in 1957). Burke’s over-dainty dolls are now sometimes more Rubenesque than is entirely good for them, and his Beautiful has been dispatched to join our Sublime.

Body positivity was brilliantly predicted by L. P. Hartley in his 1960 novel Facial Justice, in which all faces are rated for beauty, and there is constant pressure from the B-rated to bring down the A-rated, and the C-rated to bring down the Bs, and so on ad infinitum down through the alphabet. Hartley would have appreciated the newest subset of the body positivity movement, Acne Positivity, which has 50,000 members on Instagram, and was hailed in a September 2018 Guardian article with the only slightly jocular headline, “Pimples Are In”. It is kindly as well as realistic never to expect physical perfection, which is why nobody ever has – Thomas Weelkes wrote a 1597 madrigal about “Those spots upon my lady’s face”, which he likened gallantly to “mulberries in dainty gardens growing” – but actually to celebrate bodily faults is something of a different order.

We should be grateful to Sagmeister and Walsh for simultaneously reinforcing all kinds of old and rarely examined ideas, and applying them to an age that has become too accustomed to everything being accelerated, aggregated, cheapened, coarsened, homogenised, infantilised, mass-produced, ready-made, and relativised. Readers are likely to differ with the authors on specifics, but they are right that beauty exists, even if sometimes difficult to define, and that in every sphere it is better to aspire upwards than sideways or down. 

This review first appeared in the December 2018 issue of Quadrant, and is reproduced with permission

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