Monday, June 29, 2009

On Beauty : A History of a Western Idea - Umberto Eco

Concept of beauty and aesthetics was the subject of discussion from the early ages of civilisation. Reproduction of beauty ( of human, animals and objects) were part of the initial form of art. Innumerable examples of arts and artefacts are available in various civilisations. Umberto Eco, renowned novelist, philosopher, and professor of Semiotics looks at the concept of beauty and its representation in the form of arts ( most common apart from literature) through Western ( European) study and analysis.
"Beauty is all that pleases" says Eco in his introduction. "Art and poetry (and consequently beauty) may gladden the eye or the mind, but they are not directly connected to the truth".

"A beautiful object is an object that by virtue of its form delights the senses, especially sight and hearing. ...important role is also played by the qualities of the soul and the personality, which are perceived by the minds eyes more than the eye of the body."

One of the initial classification of beauty was at least into three aesthetic categories: Ideal Beauty : which represent nature by means of a montage of the parts; Spiritual Beauty : Which expresses the should through the eye and Useful or Functional Beauty.

"But this early point of view can not be fully understood if we look at beauty through modern eyes, as was often the case in the various epochs that assumed as authentic and original a 'Classical' representation of beauty that was in reality engendered by projecting a modern point of view onto the past."

From the initial era , where the representation of beauty was raw and not guided and subjected to any conceptual theories and methods, there were people who were trying to bring a structure to the image.
One of them were to try and connect them to mathematical formula and structure. "Pythagoras was the first to maintain that the origin on all things lay in numbers."
"According to common sense we judge a well - proportioned things beautiful. Since ancient times, beauty has been identified with proportion. Proportion must always be accompanied by the pleasantness of colour and of light. " Symmetry was the next to guide the evolution, especially on the buildings and structures.
"Beauty is not only symmetry and proportion, but harmony too. Harmony is not the absence of but the equilibrium between opposites".
"Beauty does not correspond to what we see...the sight of the senses must be overcome by intellectual sight, which requires a knowledge of dialectical art, in other words philosophy. And so, not every one is able to grasp true beauty..... A Japanese sculpture is made to be touched, while a Tibetan sand mandala requires interaction. For the Greeks, however, beauty was expressed by those senses that permit a distance to be maintained between the object and the observer; sight and hearing rather than touch , taste and smell."
The early ages of representation of aesthetics through paintings and sculpture were largely guided by the religious and spiritual bodies, followed by the patrons of the art, usually the Feudal Landlords and the rich. Towards, renaissance and the period after that, the practitioners themselves have become rich and independent, thus with the ability to experiment and improve their art.

"In the twilight of Renaissance civilisation, a significant idea began to gain ground; Beauty did not so much spring from balanced proportion, but from a sort of torsion, a restless reaching out for something lying beyond the mathematical rules that govern the physical world."

One of the aspect of beauty was the understanding and use of light. "Light is the substantial form of bodies. In this sense light is the principle of all Beauty".
Eco also discusses the "Beautiful representation of Ugliness". Ugliness as the antithesis of Beauty , was there since the initial stages. The monsters and the other deformed and shapeless creatures were abundant in the early years as well.

Medieval times were guided by the thought that "Beauty and deformity are not the qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external; there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings. ..... The idea that Beauty is something that appears as such to the perceiver, that it is bound up with senses, the recognition of pleasure, was dominant in diverse philosophical circles."

Romantisism , dandyism ( From the physical beauty to the class & Style.. more importance to the dress and attire.. "Life was not to be dedicated to art. Art was to be applied to life. Life as art.") were also influenced the art in the early 19th century. Towards the second half of 19th century, with the effects of industrialisation, a large anonymous populace belongs to the working class were available in large metropolis and the art had to cater to their tastes. There were new interpretation of art under the influence of socialistic umbrella. Leo Tolstoy wrote "What is art?" and there were other study of aesthetics from a this angle. The 'Art for the people" and the "Art for Art's Sake" discussions were hot at this period, and reflections of which was also heard in literature and other forms of art.

20th century had seen major changes and concepts in the understanding and reproduction of beauty. From Symbolism ( how to recreate more intense possibilities of experience, how to make them more deeper and more impalpable) , impressionism of Van Gogh , Monet etc ( "One does not paint a landscape , a harbour or a figure: one paints the impression of an hour of the day of a landscape) , expressionism, surrealism , cubism and other ways of representation.

With the introduction of photography and movies, the references of beauty was in for a drastic change. Images of glorious movie stars and the still photography have changed the regular understanding of aesthetics available to the common man from the connoisseurs. Eco calls this " The beauty of provocatoin or the Beauty of consumption" . People follow the ideals of Beauty as suggested by the world of commercial consumption ( the mass media).

Over 400 illustrations, its commentary with insights , quotes from selected texts and writings of that period makes this book a rare collection. While my understanding of this subject is next to nothing, reading through this did give me substantial idea on the evolution of the theory of aesthetics and its representation at various period. While this might not be the most comprehensive ( in way of a proper study of aesthetics and beauty), and was more of a coffee table book in style, it is indeed a worthy collection for those interested in art and aesthetics. The pages contain some of the gorgeous and famous paintings you have heard. The discussion is guided by the chronological evolution, but the chapters are segregated under common topics irrespective of their time and period.
I have read elsewhere that only nine of the 17 chapters were written by Eco; the rest are by the Italian novelist Girolamo de Michele. However, I haven't seen any mention of his name in the credits. As the title suggests, this was the study under the 'western/ European' history of aesthetics. Each stage I was trying to make parallels to the eastern ( Indian to be precise) way of aesthetics. While there are striking similarities, I am not sure if we have done a study at this depth.

On Beauty - A History of a Western Idea
Edited By : Umberto Eco ( Translated by Alastair McEwen )
Secker & Warburg
438 Pages
More Read : Guardian , Independent

No comments: