On Math and Beauty

After our discussion of Mathematics and Beauty, and their complicated relationship, I got a little obsessed.  I kept coming back to the problem that we seem to have with assigning an objective measure to beauty.  This anxiety was clear in the questions that you generated about the beauty video: though they each had some element of mathematics in them, a lot of them seemed to veer toward a discussion of ethics or justice.  We all felt that saying, “her face is beautiful because it fits the golden ratio” was somehow unfair to people whose faces don’t fit that golden ratio.

But then I got to thinking: we do not so quickly withhold such judgements from non-human forms.  If a flower is lopsided, don’t we, at least on first blush, tend to find it less beautiful. Likewise, there is something elegant in almost any natural symmetry that we come across.  Photographers and cinematographers don’t shy away from talk of ratios and balance and thirds when they compose a shot, and painters often aim for ideal forms.

I’m willing to bet my little artist’s mannequin is built on these ideal ratios. Image via Pixabay.

So why is it that we find the photoshop time lapse so unsettling?

Part of the anxiety comes from an unfortunate association that has grown up around the concept of beauty.  We fear, implicitly, that to call one person beautiful might be to imply that others are not so. But isn’t this only problematic when we assume a second implied meaning as well?  To say “she is beautiful” only becomes problematic when we read it as either “she is beautiful and therefore more important than” or “she is beautiful and therefore lesser than”. These implied meanings are evident all around us, as our culture lifts up the beautiful ones as role models not just for surface-level aesthetic features, but for many aspects of life for which physical beauty could have no real bearing.  What has physical beauty got to do with employment qualifications, for example, or musical talent? I know too many young women battling a self-destructive body image anxiety to believe that this kind of claim to ideal beauty is ethically neutral.

On the other hand, to suggest as the man in the video does, that “her face fits the golden ratio BECAUSE it is beautiful” is to claim something entirely different. Here, beauty is primary, and Mathematical structure grows out of it.  This is less Kantian and more Platonic: forms in the world tend toward an Ideal, and the closer they are to that Ideal, the more likely we are to identify the Ideal in them.  Of course, we’re still only talking about surfaces, and we must be careful: Beautiful people are ideal in their outward forms, but underneath they are just as likely to be really rotten stinkers as anybody else.

But maybe the ethical problems of calling something beautiful actually point to the Good. Because in order for beauty to be “objective”–mathematical in the way that the doctor in the video seems to want it to be–it must be stripped of all personal investment.  “She is beautiful” is only ethically neutral if we, as Kant, reference only a play of surfaces and forms, without reference to the woman herself: her personality, her background, her flaws, her underlying subjectivity and her million million connections to the wider world. Even if this is possible (which is a topic for another blog?), it seems to cheapen Beauty, to make it less significant or important than I think we want it to be. We know on some deeper level that a play of surfaces is only that, and we want to claim Beauty for something more.

It is this call to a deeper Beauty that makes us somehow love the lopsided flower even more for its lopsidedness.  The Beauty that we see in those we care most about abides by a much more complex mathematics than can be described by a logarithmic function. Whereas Platonic or Kantian beauty demands that we aim for a single perfected object, this imperfect Beauty draws us back to the world, to the singularity of the Beautiful thing in itself.  That we find it Beautiful not despite its imperfections but because of them calls us to acknowledge its existence in a web of interrelated contexts and histories that centers on the Beautiful object and spirals outward to the universe entire.



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