After all, what is beauty?
[Looking through old drafts of blog posts I found this one. Not perfect and a bit of a rant but it has some good bits in it.]
When looking at Muslim prayer apps the other day I couldn’t find one which was just data, functionally and simply displayed. All of them to different degrees were lathered with trefoils, embellishments, horseshoe arches and geometrical borders etc., made much worse by a tsunami of harsh colours and graphic effects. I can’t bring myself to reproduce any example here. From one view this doesn’t really matter much when put beside some of the big issues of this time. But it is symptomatic of a malaise which has infested our lives which is how modernity has strangled tradition and which has filtered into the creation and the design of many types of things and made a nonsense of it all and idiots of all of us. It’s become a cut and paste effects culture and I don’t see quite where it will end except into some kind of chaotic soup.
The Arabic speaking world (and elsewhere of course) has allowed itself to be strangled by modernism. Possibly because modernism came late to much of it so their cultures became utterly enamoured of it. Such is my horror of most of what I see emanating from the modern Arab universe, be it architecture or city design, calligraphy or typography, I’m beginning to believe there is a hidden third world Photoshop plug-in called ‘now make it look really ugly’ or ‘dog’s dinner effect’… egregiously laid on gimmicks. But obviously someone somewhere thinks it wonderful unless this is just a case first world cultural snobbery.
We ARE traditional after all, whatever a hardened modernist would say. The modernist’s general motto is ‘tabula rasa’– a ‘clean slate’ and at any price. Stuff history. Our hands, feet and eyes, our very bodies are traditional, inherited ancient and beautiful in form and function, all mysteries of perfection. Life itself is nothing if not traditional. So it is with the intellectual, spiritual and cultural pursuits of a people. Which is why we have writing, language, ideas and so on which we inherit and then evolve into new and beautiful forms to suit the times. It is the atheist arch-evangelist Richard Dawkins (to quote from Cambridge scientist Rupert Sheldrake, in his book The Science Delusion) whose evolutionary theory is akin to someone who has set about grinding a sophisticated computer into dust and then sets about rebuilding it from scratch with no instruction manual. I see a link here between modernism and evolutionary theory.
But is my understanding of beauty subjective? How is my idea of beauty different from yours or is there some absolute criteria? Is there such a thing as objective beauty? An ongoing discussion in all circles but if you do the work that I do, you are dealing with this on a daily if not an hourly basis. To my shame somewhat, I admit to plundering online libraries of antique art or photos and occasionally buying or taking photos to adorn whatever job I am working on. At times I do have to create original artwork where none can be found or commission original calligraphy from an expert in this field. The purpose is to get to something different that communicates and is essentially elegant and pleasing to the eye. Quickly. The ateliers of yesteryear were no different I expect. Just without electricity. If I walk into a Persian carpet shop I know in minutes the carpet I want. My companion will be drawn to and buy a completely different item. All of the rugs are in a general way beautiful but what I like is different from his. So what’s going on?
When art is mixed up with commerce there are always some ethical conflicts at work. Is it art for beauty’s sake or is it just to make a buck? In my case of course it’s both, and in truth sometimes something beautiful can come out of having to deliver something, often in a hurry, to a client. The same could probably be said of a medieval calligrapher or artist doing some project for his Baronial Lord, or even for the King of the realm. Meeting the deadline meant inspiration had to arrive to order, on time as it often does. “Sire, does my heraldic design pleaseth thee?” “No, Sir Gawain, it does not. Do it again by tomorrow otherwise you will die.” So not much has changed.
I’m not sure quite what life would be like if I didn’t have people knocking on my door asking for quotes or requesting work in a hurry. After all I don’t play golf and I don’t drink but it seems this is how many retired men and women eek their life away once they reach 70 and if they’re fortunate and don’t need to work. In fact I’ve never played golf in my life or been to a football match even if I did once drink. Did I miss something? Anyway I love to work.
Everything man made reveals an intention of some sort, his or hers spirit is imbued into it and what we can agree is beautiful has more than likely emanated from a beautiful intention, a beautiful soul, like a beautiful tune plucked out of the ether. God is beauty and He loves beauty. This famous truth we are all familiar with but is what permeates this subject. So when we experience beauty and exclaim ‘Ah, isn’t it beautiful’, we are recognising the traces of this Divine eternal and infinite attributes which were planted with love in the artwork, the building, the poem, the Tadjik rug.
The point is that beauty is recognised, not some commodity that can be guaranteed and strapped on afterwards, like plaster or a photoshop effect. It’s an ineffable moment which you can’t analyse too deeply be it subjective or objective.
Beauty of course is its own advocate and doesn’t need explanation really. It lingers behind many veils like some enchanted woman, only to reveal itself by Divine decree. I could show a piece of authentic original Qur’anic calligraphy from the 13th century to one person who would see nothing but odd shapes and colours, but to another who would gasp at its manifest beauty. Is their any logic to this? Just because something is designed on the proportions of the golden section does not guarantee beauty, but might help it to get there. The same with the proportional arabic calligraphic systems developed by Ibn Muqlah and Ibn al-Bawwab in 10th century Baghdad. Or not. I’m sure something quite ugly could be constructed around the golden section if one tried. Similarly Ibn Muqlah’s proportional system of dots wasn’t a guarantee of ravishing beauty.
I’ve seen the Alhambra Palace in Granada many times and it’s a wonderful and beautiful place, a gift that goes on giving, but how much more beautiful for someone whose never seen it before. I wish there was a prayer ‘Oh Lord don’t let me ever take anything for granted.’ For that is what I (i.e.all of us) do too often, be it people, beauty, wisdom whatever. And I’ve seen the Alhambra too many times. Like a beautiful woman’s face, it’s best to look once and move on. I guess if we could live in the instant, nothing would ever be taken for granted and be eternally beautiful. Like an animal’s lunch. Every time it’s their first ever meal.
So most artists, designers, poets, architects, musicians or craftsmen develop an intuition about beauty which they incorporate into their work. We all know the adage: know the rules, then you can break them. Although there are always rules to all creative arts the more experience you have the more you judge matters intuitively only falling back on the rules and technique to check you got it right when there is some doubt. And that is the path to inspired art and spontaneous beauty. And it saves a lot of time. •
The Problem of Ornamentation