A year ago I walked halfway through the Metropolitan Museum of Art before I realized that, at some point, I had lost one of my best friends. This is not a figure of speech; I turned around and realized she was no longer standing at my side. I had to backtrack through the halls of the rotating exhibits, the post-impressionists, and the modernists before I found her, standing entranced before a painting by Jackson Pollock.
I will be very honest and admit that I do not know which of his paintings it was, because they all look the same to me. To Madeleine, however, this was one of the most beautiful pieces of art housed in the building. She was astonished to hear of my apathy toward it.
Beauty is a curious thing. It is almost nebulous in its meaning, and yet so easily referred to and understood. How can an idea be so universal and yet so hard to define? In a two part research paper, I set out to do such work as determining a definition of what beauty is, the ways we understand it, where we find it, and why we think about beauty the way we do.
When I began this project– even after I finalized my project proposal– ‘beauty’ felt like a block of wet clay set before me. I took it in my hands, squished it through my fingers, and thought to myself, “What even is this? What am I making? What is this supposed to become?” I had so many half-formed ideas, and absolutely none of them told me where to begin. I began this project going to lectures, listening to TedTalks, and picking up tons of books from the library. I discussed with many people and researched theories even though I knew I wouldn't advocate them. Essentially, I filled my mind with nothing but ideas of beauty. This project consumed my thoughts; I turned over my ideas of beauty in my mind nearly every day this semester. Only after that did I sit down to write, interview and photograph.
And still, I don’t truly feel like I covered everything. However, I came to some solid ideas regarding questions I had. I was able to posit my own definitions of beauty based on my observations. I came to realize that beauty is just a manifestation of excellence in something, and a person’s intrinsic values will determine what that excellence is. Those values determine how that person relates and responds to a beautiful object– or if they find the object beautiful at all. People find beauty where they see value. I still left with questions, but I by the time I was finished I felt I built a solid foundation on which to build in the future.
As part of this project, I interviewed and photographed six people of different cultural backgrounds. I wanted to get a broader picture of how culture and the environment people are raised in effects our perceptions of beauty. Here is a little bit of what they have to say.
Madeleine in her element
a member of the deaf community
Growing up, I looked at this concept wrong. Later I realized. Growing up, I looked at a person and they had to be beautiful on the outside, on the surface level. I always thought that. Later I realized that when I meet someone, to be able to connect and communicate and understand each other and help each– that’s beauty. As I grew up, that’s what I came to realize. We build a relationship with a friend (a friendship) so we can, over many years, connect. That beauty never dies out, it will continue on. But you have to enjoy the moment. You cherish the time you spend with that person, and what you have together.
The first time I experienced this was when my first tutor, I think I was five, came to my house and taught me sign language and taught me how to sign. It was so cool. I was deaf and my family didn’t know sign, so I could connect with this person for the first time. We felt the same and that really touched my heart.
*with thanks to Jeremiah, who provided translation from ASL
[When traveling,] I’ve always wanted to dive in and travel on a local level and make relationships with local people and see what their local life is like there. What their struggles are, the fun stuff, or how they got there. There’s so much. If my life has so much, every single person’s gonna have that much. You know? And so I think it’s beautiful when people can feel what the other person’s feeling, or relate; to have joy for that person or be sad for that person. And that’s when you connect on a deeper level. Obviously it takes time to get there, so that’s where I think that the time aspect comes in. Nothing happens overnight. We go to Sequoia National Park and see the trees... these trees are older than Jesus. They didn’t just happen.
Or you see the Grand Canyon– that didn’t just happen. It took thousands of years. I think that’s where time comes in. It’s the relationships that’s meaningful and what’s beautiful, more than just seeing pretty stuff or whatnot. Even now… when Luka (my three year old daughter) was newborn, I loved her to death and she was beautiful. But now she’s three, and she can talk to me and she can hug me. When she was a newborn it was like, “aw, she’s just a cute little baby and I’m hugging her,” but now when she hugs me and she squeezes me, it’s just… because we have a relationship, we can talk and have conversations and play together.
When it comes to the inner part of beauty, I think having a strong-willed heart is very important. Very bold. I think that’s so beautiful. And it’s interesting because I’m also, being educated, thinking of other cultures, like in Asia where being soft-spoken is seen as beautiful. But in my culture, in Mexican culture at least, being very determined, strong- willed, straightforward and bold is so beautiful. And that’s something that my aunts and mom have always impressed upon us.
I think the beauty in music comes from how happy and how honest it is. I have a Latina playlist on my Spotify, I listen to it often actually, and a lot of the songs are about dancing and having fun and celebrating. I think there’s beauty in that– the beauty in celebration, and we value it. It’s so set apart from the yuckiness of the world. I think that’s pretty beautiful in itself. It’s good.
My personal idea of what beauty is is a person, a man or a woman, being unapologetically themselves. Being themselves in a way where they don’t feel they have to hide anything from anybody. The more I think about it, my best friends and the closest people in my heart are people who are exactly that way. I find them to be the most beautiful people ever because they are themselves, fully and honestly themselves without fear. I mean, we all have those insecurities but they don’t have that fear of holding back from being their true self and I love that about my friends.
Music kind of does the work. In that way, I think of it kind of like the Gospel. You just put it out there and the Lord will work in whatever way He wants. I think that’s how I view music. Like, Lord this is the melody I’m giving up to you, use it for whatever work you want.
I think one of the great things that music is able to do is be presented and people can take so many different things from it. Even a song that’s about a specific purpose, a lyric might stand out or the way a melody line might flow and harmonize with another one… It’s kind of specific, but there’s also so much more to it that can be taken away. It’s so individualized. Part of its beauty is its individuality but also the power it has over people, for sure. And not only does it individualize, but it also brings them together. It’s something to share with each other. The beauty of music is also that it does something. Men would sing marching songs on the way to war, people sing hymns at funerals, people dance to songs when they’re happy. The beauty is in the fact that music can be so universal but also so unique.
As to what my own understanding of beauty is, I love the saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” That’s just one of the things I always go to. I don’t think that there should be one definition of what beautiful is; but that steps away from the Korean mentality of collectivism. To say “No what do you think is beautiful? What touches your heart and your soul? What makes you connect with this thing?”
I think that when something is beautiful, you make a connection to it. Whether that’s an emotional connection, a mental connection, a spiritual connection… there’s something in what you’re connecting with, whether that’s art or music or a person or situation, there’s something in it that reflects a part of who you are. Or it reflects a part of what you value. For me, one of my strengths is connectedness, and that’s the idea of unique individuals coming together because they have specific skillsets that match the job. No one person can do it alone. They need every single person. That’s basically every superhero movie ever, which is why I love superhero movies so much. It’s the idea of a unique team where each person has a specific skillset that’s needed for the task to be done. I love that concept. Whenever I see anything like that, whether it’s a superhero movie, or a team that works well together, or a machine that works in that way, that connects to me. And even though it might not be aesthetically beautiful, there’s something in it that connects to me and I resonate with it, so I always end up saying, “wow that’s beautiful.”
To me, if I think about why I think Hawaii is beautiful, I think about places that are untouched. I guess, beautiful because they are... untainted... and simple. Things that draw you out of the business and kind of make you stop. When I was younger, every summer I would go to stay at this resort with my family, called Turtle Bay. And I mean, yes, it was fun, but it wasn’t the hotel that made it great or special. I remember walking along the beach with my family and, even now thinking about it, the bay wasn’t made up of anything “special.” Maybe this isn’t the earliest time I recognized something as beautiful but I feel like, I went there every summer since I was a kid, so it probably is. I don’t know if I would have used the word beautiful back then, because I don’t think I knew what beauty was other than what I was told was beautiful. And I don’t know if I could tell you what I was told was beautiful, but something about the ocean – maybe because it was so big and unexplored and unfamiliar and yet so simple– it made me… I guess as a kid, you don’t have many worries to begin with… but it just had this ability to capture your attention; steal you away from every other thing that could possibly occupy your mind, even if for like a second.
Often, beauty is not determined by objectivity, but by a given set of values held by the beholder. When a person judges beauty subjectively, they recognize that something about the object is excellent. However, they apply their own judgments as to what is excellent and what excellence is. In contrast, objectivity in regards to beauty recognizes that there is something universally excellent to be admired and seeks the thing for its own sake, rather than the sake of the beholder’s values. Subjective beauty relies on a predicate the way objective beauty does not. For instance, a person may find the color white beautiful because it represents purity, something they value more than any other virtue. Subjectively beautiful objects are defined by the ‘because.’
When a person judges something beautiful according to their value system, they are not making a passive comment. The relationship between object and subject does not stop with the apprehension of the object. In fact, that relationship can be more aptly described as a two-way street. A person apprehends an object, and in the act of apprehension the object itself inspires or reveals something to the person. There is a kind of communion between subject and object, and that communion tends to characterize the judgment of beauty. Manifested excellence, if apprehended correctly, teaches the subject something about excellence itself.