Natural Beauty

Looking out of an airplane window, it’s quite obvious what structures are natural and what structures are manmade. The natural structures are curvy, chaotic, yet recursive. They take very, very complex patterns and project them to us in a very simple way. The man-made structures are the opposite – they take simple underlying shapes (squares, straight lines, perfect circles) and combine them in haphazard, unpredictable, and hard-to-encode ways. Looking at them is to look at a chaotic jumble of ordered elements.

By the way, this is also what mathematicians mean by an “elegant” solution – a simple formula that encodes much complexity and variance underneath.

Of course, beauty is relative because we have different patterns stored that we can match against. Therefore it’s possible for a pattern that seems elegant and simple to one versed in Middle-Eastern art to appear overly complex and non-recursive to one who is mostly used to Western Art.

The brain loves to complete patterns. We do it for survival value all the time to predict the environment around us. But it also completes patterns for play (I suspect that we can’t turn this ability off). There is something aesthetic in completing a pattern in a casual, easy way. That’s why we enjoy listening to music – we can predict the next note, which seems just right, before it occurs. Once we know the song too well and the thrill of completion goes away, the music is “stale,” and we have to move on. Some of the best music is recursive on many levels, so that the patterns extend in time, amplitude / volume, across instruments, across sections, etc.. Engaging multiple senses heightens the experience – for people who know how to dance to a given beat, their brain can complete the patterns across the aural and corporal senses simultaneously. For those of us who can’t dance, the frustration of one pattern which cannot be completed overwhelms the joy from the other.

I still don’t get a lot of modern art though. It seems that after the invention of photography, painting lost its objective measure (realism) and devolved into inbred conversations between generations of artists and successive responses (as philosophy has been doing for centuries).

4 thoughts on “Natural Beauty

  1. Actually the notion of the asthetic can be shown to be a universal ‘absolute’ using fractal geometry. This notion was impressed on me at a brilliant talk at Siggraph ’96 (97?) where we were shown that the fractal dimension of natural occurances (mountain scapes, seashore bends), classical art or art considered ‘great’ over time (music, paintings, drawings) all share the same fractal dimensional range (I think 1.2 to 1.5).However, ‘lame’ or art that’s been ignored or is considered by many as poorer examples of its contemporaries invariably has a fractal dimension outside of this ‘natural’ range.That’s probably why most modern ‘art’ doesn’t do it for you, and for many, and much of it will probably be forgotten while we still celebrate masters like Bach and DaVinci.(appologies for terrible spelling, i’m way out of the easthetic range when it comes to spelling 🙂 )Cheers,Danny

  2. My theory: modern art is like free verse. It’s an exploration in aesthetics, in what is beautiful to our brains, freed of all sorts of rules, except the ones the artist makes up.Every modern school of painting that came out was primarily a scientific advance in understanding something about our visual cortex. Learning to do perspective projection gave us the paintings of the early renaissance. Learning how context affects how the brain perceives color gave us impressionism. Modern art is at its best a search for new patterns that the brain finds beautiful, and that it would never see in the real world.But why does most of it suck?As the number of people who enter a field increases you get more and more crap. The only people who will take the time to sift through the chaff are the professional critics.Artists and critics who constantly see such works diverge in their tastes from the mainstream, just like academic departments that fall into the trap of increased specialization and vanishingly small audiences.The game becomes increasingly about impressing an ‘inner circle’ of people. It’s the same pattern as in academia, where publication has gone from being a means of getting feedback to an *end* in itself. Science fiction suffers from the same issues of scale (and of the tragedy of the commons), but not so badly because it is easy and cheap to distribute an author’s work, ensuring at least some connection with mainstream audiences. Art lacks the equivalent of the printing press to get this all-important source of feedback, and instead finds itself stuck in the back-waters of exhibitions and museums. One man’s taste is another man’s pretension.Academia has the printing press but still fails to get feedback because academic publishers found a way to make money without needing their work to be popular. If only academics were judged by the impact they had with lay readers. Even if it was long in coming, getting filtered first through academic journals. Even if it took a distillation of hundreds of papers to create one coherent picture that was accessible to the non-specialists (or a microprocessor released by Intel that they would use and judge). One can dream.

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