On the Experience of Beauty
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 217, July 2018
I often find myself with a theme in mind for the next piece I’m writing before I’ve finished the current one – often prompted by the commitment I make to the magazine in the form of a short sentence at the end of each article that outlines next month’s essay. Sometimes these nascent themes appear to me as nothing more substantial than a whisper – a butterfly fluttering in my mind – a slight yet undeniable presence that is hard to grasp.
It is a mark of the creative process (at least mine, that is) that we can commit ourselves to a concrete ‘product’ way before we really have a right to do so. But something usually comes along – the subconscious mind is ever vigilant once the target has been set. And this month’s piece is a fine example of the way the subconscious and the real can intertwine in such a fashion that that original glib promise can be ultimately honoured.
And it is the subconscious which plays a leading role in this month’s disquisition on the subjective experience of beauty. The dictionary definition of beauty is “a combination of qualities, such as shape, colour or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially sight.” But that doesn’t touch on the sensation I feel when I experience something I find beautiful. You can only look to a dictionary for an objective definition of beauty but the personal experience of things that affect the senses is always subjective.
And so this brings me to a walk I was taking a few weeks ago in the leaden London mid winter. It was approaching 7.30am and I was coming to the end of a walk with my dog, Sydney, in Kensington Gardens. The grey light occluded what little colour was on offer from the flora; my mind as dull as the dim lit vista around me. As I approached the northern edge of the park I was walking along one of the avenues lined with huge plain trees which, at this time of year, were denuded and skeletal in their immensity. And then suddenly, in an instant, the sun shone through a crack in the clouds and lit up the world.
Struck, at first, by the awesome transformation I stopped walking and peered up into the branches of the trees. For some reason, at that moment, I experienced a profound, aesthetic sensation of something, the only word for which, is beauty. I stayed rooted to the spot enjoying both the sudden warmth of the sun and the sense of engagement with something awesome in this preternatural vision of the trees. At the same time I was also conscious of an extension of my mind into and amongst the scene of my fascination. As suddenly as it arrived the sun departed, drawing a grey veil back across the world.
I walked on deep in thought. Later, back in my warm studio, two questions occurred to me about the experience that morning and I’ve been trying to unify them since; what is the nature of experienced beauty and to what extent am I, this particular sentient being, required for its sensation. I felt very strongly that had I not been me I would not have felt that same strong, overwhelming sensation. Perhaps someone else would have felt something different, or nothing at all, when faced with the same visual setting.
I was very sure that some part of my consciousness had enjoined with the scene and that without that externalisation of my ‘self’, that personal sensation of something we call beauty, could never have happened. In other words, here was a perfect counter argument to the possibility of objective beauty.
But how, if there was no such thing as an objective form of beauty, could so many of us derive so much pleasure from the work of Wren, Mozart or Durer? I am sure you are aware of the term ‘qualia’. It is the name philosophers have given to the subjective conscious experience. Some believe that there can be a shared sense of qualia – a shared personal sensation of beauty. This would answer the Mozart question and it would certainly point to the existence of objective beauty. But shared experience is really just a multitude of singular experiences felt coincidentally so how can we explain that personal sensation that we experience individually whether in a crowd or on our own?
Andy Clark, the Edinburgh University philosopher and cognitive scientist, believes that our mind exists in many forms externally of our ‘head-locked’ brain. We sense that the mind is passive to experience but many studies have shown that the opposite is true. The mind works by a system of continuous conjecturing. The information coming in is too complex to enable informed, actionable judgements so the subconscious posits theories in response to the cacophony of raw data it receives and makes predictions about the world accordingly. Most of the time these judgements are made seamlessly and are correct so we don’t notice this process and so we step, look, hold etc as we need to and with no sense of the complex system that enables us to do so. In this way fantasy (the mind’s original conjecture about the world around it) becomes fact.
When I looked up into those branches that had recently been transformed with sunlight my mind was tricked for a moment. The dissonance between what was only a few seconds ago with what is now provided my conscious, ever positing mind with a cognitive dissonance. My mind was literally and figuratively, in the trees. The coincidence of experience created a moment of revelation that I sensed as ‘beauty’. My extended mind ‘enjoined’ with the scene and for a brief moment two versions of the world lived side by side; the conjectured and the real.
Because of the speed that this happens there is no time for a sense of self to come to bare on the experience. For an instant, that moment of dual-perception slipped under the net of my adult mind and hit my guileless, childlike, unchecked consciousness right between the eyes.