What is this thing I call beauty? Not “art” as a social phenomenon based on status or display, or beautiful faces seen merely as biological fitness markers. Rather, the sheer, drawing-in-of-breath beauty of a Handel aria, a Rothko painting, TS Eliot’s poems, or those everyday moments of sun shining through wet, autumn leaves, or even a Powerpoint layout seeming just right. Content itself doesn’t matter – Cezanne’s paintings of apples are not beautiful because one likes apples, and there are beautiful photographs of horrible things. Somewhere there must be something formal, structural, compositional, involving the arrangement of light and shade, of sounds, of words best ordered to say old ideas in new ways. When I see beauty I know it, and others must also see it, or they wouldn’t make the paintings I like or have them hung in galleries. But why then doesn’t everyone see it in the same way?
Chris McManus is Professor of Psychology and Medical Education at UCL. His 2002 book Right Hand, Left Hand won the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, the Aventis Prize for popular science writing, and was a finalist for the Descartes Prize in 2004.
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