beauty from human order
"Euclid alone has looked at Beauty bare"
- Edna St. Vincent Millay
If Chaos is the law of nature, as Henry Adams believed, then our universal passion for Order "is the dream of man.” Beauty manifests itself both in orderly image composition and in order-making activities such as designing, constructing, shaping, collecting, containing, transmitting, and transporting; and each of these zones of action is the subject of a gallery among this set.
The class of order-based beauty is richly diverse and endlessly expansive. We instinctively absorb, for example, the clanging industrial excitement underway at building construction sites. We also draw aesthetic satisfaction from the pleasing sight of gracefully-formed, manmade things of every conceivable variety. My work here idolizes technical equipment of all sorts, common bridge underpasses and fire escapes, high school batting cages, the elaborately striated, plastic-sheet wraps of merchandise pallets, painstakingly woven aboriginal war bonnets, and many other overlooked miracles of practical invention that, upon close inspection, turn out to be as wondrously wrought as a Bach fugue.
To the extent that a principle of good order lies at the heart of a certain kind of beauty, it is to be found and celebrated in many places where artists seldom looked before. One locates the penumbral beauty of order in a profligate range of unlikely contexts, such as in the way that a field irrigation gate can make water quiver in a satisfyingly precise moire pattern; or in the complex interplay of rigorous system versus random improvisation in German railway wiring. We find it, too, in the mighty, color-speckled canyonlands of empty plastic milk bottles bundled and stacked carefully for recycling at a collection center.
We find handsomeness, further, among objects in a photograph that look sensibly ordered in their display, or that appear to have been exactingly optimized. That is, I find that we like scenes whose objects have the uncanny, parsimonious property of looking "just right" for their place or purpose.
This notion of beauty that emerges from visual order and from order-making activities could, at first glance, seem to be merely a derivative of Plato's famous theory that visual aesthetics proceed primarily from the principle of techne, that is, from refined measurement, correct proportion, symmetry and harmony.
One could argue just as easily that my thinking has been long-since preempted by Pythagoras, who supposed that pleasing proportions are aligned with mathematical concepts such as the golden mean; hence, when we see such proportion in art, the experience "uplifts the soul" because it calls, to our awareness, "the true sublime" inherent in the order of the universe. Ideas along these lines surface, time and again, under various lights over the long history of aesthetic debate, from philosophers as unalike as Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, to romantically philosophizing artists such as Alfred Stieglitz and Robert Adams.
No doubt our kind has an inherent love of visual symmetry and balance, something probably hardwired into the evaluative subroutines of the evolved human brain. At the same time, I am persuaded that the specific forms, values and patterns in our aesthetic sensibilities - the sorts of factors that social constructionists like Herbert Marcuse used to put down to our conditioning in support of the existing social order - may indeed play a big role in coding how we perceive beauty as an aspect of order.
But surely that's not the whole picture here. Tidy classical precepts fail to capture the full scope of phenomena that trigger our sense of beauty from order. This scope isn't limited to pictures of objects that look well placed and composed within the frame. It also includes our appreciation of objects that look ingenious and well made, and it includes our intuitive embrace of systematizing processes - for instance, pictures of intricate social collaboration or construction of complicated structures - that embody the viewer's optimistic ideal of progress.
Obviously, to perceive beauty linked to so many possible colourations of order depends upon each viewer bringing his or her own evolved apperceptions and meanings about the things in the picture, about what purposes these things ordinarily serve, and about how they should properly perform. My galleries grouped under Beauty from Human Order gather instances of the beautiful that please the mind in terms of any and all of these dimensions.