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Symbol of Beauty
Symmetry in Art and Nature
By Tom A. Coffin.
"Beauty is an ecstasy; it is as simple as hunger.
There is really nothing to be said about it."
----W. Somerset Maughan 1.
One of the more striking observations to be made about nature is the strong propensity towards symmetry and repetitive patterning. Symmetry is evident in living and non-living structures. Throughout the ages, from primitive tribal communities to modern electronic civilizations, symbols have been used to describe the simple, complex, tangible and intangible. These symbols display a wide range of materials and techniques, yet they also carry a common denominator. This common thread is the composition of symmetry which is influenced by nature and the environment. It is a recurring visual composition which has evoked passion in all human beings. But what exactly is this passion and from where does this passion come? In comparing and contrasting art objects throughout history it becomes clear that symmetry is a basic concept for creating images and that there are a wide range of objectives associated with these images. Is their an innate link between symmetry and the end goals of these art objects? Could symmetrical composition be an intricate part of defining beauty?
Symmetry in Nature
Sandollars, sea shells, flowers, faces, fish (even flounders)... the list goes on and on. Each item offering a unique form immersed in symmetry. In detail, there are always imperfections rendering an object not perfectly in equilibrium but the overall form is symmetrical. Symmetrical patterns in nature have influenced artists and architects throughout history and have played an important role in the shaping of our environment as well as the creation of our culture and society. The use of symmetry in nature is so strong that it is being used in physics to develop a unified field theory. "Unified field theory, in physics, is a theory that proposes to unify the four known interactions, or forces - the strong (a short-range force that holds atomic nuclei together), electromagnetic, weak (the force responsible for slow nuclear processes, such as beta decay), and gravitational forces - by a simple set of general laws....An important advance in this quest was made in 1967-68 by the American physicist Steven Weinberg and the Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam. They succeeded in unifying the weak interaction and the electromagnetic interaction by using a mathematical technique known as gauge symmetry. Theoretical physicians are currently attempting to combine this so-called electroweak theory with the strong nuclear force, using symmetry theories; such attempts are known as grand unification theories. The effort also continues to combine all four fundamental interactions, including gravitational, in what are now known as supersymmetrical theories"2. So strong is symmetry in nature that it is obvious through topical observation and is used to develop new theorems in physics.
Symmetry is also an innate characteristic of human psychology. "As infants, humans have a preference for looking at faces. Young infants also prefer looking at complex patterns such as a bull's eye or a checkerboard rather than simple ones"3. It is truly fascinating when infants are learning to focus. Their pupils dilate and narrow as they begin the process of vision. First in black and white and later in color the visual world is a new experience and being able to recognize providers and threats is a challenge. The first images infants focus on are faces. These faces provide the infant with a reference of survival. It is in these symmetrical images that the newborn infant realizes a new security. The infant can find peace and reassurance in recognizing a parent. The human being is a complex organism which itself is symmetrical. When we first encounter a newborn our fears are centered around health. Is the baby OK? Does the baby have two hands, two feet, five fingers on each hand and foot? Health is immediately perceived through visual symmetry. Once the newborn has passed this visual exam, it is beautiful, it is perfect, and with this notion comes a complete feeling of happiness. A joy that dispels all the fears of deformation and proves them to be false. Is there a link between symmetry and beauty? Is symmetry the symbol of beauty?
What is beauty?
The idea or negative conjecture of deconstructing beauty is a lofty task worthy only of hundreds of pages of text or none at all. Yet the aim of this section is to link ideas of the symmetrical composition in the visual art object and aesthetics of beauty. So... What is beauty?
"With a friend, I went out on a flat headland that is almost a tiny
island, being all but surrounded by the waters of the bay. There the
horizons are remote and distant rims on the edge of space. We lay
and looked up at the sky and the millions of stars that blazed in
the darkness. The night was so still that we could hear the buoy on
the ledges out beyond the mouth of the bay. Once or twice a word
spoken by someone on the far shore was carried across on the clean
air. A few lights burned in cottages. Otherwise there was no reminder
of other human life; my companion and I were alone with the stars.
I have never seen them more beautiful: the misty river of the Milky
Way flowing across the sky, the patterns of the constellations
standing out bright and clear, a blazing planet low on the horizon.
Once or twice a meteor burned its way into earth's atmosphere."
----Rachel Carson 4.
"Aristotle held that happiness is the aim of life, he believed that the major function of art is to provide human satisfaction. In the Poetics, his great works on the principles of drama, Aristotle argued that tragedy so stimulates the emotions of pity and fear, which he considered morbid and unhealthful, that by the end of the play the spectator is purged of them. This catharsis makes the audience psychologically healthier and thus more capable of happiness"5. Could it be that the current anti-aesthetic is a modern manifestation of the catharsis Aristotle described in the Poetics? Take for example, the case of Serras' Tilted Arc, an aesthetically beautiful form. The public art controversy surrounding Serra's work revealed a dynamic tragedy, of which Serra himself could not recognize. In encountering the Tilted Arc, people were denied easy access to their place of "work", this expanded their love of freedom and mobility. In coming face to face with the fear of restricted movement, the people fought vehemently for their freedom. Though the purpose of the artist may have been to expand the peoples notion that going to work was not a freedom it exposed other fears of confinement which citizens of a densely populated area such as New York City have repressed. In hindsight, the true art created, was much larger in scope than Serra could ever have imagined. But what about beauty?
"The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer believed that the forms of the universe, like the eternal Platonic forms, exist beyond the worlds experience, and that aesthetic satisfaction is achieved by contemplating them for their own sakes, as a means of escaping the painful world of daily experience".6 These forms regularly take on the natural designs of symmetry. "George Groddeck advocated a philosophy which allowed ample space for quiet contemplation rather than eternal search. True happiness is given to the children of God in their sleep - not in any frantic striving. For the experience of happiness we need mastery of outer reality, which is symbolized in the search and mastery of the inner reality, which is symbolized in contemplation"7.
Following this trail of quotes one comes to the natural conclusion of examining the symbols of the Tantra associated with meditation. "Yantras are the most visual means used in the Tantrik cult. Among them are the diagrams in which energies are concentrated - visual parallels to the verbal mantras. They focus the energies of the meditator, and correlate all his previous efforts and knowledge into single divine images, which are often used in cumulative series. The most important part is the Shri yantra, composed of nine interpenetrating triangles, symbolic of male and female, which give rise to the circuits of other triangles. It presents a condensed image of the whole of creation"8. These Yantras (visual mantras) are symmetrical in character and are meant to be focused upon in deep contemplation to achieve nirvana, "a transcendent state free from suffering and individual phenomenal existence"9. Through analysis of these selected interpretations, beauty can be understood as that which creates happiness or satisfaction in the beholder. Without the slightest doubt beauty is in the eye of the beholder yet it consistently appears that beauty generally is observed in nature or in an image which symbolizes nature such as a Yantra. Symmetrical objects create an image from which only one type of focus is permitted, into the image. Duchamp remarks of his Bicycle Wheel: "To see that wheel turning was very soothing, very comforting, a sort of opening of the avenues onto other things than the material life of everyday"10. For Duchamp, concentrating on the spinning tire was akin to watching a fire, it enthralled him and took his mind away from the grueling concepts and decisions which he was encountering in his everyday life. It is through Duchamp's happiness in which the beauty of the Bicycle Wheel can be defined.
Symmetry in Art History
[Right: The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Beattie & Davidson, 1993.]
From the ancient representations of rulers or gods in the form of masks and idols to current images such as the whimsical painting The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (fig.1) by Beattie & Davidson, which appeared in the 43rd Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Painters at the Corcoran Art Museum, the symmetrical representation of faces has been evident in art objects throughout history. The human figure has also been represented in a multitude of ways through strong symmetrical compositioning. The classic example is Leonardo DaVinci's drawing using geometric symmetries of the square and circle to define human proportions.
The use of symmetry can achieve several goals for an artist or architect. Le Corbusier's Phillips Pavilion in Brussels invigorates and excites as one approaches creating an uplifting feeling created by upwardly sweeping lines. On the other hand, the Parthenon at the Acropolis reinforces a notion of power through a balanced design. Some images serve to symbolize abstract concepts of reality, the Fertilized World Egg (fig.2) from the Rajasthan 18th century, directly represents reproduction. This concept is reflected and supported by a contemporary ceramic sculpture entitled Dango (fig.3) by Jun Kaneko. Past and present merge together when viewing composition and symbolism. Allen Jones' Hatstand (fig.4) from 1969 is a boisterous symbol of modern erotic fantasies. Analogous is the Apollo of Tenea (fig.5) from Corinth 550 B.C. one of the many "Kouroi" figures meant to represent not gods but young men. One can only speculate whether these statues are sexual symbols yet they can readily achieve those ends when analyzed in terms of human social behavior. These examples are symmetrical in design and achieve similar objectives however each piece is created in a distinctivly different era from its partner. Artworks throughout the ages can be compared quite easily using symmetry as a principle.
Fig.2: Fertilized World Egg (fig.2) from the Rajasthan 18th century.
Fig.3: Dango by Jun Kaneko.
Fig.4: Allen Jones' Hatstand from 1969.
Fig.5: Apollo of Tenea from Corinth 550 B.C.
For Barnett Newman, his paintings were complex symbols of genesis. Though he publicly rejected "mysticism", Newman pointed out "'the artist must start, like God, with chaos, the void: with blank color, no forms, textures or details.' Newman's first move is an act of division straight down creating an image. The image not only re-enacts God's primal gesture, it also presents the gesture itself, the zip, as an independent shape"11. Newman's paintings are exceptional illustrations of symmetry in action. His "zip" divides the canvas creating two parts which together create a whole. Newman's paintings exploit the use of symmetry to achieve a personal symbolic quality. There are many artists which use symmetry to construct beauty, in spite of that, there have also been a myriad of artists which have created beautiful images using "asymmetry". How does asymmetry fit into this thesis of symmetry being the substance of beauty?
[Right: Ma Yuan's "Bare Willows and-Distant Mountains", circa 1275.]
Symmetry is defined as orderly, mutually corresdonding arrangement of various parts of a body, producing a proportionate, balanced form12. The various types of symmetry include radial symmetry, bilateral symmetry and planar symmetry. Asymmetry is defined as lack of proportion or ill-proportioned13. When artists work are described as asymetrical this is a mislabeling in the description of their work. Even though an artwork does not represent pure reflected geometrical symmetry it is still operating under a process of proportional systems and balancing. "Ma Yuan, a Chinese landscape painter of the 12th century, is described as a leader of the imperial painting academy at Hangzhou (Hangchow). His works represented a new style in painting - lyrical, evocative, restrained - in contrast to the more grandiose style of earlier centuries. The most striking characteristic of Ma's monochromatic ink paintings is their asymmetrical composition: The principal forms of the picture - trees, rocks, and human figures - are grouped in a lower corner. He achieved a balanced asymmetry, in which the blank areas of his paintings focus attention on the subject and at the same time suggets a limitless expanse of space..."14. Bare Willows and Distant Mountains (fig.6) is almost always cited as one of Ma Yuan's masterpieces. Because Ma Yuan's paintings are not overtly geometrically symmetrical they are thought of as asymmetrical. But the intricate balancing of space Ma Yuan achieves in his compositioning is directly related to the symbology of yin and yang both philosophically and literally. When thought about in these terms, terms of zen spirituality, it becomes clear that Ma Yuan's painting is not asymmetrical at all. Yuan's balancing of forms and spaces unites a seemingly asymmetrical beauty with the beauty of symmetry and human proportion. In fact it is somewhat amusing that a western source would site Ma Yuan's painting as asymmetrical and turn a blind empirical eye to the spiritual reality of the zen philosophy which deeply lives in Yuan's paintings.
Though art has made many transformations throughout time the underlying symmetrical composition of the image has remained a constant. The inborn inclination of humans to be attracted to symmetry coupled with the natural desire or pursuit of happiness leads to the premis that symmetry is indeed the symbol of beauty. Symmetrical properties are significant with respect to how artists analyze the world around them, how they are influenced by other cultures or artists and what they gleam from their works. Because we visualize a symmetrical world and find happiness in the contemplation of the natural, we create symbols to describe this emotion. These symbols have been formed in a vast array of materials, techniques and cultural circumstances however their symmetrical design crosses over all these variations and bonds these images together.
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quoting W. Somerset Maughan; p.138; 1992.
2.) Encarta-Mutimedia Encyclopedia; Microsoft(c) 1993
Funk & Wagnall's Corporation search topic - Unified Field Theory.
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Your Child: Birth to Age 6; p.148; 1986.
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5.) Encarta-Mutimedia Encyclopedia; Microsoft(c) 1993
Funk & Wagnall's Corporation search topic - Aesthetics.
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8.) Rawson, Phillip; Tantra: The Indian Cult of Ecstasy; p.33; 1973.
9.) Encarta-Mutimedia Encyclopedia; Microsoft(c) 1993
Funk & Wagnall's Corporation search topic - Nirvana.
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catalog to the exhibition Marcel Duchamp at Gallery Yves Arman, N.Y., Mar. 13 - Apr. 28, 1984 ; p.49; 1984.
11.) Hess, Thomas; Barnett Newman; p.56; The Museum of Modern Art New York; 1971.
12.) Encarta-Mutimedia Encyclopedia; Microsoft(c) 1993
Funk & Wagnall's Corporation search topic - Symmetry.
13.) Websters Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary(c) 1967; p.55.
14.) Encarta-Mutimedia Encyclopedia; Microsoft(c) 1993
Funk & Wagnall's Corporation search topic - Ma Yuan.
Rushing; Ritual and Myth: Native American Culture and Abstract Expressionism in The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890 - 1985; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; p.291; 1986.
Collier, Graham; Art and the Creative Consciousness; p.97; 1972.
Burnham, Jack; The Structure of Art; p.28; 1971.
Rubin, William; Frank Stella; p.22; 1970.
David Salle; Museum Boymans-van Beuningen Rotterdam, Feb. 26 - Apr. 17, 1983 p.38; 1983.
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