There are objectivists who think it is in nature. And relativists who think it is in perception. But the reality of beauty is better than both, and more complexby Charles Jencks / August 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Beauty is back. Architects are designing harmonious skyscrapers for London, artists are producing works on the subject, and evolutionary psychologists are presenting evidence that canons of beauty are hard-wired into the nervous system. The latter studies challenge established taste. According to the facial canon of pulchritude, Audrey Hepburn is more beautiful than Sharon Stone. Marilyn Monroe may be the sexiest woman of the last 100 years, if polls in America are to be believed, but her physiognomic proportions are not up to those of Catherine Deneuve or Grace Kelly. Marilyn’s chin is too big, cheekbones too low, and her eyes not big enough in proportion to the face. Hugh Grant may be handsome, according to the same kind of investigation, but he lacks the strong bone structure and masticatory muscles that make ugly men, such as Mick Jagger and John Travolta, so appealing to the female nervous system. Such points are well publicised on television and in popular books. Where facial science leads, plastic surgeons are sure to follow, and sure enough noses are getting smaller, lips bigger in LA.
All this is absurd, of course. And it is hard to keep a straight face when the discussion of beauty reaches the sort of propositions put forth in books called Survival of the Prettiest, or the BBC series, The Human Face, co-faced by John Cleese. Measurements of facial ratios or any simple formulae cannot capture this elusive subject, precisely because it is a compound made up of at least four incommensurable sources. The singular point of beautiful objects, and people, is that they are experienced not as parts, or ratios between cheekbones and chin, but as wholes. The experience of beauty is a perception, but it is one that mixes up various other sensations and makes them converge in a particular way. This convergence remains something of a mystery, as I will argue, but it is one illuminated by recent scientific insights which deal with what are known as “strange attractors.”
Is anything as elusive as beauty open to scientific investigation? The hypothesis that there are universal codes of beauty has a delightfully funny history, in which evolutionary psychology is only the latest chapter. We know, from the arguments of Vitruvius and the drawings of Leonardo, that good facial and body proportions should be reflected in good buildings. The face, from the chin to the top of the forehead, is…