What is Beauty?

I was on a trip to North Carolina recently. I came across a program on NPR while driving. The program was entitled, “Are Some Things Universally Beautiful.” 

The program began by asking the very important question: “Do we need beauty?”

Then the story of the musician Nathaniel Ayers is briefly told. The movie The Soloist is based on his life and rediscovery by jounalist Steve Lopez.

Nathaniel meets the musician Robert Gupta and requests to have lessons from him. Robert agrees but their first session had a rocky start with Nathaniel giving long-winded speeches about demons and being poisoned in his sleep. This wasn’t unusual for Nathaniel because he’s schizophrenic. Robert, deciding not to interrupt him with words, just starts playing music on his violin. The playing changed Nathaniel. He lifted his own violin and began to play, by ear, portions of concertos which he asked Robert to complete. The music transformed him and served as a temporary release from the agony of his own thoughts.

Thus, the initial story reiterates the initial question: “Do we need beauty?”

The final story attempts to provide an answer to the question, “What is beauty?” Alexander Melamid came to New York from Russia in 1970 and began a scientific art project. He decided to find out what kind of art people liked to figure out what was universally beautiful. He comprised a series of questions that were presented to people in over a dozen countries. The results showed that many people preferred similar things irrespective of their backgrounds. This similar thing was the ideal landscape; something similar to artwork presented by the Hudson River School. He also attempted to find the type of artwork most people would did not find beautiful. Most such works were abstract and non-representational in nature. His findings can be viewed here: http://awp.diaart.org/km/index.php.

Michael Nagle for The New York Times
Mr. Melamid at his studio in Chelsea with his portraits of religious figures. He also wants to paint Russian oligarchs.

I would love to hear others’ opinions. What is beauty? Do we need beauty? Is there a universal beauty that we all tap into from time to time? Or is beauty an individual experience exclusive to the eye of the beholder? If so, should the person whom does harm to another justify those acts if the basis of such acts was that s/he finds them beautiful to him/herself? Or is beauty something that begins with the consideration of others and how one’s act(s) can benefit all of society.

Thank you for reading,


(Photograph was taken from The New York Times Article Prelates and Rappers Strike a Pose“)

(Original NPR episode: http://www.npr.org/2013/06/14/174726813/are-some-things-universally-beautiful)

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