The beholder’s eye

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder is a modern variation of de gustibus non disputandum est, less elegant (yet not uncharming) versions of which are horses for courses and whatever floats your boat. These snippets of wisdom appear to suggest that beauty is a subjective thing. Yet is it? Defining beauty might seem the object of philosophers, fashionista, or art theorists, yet it is a concept that infringes on us all in substantial ways. What we choose to wear, to live in, to eat, what music to listen to, what to read, and with whom to spend out lives are all dependent on how we understand beauty to one way or another. I don’t want to dwell here on the various theories of beauty because there is such a diversity of opinions – that’s academic-speak for major conflicts. There are some wildly different theories of beauty and the only element that they all have in common is that the beautiful is best seen in terms of its effects. When we find something beautiful it captivates us, it captures our attention, but, more than that and perhaps more importantly, it provokes us. This provocation can, in the right circumstances and with the proviso that we allow it to, be inspiring. So far, so good. Except that there is a snag here: something that we find ugly could result in all of those reactions in us as well.

Now and again, we hear of new studies that try to explain what type of person is the universally most attractive. Many recent ones conclude that symmetrically aligned features are appreciated by the most number of people, a finding that I’m openly agnostic about. For me, at least, the presence of some imperfection can be incredibly attractive, a visible flaw, perhaps because it accentuates what is not blemished in the way that truth relies on error to define its very essence. In any case, the laws of human attraction, if they exist, are evidently extremely complex because physical and sexual attraction are not always synonymous.

Then there is the contradiction of whether beauty can be common or not. Does something beautiful have to be unique or rare? Most of my cufflinks are made out of silver because I find it a very beautiful metal. I’ve never understood the attraction of gold and I have long suspected that it is rarity that has created this gaudy metal’s legend. I find silver, platinum, and even copper to be far more enticing. Silver, for example, ages in the most interesting ways. Oxidization can enhance a piece of jewellery and it can be wildly different depending on the grade of silver. 970 silver, that is to say 97% pure silver, a purer grade than the 92.5% sterling formula, can possess a yellowish hue when it ages, though few silversmiths work with it because it’s less rigid than sterling. The verdant patina of copper can produce some admirable effects and, best of all, silver oxidization and copper patina can be easily removed if so desired.

The exuberant decoration of baroque churches can be awe-inspiring. And so, too, can be gothic architecture. I remember going into Chartres Cathedral when I was 18 years old after having walked there on pilgrimage from Paris and seeing the sun shine through the stained-glass windows with their different hues of blue and feeling as if I’d been punched in the stomach, so utterly breathtaking was the moment. A completely, almost paradoxically different style of beauty is to be found in Nový Dvůr Abbey in the Czech Republic, built a decade ago and designed by John Pawson.

The chapel is bare but light and is surprisingly awe-inspiring. Is it the lack of decoration and the lines and light that make it beautiful, or is it the simplicity that is not simple, a noble simplicity when all said and done?

For me, it is the combination of contemporary and historical that is a winning one. It is profoundly modern in many ways, yet deeply rooted in the Cistercian monastic tradition on the other hand.

Today’s pair of cufflinks are the ones I find to be, unequivocally and flatly, my most beautiful. I coveted them when I first saw a photograph of them a long time ago, and I waited patiently for a pair to come onto the market, even having a failed attempt to buy them from a German dealer who refuses to answer any messages or allow anyone to buy her jewellery in what is most likely a money-laundering operation.

They are in sterling silver and designed by the Finnish silversmith Matti Hyvärinen, being made in 1973. They use crumple casting, a technique perfected by the Finns (notably at Lapponia jewellers) but Hyvärinen is truly the master of it. The faces are large (2.2 x 2.2 cm) and this begs the question of why I find them so beautiful. They are blatantly and almost defiantly oversized and the organic form doesn’t seem to evoke anything precise. This doesn’t call to mind conventional beauty. Sometimes I see bed sheets, on occasion I see crests of waves on an unruly sea, and, on rare days,  I swear I can make out molten chocolate. Baudelaire dealt with the same problem of beauty in his hauntingly dark poem “Hymne à la Beauté”, concluding that, no matter where it comes from and what it is, we should exult in the beautiful for it is what makes us human to do so. Last time I wore these cufflinks, a young man was exiting a coffeeshop as I was arriving, and he had a tray of lattes in his hand, most likely for his co-workers. He had a good view of my cufflinks as I held open the door for him since he was struggling, latte-laden as he was. This ruggedly handsome fellow had probably never given another man a compliment in his life yet felt empowered to shout back to me “Serious cufflinks, dude!”. Beauty can elicit such unexpected reactions, and it’s delicious, affirming, and, above all, what makes our quest for the beautiful all the more worthwhile.

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4 comments on “The beholder’s eye

  1. Ben Donald says:

    Yes it is beautiful, as an iceberg is beautiful – but is it fit for purpose? Whatever happened to Nicaea II?

  2. The monks seem to find it is appropriate, and uplifting, for their life of prayer and it does nod to traditional Cistercian architecture. Every style of liturgical trend through the ages has always pleased and appeased some and alienated others, has it not?

    • Ben Donald says:

      I don’t know anything about that. What about Nicaea II? Is functional iconoclasm a matter of taste, merely?

      • There is nothing about this abbey that contravenes the precepts of the Second Nicean Council, Ben. Have you seen the intense focus on the statue of Our Lady? I would far better this than some ghastly nineteenth-century churches I’ve seen where every square inch is covered with sentimental plaster statues or plaques of the most questionable taste. But, as mentioned in my post, horses for courses!

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