Have you ever seen a beautiful sunset, heard the most amazing song, have read a perfect poem, or have seen art so beautiful that it invoked a strange ache inside you? Beauty seems to have this mystical way of making us feel that the world is beautiful and right, but at the same time long for something we don’t have. It’s very hard to pinpoint that feeling, but I know it’s there.
I have often wondered whether it was jealousy… my desire to personally participate in beauty. I want to write a song like that, or paint like that, or sing like that. Or is it the fact that beauty is so quickly passing that causes me to want to stay in the moment longer? Truly, I think it is something deeper than that; so foundational to who we are as humans that it’s almost impossible to analyze. Goethe calls it selige sehnsucht, a blessed longing.
Consider the arts for a moment. For me, the arts are a form of worship. Most of the time there’s a question mark around what’s being worshipped exactly, but you can’t really explain why we love the arts except that they are beautiful, thought-provoking, or inspiring.
What I find truly fascinating is that only a human brain can recognize art or music. Even the most complicated computer in the world could never be able to distinguish Beethoven’s 5th being whistled, or played with a hammer on a piece of sheet metal. But we would know it instantly. “Shazam” on my iPhone can only recognize a song if it’s note-for-note in it’s music database. If I took the Mona Lisa and painted it in cubist form, we’d still recognize it immediately, but a computer would come back on that query empty. Because of the complex way that our brain processes and creates art, there is no way that anything in the world could ever come near to simulating our experience or identifying art like we can.
The same rings true of beauty. Beauty is so human, and universally appreciated, like art and music. Studying art history of cultures long ago tells us what they believed was beautiful. Sure, fashions have changed, preferences have changed, some groups or tribes of people seem to have some unique statements of beauty, but for the most part, I am amazed that the general foundations of what humans believe to be beautiful really haven’t changed since the beginning. No matter who you are or where you are from, it’s hard not to be taken aback by a beautiful sunset, for example. There are places and experiences in the world that we all agree are beautiful, and have collectively agreed are beautiful as humans for hundreds of thousands of years.
It’s hard for me to imagine that I could blame some common human brain synapse or strand of DNA for informing us as humans about what we should regard as beautiful and significant in the world. For me, beauty is a thing of the soul, and points to the existence of a God who is beautiful and has hardwired us to love and to long for our final fulfillment in beauty.
p.s. Here are a couple books that I’m reading right now that influenced this post:
This is your Brain on Music – The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin
The Reason for God by Timothy Keller