Beauty and Form

Aesthetics is usually defined as “a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of the beautiful and with judgments concerning beauty.” I recall the endurance it took when I was a student to complete an aesthetics course based on that definition. Beauty seemed to me then an obsolete word, appropriate to urns and the dead inside them; what had the term to do with the realities of this century?

I have since learned, however, that the word beauty is in practice unavoidable. Its very centrality accounts, in fact, for my decision to photograph. There appeared a quality – Beauty seemed the only appropriate word for it – in certain photographs and paintings that opened my eyes, and I was compelled to learn to live with the vocabulary of this new sight, though for many years I still found it embarrassing to use the word Beauty, even while believing in it.

If the proper goal of art is, as I now believe, beauty, the Beauty that concerns me is that of Form. Beauty is, in my view, a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life (not for nothing does Aristotle list plot first in his enumeration of the components of tragedy, a genre of litera­ture that, at least in its classical form, affirms order in life). Beauty is the overriding demonstration of pattern that one observes, for example, in the plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare, the fiction of Joyce, the films of Ozu, the paint­ings of Cezanne and Matisse and Hopper, and the photo­graphs of Timothy O’Sullivan, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Wes­ton, and Dorothea Lange.

Why is Form beautiful? Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning. James Dickey was right when he asked rhetorically, “What is Heaven, anyway, but the power of dwelling among objects and ac­tions of consequence”. “Objects of consequence” cannot be created by man alone, nor can “actions of consequence” happen in a void; they can only be found within a framework that is larger than we are, an encompassing totality invul­nerable to our worst behavior and most corrosive anxieties.

Robert Adams, Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values (Aperture, 1981), p. 24-25

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