Why is beauty making a comeback now?

January 21, 2002 by Joel Garreau

The 5th Annual Edge Question reflects the spirit of the Edge motto: “To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.” Joel Garreau asks: why is beauty back in?

Originally published January 2002 at Edge. Published on KurzweilAI.net January 21, 2002. Read Ray Kurzweil’s Edge question here.

My hypothesis is that the modernist/post-modernist idea that beauty is a social construct (with no deep bedrock in reality) is dead.

There are an increasing number of books coming out propounding the notion that beauty is real and crosses all sorts of cultural and historic lines. In their view, that which unites us as a species in the perception of beauty is way larger than what divides us.

My big question is whether, in a disjointed world in which the search for meaning is becoming ever more important, the existence of widely agreed upon ideas of beauty will increasingly become a quick and useful horseback way of determining whether or not *any* complex system, human or technological, is coherent.

This idea draws in part from pre-industrial age definitions of beauty that held that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (Keats, 1820), and most important, “The most general definition of beauty…multeity in unity” (Coleridge, 1814).

Interestingly enough, the idea that I view as increasingly dumb, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” Bartlett’s dates only to 1878, which is about when the trouble started, in my view.

Copyright © 2002 by Edge Foundation, Inc.