By Anika Sethy
When Rebecca first asked me to write about beauty, I racked my brain for some universal concept that defines beauty. But I couldn’t find one – first I tried to brainstorm by listing things that possess beauty. But I found that for each “thing” (I am intentionally vague with this descriptor, as beauty inhabits both the tangible and intangible), beauty also rested in the conventional opposite of each thing. Take for example darkness – it's not hard to argue that beauty can be found in all types of darkness, say a corner of the world not polluted with light, or Anish Kapoor’s “Vantablack,” a pigment that is literally blacker than black. But the agreed upon opposite of darkness is lightness, and once again it is not difficult to imagine scenarios where beauty inhabits the light – the city lights that create light pollution often rival the stars; the word “beautiful” oft precedes the words “sunny day.” The same is true of concepts: an architect might argue that beauty is found in utility (or utility in beauty), whereas a poet or artist may argue that any attempt to find utility in beauty is a corruption of said beauty. And then, perhaps in its most accessible state, beauty is found in the tangible. It is found in both the smooth perfection of a supermodel’s face along with the wrinkled imperfections of an old man’s face. Beauty inhabits both a city skyline and a clear country road.
So here I encountered a difficulty; I could not find any universal rule for beauty. In fact, beauty bridges the tension that arises from difference. How can it simultaneously apply to so many “things” that stand at odds with each other? To both the dark and the light, to the empty and the crowded, to the old and the young, to the pure and the impure? It seems that at its broadest application, beauty is a universal, undefinable trait.
Perhaps then, the issue is not with beauty, but with these constructed differences – to process the world around us, it is necessary to apply an order to it and in doing so we find the differences between things, whether these “things” are concepts, people, or sensations. This is done on both a cultural and an individual level. So what is beauty? Beauty might just be the reminder that all these differences pale in comparison to our similarities.