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Proportion: The Oldest Condition of Beauty

September 29, 2022
September 29, 2022
Simon Lee via Unsplash

Following his inaugural article for BeautyMatter on the origins of beauty standards, academic and Aesthetics Research Lab founder Michael R. Spicher dives into the history of proportion as a defining characteristic of what is considered beautiful.

Artists adjust or manipulate proportions of the human form for various ends. In Ancient Greece, sculptures stood as examples of an “ideal” and unattainable human form. Based on the philosophy of the time, the Greeks possibly believed their sculptures represented the true nature or form of humans. In the sixteenth century, El Greco painted people with elongated bodies to show that they transcend the physical, that people are also spiritual. Further, modern art foisted radically different images of people onto society. Typifying the radical departure, one immediately recalls Willem De Kooning’s Woman I (1952), which some described as terrifying. While these three examples portray the human form with different schemes, we recognize a human presence in each of them, despite exaggerated proportions. These images from art history tempt us to imagine that objective qualities of beauty remain illusory.

In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates recounts the dialogue he had with Diotima, where she divulges the nature of beauty. They discussed how people look around and see beauty in physical bodies. From physical beauty, people ascend like rising stairs beyond the physical to the more perfect beauty of ideas. This fantastical process illustrates the belief that many ancient (and medieval) philosophers connected beauty with knowledge. Today, we may not connect them to the same degree, yet a connection remains. When beauty strikes us, we want to know more. The further knowledge we attain, we often appreciate nuances or aspects of beauty that we didn’t comprehend at first. Of course, with more knowledge, the possibility of ceasing to find something beautiful becomes possible too.

If beauty connects with knowledge, then people should be able to locate some recurring characteristics of beauty. These characteristics do not guarantee beauty, as philosopher Immanuel Kant correctly noted—there isn’t a formula to make the production of beauty a certainty. Beauty subsists mysteriously as it unites qualities of objects with feelings of beholders. Yet people continue to hold certain characteristics of beauty as important. Proportion persists as one of the oldest characteristics of beauty.

What does proportion mean? Symmetry, harmony, and balance come to mind immediately as aspects of proportion. Yet proportion cannot be reduced to any one of these. Symmetrical things can be beautiful, but symmetry alone also leads to boring, or even ugly, objects. Traditionally, people used symmetry to describe the proportion of architecture, and they used harmony to describe the proportion of music. For early mathematician Pythagoras, proportion carried a mathematical component of beauty. In fact, the Pythagoreans considered music a type of math, rather than an art, since harmony could be quantified numerically. We might also think about the golden ratio of 1 to 1.618. Scholars locate uses of this ratio in Ancient Greek and African cultures. More generally, people find this ratio and other similar proportions recurring throughout art, nature, or the built environment. For example, the golden ratio appears in the Notre Dame cathedral, nautilus shells, and human faces, but, like most examples of proportion, it rarely fits with perfection. Defining proportions with numbers was not the only approach.

Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian, offers proportion as one of three conditions of beauty—the others being integrity and radiance. Proportion correlates a created object with the original. For example, someone paints a representation of a dog, and paints each leg a different length and thickness as every other leg. The final painting would not be proportionate with the actual dog, whose front legs and hind legs are roughly the same size. While a painting could show a dog two inches tall, the proportions of the parts must still correspond with a real dog. Ultimately, all physical things—animals, plants, and people—contain a proportion with their corresponding idea (or ratio) in the mind of God, according to Aquinas.

Aquinas’ ideas arose about 600 years prior to modern art. We might imagine a Cubist painting that varies the length of a dog’s legs to beautiful artistic effect. Artistic beauty and natural beauty overlap, but we allow distortions in art as these often express some emotion or idea. But taste for these experiments were not immediately accepted; they were acquired. We don’t have to posit God’s existence to demonstrate our natural desire for proportion. When it comes to music, for instance, studies have shown that people, even when as young as babies, favor consonant (harmonious and stable) over dissonant (rough and unresolved) music. People can familiarize themselves with dissonant music, which happens quicker in some people, and appreciate it as much as consonant music. But people tend toward harmony, as it offers balance and resolution that more naturally appeals to our senses.

Proportion, like any other aspect of beauty, allows for wide applications and preferences. Compare a European cathedral with a Japanese rock garden. Many cathedrals expand symmetrically, often forming the shape of a cross. Japanese rock gardens present no such symmetry; they might even appear a little random with a large rock and a small rock in two corners. But these gardens maintain a kind of harmony among the rocks and sand, not to mention the surrounding garden area with plants and flowers. We could endlessly discuss diverse applications of proportion in works of art throughout history. People experiment with trying to create new instantiations of beauty, often using proportion.

What does all this mean for the beauty industry? As should be clear, a universal application of proportion is not going to happen. Rather than urging consumers to follow the styles of a select few (influencers or celebrities), they’d be better to focus on the individual. It seems relatively innocuous to say that not every style works equally well on every person. Some colors enhance one person’s beauty, while washing out another person’s complexion. Proportions, likewise, vary according to a person’s other attributes. The range of proportions varies among people, so each person should know their body in such a way to apply proportion fittingly. Those in beauty industry roles could assist with this process of discovery to find products or techniques that work for a particular person, rather than imposing an impossible standard based on someone else.

Proportion embeds itself into any theory of beauty. As one of the oldest characteristics of beauty that once was thought to be the sole meaning of beauty, it continues to persist. Proportion may be objective—part of the object; a person’s experience of different proportions depends on their cultural expectations and surroundings. But knowing our bodies helps us navigate the worlds of clothing, accessories, and beauty to know how to enhance our natural features for the desired effects.

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