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Radiance: Delighting in Beauty

Published January 26, 2023
Published January 26, 2023
AOG PIXELS via Pexels

Light makes visual beauty possible. A darkened art gallery prevents you from seeing the beauty of the objects within its walls. In a sense, these artworks lose some of their beauty in the darkness. And whatever beauty remains in that darkened gallery exists because of some light that refuses to dissipate. Light, however, is only half of the equation. Light requires color as its complementary component. Together, light and color work as essential ingredients for our aesthetic appreciation of objects.

In philosophy, this aspect of beauty comprising light and color is known as radiance; some have referred to it as clarity. Without distinct light and color, objects of our perception would remain ambiguous. To put it differently, light clarifies our experiences of color. Contrary to the quantitative conditions of beauty, like proportion, we find a qualitative understanding of beauty with radiance. For this reason, proportion attracts the cognitive aspect of people, while radiance appeals more directly to our feelings.

Have you seen someone smile in such a way that the room "lights up”? Or a work of art that “stops you in your tracks”? We use this figurative language to express this particular condition of beauty that ignites the luminous in objects and people for our perception. Yes, there goes another layer of metaphor. The quality of radiance is notoriously slippery, not as easily defined as proportion. In its broadest and least precise sense, radiance highlights the aspect of an object or person that makes us want to continue to experience or perceive them again. The light and color illuminate the form, and the object of beauty shines before us. While this mystery-heavy understanding of radiance has charm, it is too ambiguous to be of enough help for a deeper understanding of beauty. More to the point, people likely prefer light because it appeals to the biological instincts that developed in humans over many years. Darkness was more threatening in the earlier history of humankind, but natural light is also necessary for our overall health, which helps explain its connection to the pleasure of beauty.

Aesthetic experience and taste are thought to often elicit an immediate reaction in a beholder. Over time, we may grow to like or dislike something, thereby changing our minds, yet we still often have an immediate response. We approach a painting, for example, and immediately experience a flash of approving pleasure (or disapproval). Some philosophers attributed this immediacy to radiance, as light and color attract us more quickly than mathematical proportions. A bright yellow or red might demand our attention even from a peripheral position, but we rarely stop in our tracks because of a well-proportioned painting without much luminosity. Light reveals to us the delightful form and colors of the object of our appreciation; we need light to comprehend visual beauty.

Beyond physical light, luminosity and radiance also carry the notion of the light of reason, as beauty has long been thought to carry a cognitive aspect. Older philosophers, like Plato, connected beauty with knowledge quite rigidly. Many today might not hold to that level of connection, but there seems to be some connection with knowledge. The more we understand about an art form or genre of music, the more we are able to comprehend the subtler elements of its beauty. Sometimes this figurative light takes longer to provide the full aesthetic experience of an object as we continue to gain knowledge of it. But our knowledge lifts us to the next level in appreciating works of a particular kind, from wine to jazz to paintings, so that they may “shine” before us.

Light is intimately connected with color, which is a fundamental phenomenon of our visual experience of the world. The idea of luminosity might cause us to think that colors need to be bright in order to be radiant. As philosopher John Dewey notes in his book Art as Experience, “There are pictures in which colors are subdued and yet the painting gives us a sense of glow and splendor, while the colors in other paintings are bright to the point of loudness, and yet the total effect is of something drab.” As an example, consider the Church of the Covenant in Boston, which contains Tiffany stained-glass windows. However, over the years one panel broke and was replaced with regular stained glass. The contrast between the two types of glass is stark. The Tiffany glass appears to have darker (or more subdued) colors at first glance than the replaced panel. However, once the light penetrates the glass, the Tiffany windows produce a brilliant and radiant beauty that is unmatched by the other glass. So, radiance does not depend on the colors themselves being bright, but depends on the combination of light interacting with colors. Without light, luminous colors could not assert their powerful display.

Colors unite some objects into a family. Just think how particular colors identify fans of a sports team. But they also differentiate two things that would otherwise be identical, such as fans of the two opposing teams in a match. Color often maintains a symbolic function along with its mere physical appearance. The combination of symbolism and appearance integrate in a person’s or object’s beauty. Those in the beauty industry—or any other design industry—need to gain an understanding about the effects of light and color. Not all light, for example, produces positive results. Consider fluorescent lights. The same goes for color. This is precisely why the different conditions of beauty, such as proportion, integrity, and radiance, need to work together.

Radiance is easily overlooked because light and color almost seem obviously part of beauty to not require separate treatment. Many philosophers, notably Jacques Maritain, mentioned that radiance might be the most difficult aspect of beauty to discuss as it is an abiding enigma. Perhaps, we could begin by asking about people’s subjective experience of beauty products. “In what way does this make someone shine?” Or “Does this help light up this person’s essence?” Enhancing someone’s physical features is often the starting point for beauty products, but it’s tempting to limit that discussion to body shape or contours of the face. We should want people to radiate their beauty, not merely display it.


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