Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 807

On “Pure Design” and What Beauty Really Means

“Pure Design appeals to the eye just as absolute Music appeals to the ear.”

The question of what design is and what makes it good and the parallel question about the essence of beauty and its origin have long occupied the minds of artists, scientists, and philosophers alike. In A Theory of Pure Design: Harmony, Balance, Rhythm (public library; public domain), originally published in 1907 — the same year French philosopher Henri Bergson shared his insights on intuition vs. the intellect — American painter, art historian, and theorist Denman Waldo Ross (1853-1935) sets out to explain “not the artist, but the mode of expression which the artist uses,” proposing a framework for understanding both design and beauty as interrelated phenomena. The classic manual is now regarded as a seminal text of American design theory.

In a section entitled “THE MEANING OF DESIGN,” Ross offers a baseline definition:

By Design I mean Order in human feeling and thought and in the many and varied activities by which that feeling or that thought is expressed. By Order I mean, particularly, three things — Harmony, Balance, and Rhythm. These are the principal modes in which Order is revealed in Nature and, through Design, in Works of Art.

He then expresses the relationship between the three in a “logical diagram”:

Ross goes on to define “Pure Design”:

By Pure Design I mean simply Order, that is to say, Harmony, Balance, and Rhythm, in lines and spots of paint, in tones, measures, and shapes. Pure Design appeals to the eye just as absolute Music appeals to the ear. The purpose in Pure Design is to achieve Order in lines and spots of paint, if possible, the perfection of Order, a supreme instance of it, the Beautiful: this with no other, no further, no higher motive; just for the satisfaction, the pleasure, the delight of it. In the practice of Pure Design we aim at Order and hope for Beauty. Even the motive of giving pleasure to others lies beyond the proper purpose of Pure Design, though it constantly happens that in pleasing ourselves we give others pleasure.

But such ambiguous terms as “beauty” and “pleasure” require their own definition — or at least sharp awareness of the lack thereof. In a section titled “BEAUTY A SUPREME INSTANCE OF ORDER,” Ross offers a thoughtful meditation:

I refrain from any reference to Beauty as a principle of Design. It is not a principle, but an experience. It is an experience which defies analysis and has no explanation. We distinguish it from all other experiences. It gives us pleasure, perhaps the highest pleasure that we have. At the same time it is idle to talk about it, or to write about it. The less said about it the better. ‘It is beautiful,’ you say. Then somebody asks, ‘Why is it beautiful?’ There is no answer to that question. You say it is beautiful because it gives you pleasure: but other things give you pleasure which are not beautiful. Pleasure is, therefore, no criterion of Beauty. What is the pleasure which Beauty gives? It is the pleasure which you have in the sense of Beauty. That is all you can say. You cannot explain either the experience or the kind of pleasure which it gives you.

While I am quite unable to give any definition or explanation of Beauty, I know where to look for it, where I am sure to find it. The Beautiful is revealed, always, so far as I know, in the forms of Order, in the modes of Harmony, of Balance, or of Rhythm. While there are many instances of Harmony, Balance, and Rhythm which are not particularly beautiful, there is, I believe, nothing really beautiful which is not orderly in one or the other, in two, or in all three of these modes. In seeking the Beautiful, therefore, we look for it in instances of Order, in instances of Harmony, Balance, and Rhythm. We shall find it in what may be called supreme instances. This is perhaps our nearest approach to a definition of Beauty: that it is a supreme instance of Order, intuitively felt, instinctively appreciated.

A Theory of Pure Design: Harmony, Balance, Rhythm is now in the public domain and is available for free in its entirety in multiple formats.


The Last Pictures: A Time-Capsule of Humanity in 100 Images Sent into Space for Eternity

“Just as the topology of space is at odds with everyday human experience, the ‘time’ of space is utterly foreign.”

Last week, we celebrated 35 years since the Voyager that gave us Pale Blue Dot launched into space, carrying the ultimate mixtape of humanity’s sounds, itself a record of how Carl Sagan and Annie Druyan fell in eternal love. It was designed to spiral out into the cosmos for billions of years, bound to long outlast the Pyramids of Giza and the cave paintings of Lascaux and, along with more than 800 of its subsequent satellite brethren than circle Earth today, become humanity’s longest-lasting artifacts — until, 4.5 billion years from now, the Sun expands into an all-consuming red giant and devours them all.

Inspired by cave paintings, Sagan’s Golden Record, and nuclear waste warning signs, MIT artist-in-residence Trevor Paglen set out to create a collection of 100 images, commissioned by public art organization Creative Time, to be etched onto an ultra-archival, golden silicon disc and sent into orbit onboard the Echostar XVI satellite this month — at once a time-capsule of the present and a message to the future. The Last Pictures (public library), a fine addition to these essential books on time, gathers the 100 images, alongside four years’ worth of fascinating interviews Paglen conducted with scientists, anthropologists, philosophers, and artists exploring the inherent tensions of our civilization as it brushes up against profound questions about existence, impermanence, and deep time.

The Last Pictures artifact
Ultra-archival image disc inside gold plated aluminum shell
Image courtesy Trevor Paglen
Greek and Armenian Orphan Refugees Experience the Sea for the First Time, Marathon, Greece
One of one hundred images nano-etched on an ultra-archival disc in perpetual Earth orbit
Image courtesy Trevor Paglen
Glimpses of America, American National Exhibition, Moscow World’s Fair
One of one hundred images nano-etched on an ultra-archival disc in perpetual Earth orbit
Image courtesy Trevor Paglen
Soyuz Fg Rocket Launch, Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
One of one hundred images nano-etched on an ultra-archival disc in perpetual Earth orbit
Image courtesy Trevor Paglen
One of one hundred images nano-etched on an ultra-archival disc in perpetual Earth orbit
Image courtesy Trevor Paglen
Old Operating Theater, St. Thomas Church, Southwark, London
One of one hundred images nano-etched on an ultra-archival disc in perpetual Earth orbit
Image courtesy Trevor Paglen

Paglen writes:

About four billion years from now, the Sun will have burned through most of its hydrogen and will start powering itself with helium. When that happens, our star will swell to become a red giant swallowing the earth (and any lingering geosynchronous satellites).But four billion years is a long time from now. For a bit of perspective, four billion years is about sixteen times further into the future than the advent of the dinosaurs was in the past; it is four times longer than the history of complex multicellular organisms on earth. Four billion years is almost as far in the future as the formation of planet Earth is in the past. When [theorist] Jim Oberg points out that space is ‘unearthly,’ he’s right in more ways than he meant. Just as the topology of space is at odds with everyday human experience, the ‘time’ of space is utterly foreign.

Placing a satellite into geosynchronous orbit means placing it into the deep and alien time of the cosmos itself. What, if anything, does it mean that the spacecraft we build are undoubtedly humankind’s longest-lasting material legacy?

What does it mean that, in the near or far future, there will be no evidence of human civilization on the earth’s surface, but our planet will remain perpetually encircled by a thin ring of long-dead spacecraft? Perhaps it means nothing. Or perhaps the idea of meaning itself breaks down in the vastness of time.

On the other hand, what would happen if one of our own probes found a graveyard of long-dead spacecraft in orbit around one of Saturn’s moons? Surely it would mean something. What if we were to find a spacecraft from a different time — a spacecraft that contained a message or provided a glimpse into the culture that produced it?

Meditative and just the right amount of unsettling in its perspective-shifting appreciation for the enormity of time, The Last Pictures offers a poignant lens on the miraculousness of the present moment and the glorious insignificance of our individual existence.

Thanks, Rachel


David Byrne on How Music and Creativity Work

“Presuming that there is such a thing as ‘progress’ when it comes to music is typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present. It is a myth. Creativity doesn’t ‘improve.'”

Great times and tall deeds for David Byrne this week: First his fantastic collaborative album with St. Vincent (which made a cameo on Literary Jukebox), and now the release of How Music Works (public library) — a fascinating record of his lifetime of curiosity about and active immersion in music. But rather than an autobiographical work, a prescriptive guide to how to listen, or another neuropsychological account of music, what unfolds is a blend of social science, history, anthropology, and media theory, exploring how context shapes the experience and even the nature of music. Or, as Byrne puts it, “how music might be molded before it gets to us, what determines if it gets to us at all, and what factors external to the music itself can make it resonate for us. Is there a bar near the stage? Can you put it in your pocket? Do girls like it? Is it affordable?”

Among the book’s most fascinating insights is a counterintuitive model for how creativity works, from a chapter titled “Creation in Reverse” — a kind of reformulation of McLuhan’s famous aphorism “the medium is the message” into a somewhat less pedantic but no less purposeful “the medium shapes the message”:

I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it’s actually the opposite of conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation, that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen. The accepted narrative suggests that a classical composer gets a strange look in his or her eye and begins furiously scribbling a fully realized composition that couldn’t exist in any other form. Or that the rock-and-roll singer is driven by desires and demons, and out bursts this amazing, perfectly shaped song that had to be three minutes and twelve seconds — nothing more, nothing less. This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to be, but I think the path of creation is almost 180º from this model. I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats.

Of course, passion can still be present. Just because the form that one’s work will take is predetermined and opportunistic (meaning one makes something because the opportunity is there), it doesn’t mean that creation must be cold, mechanical, and heartless. Dark and emotional materials usually find a way in, and the tailoring process — form being tailored to fit a given context — is largely unconscious, instinctive. We usually don’t even notice it. Opportunity and availability are often the mother of invention. The emotional story — ‘something to get off my chest’ — still gets told, but its form is guided by prior contextual restrictions. I’m proposing that this is not entirely the bad thing one might expect it to be. Thank goodness, for example, that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we make something.

Byrne gives a number of examples from the history of music that illustrate this contextually-driven creation and what it reveals about the nature of creativity:

It’s usually assumed that much Western medieval music was harmonically ‘simple’ (having few kew changes) because composers hadn’t yet evolved the use of complex harmonies. In this context there would be no need or desire to include complex harmonies, as they would have sounded horrible in such spaces. Creatively they did exactly the right thing. Presuming that there is such a thing as ‘progress’ when it comes to music, and that music is ‘better’ now than it used to be, is typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present. It is a myth. Creativity doesn’t ‘improve.’

He turns to nature for confirmation of this model:

The adaptive aspect of creativity isn’t limited to musicians and composers (or artists in any other media). It extends into the natural world as well. David Attenborough and others have claimed that birdcalls have evolved to fit the environment. In dense jungle foliage, a constant, repetitive, and brief signal with a narrow frequency works best — the repetition is like an error-correcting device. If the intended recipient didn’t get the first transmission, an identical one will follow.

Birds that live on the forest floor evolved lower-pitched calls, so they don’t bounce or become distorted by the ground as higher-pitched sounds might. Water birds have calls that, unsurprisingly, cut through the ambient sounds of water, and birds that live in the plains and grasslands, like the Savannah Sparrow, have buzzing calls that can traverse long distances.


So musical evolution and adaptation is an interspecies phenomenon. And presumably, as some claim, birds enjoy singing, even though they, like us, change their tunes over time. The joy of making music will find a way, regardless of the context and the form that emerges to best fit it.

Byrne brings this evolutionary lens back full circle to the emotional content of creation:

Finding examples to prove that music composition depends on its context comes naturally to me. But I have a feeling that this somewhat reversed view of creation — that it is more pragmatic and adaptive than some might think — happens a lot, and in very different areas. It’s ‘reversed’ because the venues — or the fields and woodlands, in the case of the birds — were not built to accommodate whatever egotistical or artistic urge the composers have. We and the birds adapt, and it’s fine.

What’s interesting to me is not that these practical adaptations happen (in retrospect that seems predictable and obvious), but what it means for our perception of creativity.

It seems that creativity, whether birdsong, painting, or songwriting, is as adaptive as anything else. Genius — the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work — seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context. When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well. When the right thing is in the right place, we are moved.


We do express our emotions, our reactions to events, breakups and infatuations, but the way we do that — the art of it — is in putting them into prescribed forms or squeezing them into new forms that perfectly fit some emerging context. That’s part of the creative process, and we do it instinctively; we internalize it, like birds do. And it’s a joy to sing, like the birds do.

The rest of How Music Works goes on to explore such absorbing facets of music as the intricate inner workings of the music business, the secret of successful collaborations, Byrne’s own life in performance, and how the history of recording technology shaped music.

And what makes for a particularly enjoyable read is Byrne’s decidedly non-dogmatic, non-didactic tone — instead, he wraps his keen cultural insights in a sheath of self-aware subjectivity and unapologetic personal conviction, with just the right amount of conversational candor. (In a section discussing the social shifts in the early 1900s when classical audiences were suddenly forbidden from shouting, eating, and chatting during a performance, he opines with equal parts snark and cultural sensitivity: “I do wonder how much of the audience’s fun was sacrificed in the effort to redefine the social parameters of the concert hall — it sounds almost masochistic of the upper crust, curtailing their own liveliness, but I guess they had their priorities.”)

David Byrne photograph via Wikimedia Commons


View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated