Griselda Wept

For my own benefit and also for the vindication of revisionist art histories... and to post my reading notes.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Musings on Hogarth's Curve of Beauty

"Aspects of art can be analysed mathematically" Peter Forbes Thursday July 11, 2002The Guardian

Excerpt: "Is there a science of beauty? Are there equations behind the most beautiful works of art? In a seminal work, The Analysis of Beauty (1753), William Hogarth wrote: "The subject is generally thought to be a matter of too high and too delicate a nature to admit of any true or intelligible discussion."

There are aspects of art that are amenable to scientific treatment. Music is the most obvious. Musical intervals are mathematical: an octave is double the frequency of the root note, and this - as discovered by Pythagoras - was the first known mathematical scientific law. Another area is the importance of curves in visual art. Computer-graphic techniques have enabled us to understand the aesthetic intuitions of Hogarth and the early 20th-century biologist D'Arcy Thompson. Hogarth and Thompson agreed that the essence of beauty of line in painting, drawing, nature and design is not the simple geometry of a straight line or circle, or more subtle shapes such as the ellipse, but of curves that modulate from one gradient to another. Hogarth's perfect line is pure maths. A mathematical treatment of the principle of Hogarth and D'Arcy Thompson, as enshrined in the BeziƩr curves of graphics programs, can account for the aesthetic effect that we call beauty."

My dad sent me this article and it spoke to me because it connects to the concepts I am learning about in art history with the aesthetics. The current trend in art history at my school anyways, especially in modern and contemporary art, is to ignore this instead focusing on the social constructions that produced works and the way their meanings are manipulated to refract back onto society.

I also took a philosophy of art class which was very beneficial in placing debates on aesthetics into an art context but left me at a loss for what the function or even definition of aesthetic was. Hogarth and others ground the notion of aesthetic in mathematics but I think it could equally be attributed to the laws of physics that rely on the rhythm and patterns found in matter to explain the structure the world. If you entertain the notion that contemporary physics shares much of its 'philosophy' with eastern religion, then, one can make a logical link back to Hogarth. Hogarth's assertion that the concept of beauty resists easy definition and relies on something more authorative and mysterious, maybe divinity, in tandem with greater structures of the universe. Hence beauty, or aesthetics, is the articulation and representation of that which already exists: the structure of the universe.

This brings up the issue of representation in art for me. If the natural structure of the universe is the standard of beauty, then can anything man made, like art, be beautiful? Fine art, as we know and celebrate it, then, is only an imitation of this existing universal structure and is denied true designation of beauty as its value comes from notions of authenticity, or naturalness. If aesthetics are applied to an appreciation of nature this makes sense to me. However for 'art' this leads me to resist applying Hogarth's concept of the mathematical curve to beauty, if art must be linked to the Socratic vision of art as beauty.

I like to think that one of the triumphs of modern art is the way it reveals the artificiality of beauty and its tenuous link to aesthetics. I also suspect the social constructivist slant of my education has informed this opinion switching the debate from what is beauty, to how does the notion of beauty operate invisibly to produce and operate within structures of power. Not to throw the baby out with the bath water, 'beauty' is useful conceptually in art discourse... its just also problematic.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006



This blog will be concerned with notes from my modern and contemporary Western and Indian Art History seminars next term. Organization is the vital elixir of life! One last term, one final chance to be organized and create a lasting record of my educational experiences. Now, let us worship at the altar of the terrible goddesses of Art.