Why do we think something is beautiful?
Imagine looking at a canvas painted solely in your favorite color. For me, that would be orange. I might think, “That is a really beautiful orange. There’s something complex in it — some depth.”
But even though the painting was 100% my favorite color, I’d probably like some other colors nearby as well, right? I once saw this installation, titled 24 Colors — for Blinky at the Dia:Beacon museum.
Each painting except one is monochromatic, but the overall effect was overwhelming. There was the exquisite color on each painting to gaze on; the play of each color with its neighboring colors; the variety of shapes among the unity of concept; the various rhythms at work in the paintings, ceiling, wall panels and floorboards; and the sheer scale of the paintings and of the gallery compared to the human observer. This was the final gallery I visited on that day. Having had my mind tuned to the abstract by the museum’s other galleries, this one left me awestruck.
24 Colors did include a rich orange, but it was the combination of unity, variety, and relationship that made the gallery so powerful.
I won’t say that the paintings knew each other, but it was almost as if they did, so intense was their communion.
This idea of communion is also behind the most meaningful experience of beauty that many people have, namely union with another person. In fact, to know was once a polite way of referring to sex that was not of the casual sort. “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived…” (Genesis 4:1, King James Version).
The deepest forms of beauty involve knowledge and intimate connection, as well as the usual aesthetic principles of variety balanced with regularity.
So what is the most beautiful thing in the universe? What is the most profound expression of the Platonic Form of Beauty?
I suggest it is not a thing but a moment: the moment when the universe came to know its own origin.
Starting as nothing more than a quantum flicker, and speaking only the language of mathematics, the universe instantly expanded to tremendous size; formed atoms from primitive particles; compressed clouds of atoms to form stars; forged heavy elements in the stars; scattered those elements across the void when those stars went supernova; and regathered the heavy elements into planets orbiting other stars.
A Moon orbited one of those planets, pulling an ocean across the rocks, caressing the first life into existence. Evolution eventually discovered sexual reproduction, and life really took off.
Just as consciousness in an organism is more or less localized in one organ, so we can think of sentient beings as the locus of the universe’s consciousness. Eventually, these beings contemplated more than their next meal and their next mate, and lifted their eyes to the stars. The universe was becoming self-aware.
Civilizations rose and fell. China, Greece and Rome produced their art. Eventually mankind lit a Candle in the Dark and we were able to peer into the heavens as never before. We discovered moons around other planets, the shape of our galaxy, and eventually galaxies beyond our own.
We also saw that the universe was not static and eternal, but that space itself and time itself had burst forth from that quantum fluctuation long ago.
At that moment, the grandest aesthetic loop had been closed. It included everything that had happened from the birth of time until then: billions of years of sterility and emptiness, the first spark of life, its precarious evolution, the cooperation and love that had enabled families of weak-limbed but strong-brained humans to flourish, their millennia of superstition, their eventual enlightenment, and finally the dawning realization of how it had all happened. The universe had heard Beat One of its own music, seen Stroke One of its art, and understood its own story. To me, that is the most profoundly beautiful moment so far.