Without art we would speak of beauty

aestheticsWhy we think something is beautiful

"I am perhaps hoping for a simple solution to the question: what is beautiful?"

"Beauty is average in a way."

"I think beauty is always something very individual. It has something to do with taste."

We all know very well what is beautiful. Or we think we at least know. When we meet someone, we know in a split second whether they are attractive or not. When we see a picture, a landscape, a face, we know exactly whether we think it is beautiful or not. It becomes problematic when we are asked for reasons. Why is that nice? As is so often the case, the simple things are so difficult to describe.

That is why the General Studies of the Friedrich Schiller University Jena is dedicated to the easy, difficult topic of beauty this semester.

"Everyone uses - that is also the interesting thing! - everyone uses this term" beautiful "or" beauty "constantly in everyday life. If we were to check how often we actually say," That was nice now! " "Look how beautiful!", "That is a beauty!" And it is simply interesting to say: What do we mean by that? We use this term, but very few can explain why they actually perceive something to be beautiful. "

Dirk von Petersdorf is a Germanist and poet. He designed the beauty lecture series. He was able to win over a doctor as a lecturer, a mineralogist, a philosopher, an art historian, a musicologist, a fashion professor.

"The approach in our series is broad; but that also corresponds to the variety of phenomena that we call" beautiful ": We would certainly all perceive something as beautiful in nature more often on a hike. We would of course say about works of art, if we have heard a piece of music for my sake, see a picture, say, “That is beautiful.” We would talk about beautiful people. But many of us would also find technical products beautiful; some cannot get enough of the beauty of cars There are mathematicians who find mathematical formulas beautiful; that is not obvious to everyone, but that is also very credible. So, we describe a large spectrum as beautiful; and the question is of course: do we mean something in common; there is are there common structures that determine what we perceive as beautiful in these areas? "

The neurobiologist: stimuli and brain reactions

The prelude was made by Professor Christoph Redies. He is an anatomist, neurobiologist and hobby painter. The key questions he asks are: Is beauty in things or in us? And is it natural or a product of culture?

"That is not an either-or, but in both cases it is an and. It is completely clear that art is subject to cultural influences, but it is also clear that art is perceived through our visual system. And this visual system has a certain structure, This structure also determines what we can perceive and how we perceive it. And that is why there is an interplay between the stimuli, the works of art that lie in front of us, that we are looking at, and that Visual system that picks up and processes these stimuli in a special way. So, it's about the stimuli as well as the brain reactions. It's about cultural influences - which are very important, without a doubt! - but on a shorter timeline for us shape; and it is about the biology of the visual system then probably also about biological principles that are universal in nature and that are all the same for us humans. "

In his lecture, Christoph Redies compared natural images, i.e. photos, and artificial images, i.e. works of art: how they are structured, how they are similar and different, and how they affect the human brain.

"It has been known for a long time that complex natural scenes are very special images that have a fractal structure, a self-similar structure. And humans are particularly adapted to this structure in that they can process these structures particularly well. And the thesis now is that the artist creates something that has a similar structure, and thus also corresponds to the biology of the visual system insofar as the information can be processed particularly quickly and easily, similar to natural scenes. "

So it is probably nice for us, according to Redies' thesis, what is of medium complexity and high self-similarity, i.e. structures that are not too simple and not too difficult and repeat themselves in the picture. We humans love symmetry, especially in faces; beautiful structures stimulate the reward system, just like chocolate, music, sex or drugs. Is it really that simple?

"Why should something as fundamental as the perception of beauty be so terribly complicated? I tend to believe that it is something fundamental and therefore simple! And so fundamental that it is not even accessible to our intellect, that we can only grasp it intuitively . I don't think that aesthetic theories necessarily have to be complex. On the contrary: I hope for a simple solution to the question: What is beautiful? "

"Beauty is perhaps a biological program that everyone has and that one sees relatively involuntarily. You don't have to be trained for a long time to recognize a beautiful woman as a man or to find a beautiful landscape beautiful."Roses combine uniformity and variety (AP Archive)

The art historian: original and copy

Karl Schawelka gives the second lecture of the Studium Generale on Beauty in Jena. He is an art historian and professor emeritus at the Bauhaus-Uni Weimar. It is no longer enough for him either to look at the work of art itself. He cannot avoid the findings of the neurosciences.

"Well, it turns out that the idea that I grew up with, that is," Beauty is in the eye of the beholder ", has to be revised in the meantime, because beauty is something that is biologically based."

Schawelka looks at the difficult relationship between art and beauty. The fact that art has to be beautiful is a very modern invention and by no means of global importance. One could almost speak of a slip.

"Yes, that is the - if you will - ideology of classicism: It came up in the 18th century; there came up with the idea of ​​the" fine arts "and is derived from the Greeks, who were very much about beauty and Made art and tried very hard for beauty. However, the Greeks were an exception to the other cultures around them. And even in later times and outside of European art, most of art is actually not beautiful. So, art always is further than the beautiful alone! "

The cruel, the sublime, the terrible - we can enjoy all of this in art, the shudder in the museum, in the cinema or in the TV armchair when others experience things on our behalf that are by no means "beautiful". And yet it is art. And they differ significantly in matters of originality.

"Art is also about the original and the copy. So, we assume: the original is worth everything and the copy is worth nothing. But with beauty it is irrelevant. A beautiful woman who is a copy of a beautiful woman is, is still beautiful! A beautiful car that is a copy of another beautiful car is still beautiful! But in art we would say: The rembrandt copied by some forger is just worthless. So, that means: We have a distinction between the original and the copy, which doesn't get along well with beauty. "

What is beautiful in our biological program, according to Schawelka, is simply the sensible, functional, average, which leads us safely to our goal, to healthy offspring or to a landscape that is not hostile to life. Ideals of beauty are not as variable as assumed and always play around a fixed core that is constant over time and across regions.

"Has proven itself in principle. Is of course the problem with all these programs that we have: Do they still fit in with our time? We have a program that we just find sugar pleasant - and that is of course no longer healthy and leads to obesity and tooth decay and all sorts of things. And the question is, of course, to what extent beauty is so crucial when choosing a partner, for example, where we have the pill and where we no longer reproduce. And of course this program is only 70-80 percent correct Well, there have always been exceptions, there have always been situations where you should be careful: So a beautiful fruit that tempts me to eat it is certainly a useful program, but of course there is something like belladonna, which, although it does look beautiful, do us no good. Or beautiful women of course! And beautiful men too! Well, you can't necessarily rely on it! "

The mineralogist: optically perfect, but sensitive

The mineralogist Birgit Kreher-Hartmann, who is also a lecturer at the Studium Generale "Beauty", is even more skeptical about necessarily combining the beautiful, the visually perfect with the useful. In mineralogy it is exactly the other way around.

"Everything that is perfect in the mineral kingdom is disadvantaged by the other minerals. So if you take the mineral quartz, think of the mineral rock crystal, where you have the characteristic shapes with the long prismatic surfaces and the bonnets, which then have very special surfaces - if those that are particularly beautifully formed are aesthetic, but they are almost more sensitive to nature than if they are not so ideally formed. When they grow individually into a cavity, they always are, too, and have a certain degree of fragility , so sensitivity; they can break off more easily, can be more easily attacked and dissolved by solutions that perhaps flow through with other elements, so: beauty is more vulnerable there, let's say. "

So beauty could be part of a programming in our brain; Beauty helps us make decisions; The program does not tell us whether the beautiful and functional path found is the right one. And beauty can also be dangerous - for the beautiful and for the viewer. Christoph Redies is not afraid of the disenchantment of beauty, even if he should find out more precisely what it is and how it affects us.

"There is a lot of contradiction! It comes from different corners. There are people who say: If we can explain beauty, we demystify beauty; then it is no longer beautiful, because then the divine is packed into a formula and with it the stimulus is lost. I don't think so! I think the aesthetic perception, the perception of beauty is so fundamental that we can't turn it off. Perhaps it's similar to love: We know exactly how it is The body reacts and where something is expanded and which hormones are released - but that doesn't take away our joy! "