What is beauty?

by SEKIYA Masato (Architect)

Since ancient times, many different artists and philosophers have made various attempts to answer the question of what "beauty" is. At university, I majored in oil painting (I came to architecture later), and this was a question that I pondered often, from about age 13.

"Beauty" is a matter of "stress." I'm absolutely confident about this.

I haven't studied this problem analytically, as a scientist or scholar would, but I'll try to explain my reasoning by giving an example.

When I was working for a construction company, I studied under the architect Ryosuke YAMAMOTO for about ten years. During a discussion about Sukiya architecture (a traditional Japanese architectural style that is refined and elegant), I had a flash of revelation. I asked myself why we feel that the complexity of a Sukiya design is ‘beautiful’.

The tatami mat lines, pillars, and ceiling rails are neatly aligned, and this has the effect of making us say, "It's beautiful." When there is misalignment, we feel as it is not as it should be. When we look at architecture, we often think that because a design is uncluttered and clean, it is beautiful, but this is not actually so. The question is, why do we feel that something is beautiful, if it is neat and clean?

We say something is "beautiful" without knowing the true nature of the appreciation of beauty. When we look around or see certain things with our eyes, the image automatically enters the brain as information through our eyes. When we see a square object, our brain "recognizes" it from its outline. In other words, we process the information unconsciously. What if we look at a messy desk? Many people will feel uncomfortable. What is different is that when what is being seen takes too much time for the brain to process and recognize, this produces stress in the brain. Conversely, when something orderly is perceived, this information processing is smooth. When the subject matter is in an easily processed form, it does not put the brain into a state of stress. My thinking is that the feeling of being released from such stress must give people the sensation of "beauty."

Let me explain a little more concretely from the perspective of everyday life.

As you walk around the city, cars and people come and go among building signs and traffic lights, and other miscellaneous surroundings. Your brain unknowingly and dizzyingly processes those scenes that come in through your eyes. We are under stress all the time, continuing to endlessly and constantly perceive the views around us. However, for example, when you climb up a building like Abeno Harukas (a very tall building in Osaka City) and look out at the view, you're sure to say. "Ah, it's beautiful"

It is because the outside scenery is divided into the sky and the land, and your brain only needs to recognize these two factors. Your brain is freed from the stress of endless information processing and recognizes only two things, the sky and the ground. The same is true when looking up at the starry sky. As soon as you look up at the black night sky and the spots of starlight, your brain is freed from complicated information processing.

As another example, if you are looking at a fence, and one of the palings is broken, your brain, which had been processing the smooth regularity of the fence until then, took a little time (probably just a few seconds) to perform a different perceptual movement when it processed the break in regular pattern. Your brain feels stressed and tries to fix the irregularity it sees, coming to the conclusion that it is "not beautiful".

Now, I will explain how my ideas can explain the essences of "beauty" in various works of art, in terms of the information processing speed of the brain itself.

In art, instead of relying on the passive perceptual information processing we perform in daily life as I have written about here, artists of all ages, east and west, actively shorten the time of this information processing using certain techniques. One of them is the "contrast theory". The "dual contrast" that Professor Kan Izue often talked about refers to this, but it can be rephrased as "contrast = shortening information processing time" rather than "contrast = so beautiful". Basically, many good works of art show techniques that combine two or more intricately contradictory factors to make the human brain recognize the situation faster.

Imagine that you are walking slowly through an art museum. Even at that time, you unconsciously perceive and process information about people and the inside of the building that your eyes constantly input. Next, you stop in front of a masterpiece. For example, Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People". If you step back and look at the picture as a whole, you see the horizontal position of the people lying dead at the feet of Liberty, against the vertical position of the long gun barrel in one man’s hand, and a saber in another, as well as the thrusting movement of the pistol in the hand of the boy, seeming to advance threateningly on the figure of Liberty. She has raised a flag high as she is running towards one side of the frame. The horizontal movement is composed as a contrast. What we call composition is a vertical-horizontal contrast within the full-size frame of this picture, and your brain first recognizes the whole picture.

Delacroix "Liberty Leading the People"
[ Delacroix "Liberty Leading the People" ]

This moment does not provide perceptual information in other details, but if you immediately make the perceptual frame a little smaller and see a slightly narrower range, you see, for example, when you move your eyes to the upper body of the goddess, the arm of the goddess with the national flag stretching upwards is contrasted with her face facing backward and facing away from her upward reaching arm. Because of this contrast, we can process information instantly even when we see only this part.

Liberty looks back as she is running towards you, the viewer, and this produces a powerful impression which is instantly processed in your brain. At this time as well, the stress of perceptual cognition is reduced to a minimum. (The whole is perceived as a triangular composition with the flag as the starting point and the dead bodies as the base, but I wanted to imply that this expresses support for the freedom symbolized by the French flag and courage and sorrow of so many sacrifices. I think this is a different element from what I call "beauty.")

If the frame to be viewed is made smaller, the boy holding two pistols is raising his right hand straight up, with his left hand pointing downward and backward. These contrasting movements can be recognized instantly. This constitutes one side of the whole triangle.

The moment you look at this in yet another frame and look at the rest of this picture, the whole picture is outside the scope of your perceptual information processing. Concentrating on the man with the saber, we consider the pistol in his belt and the bag across his torso. The movement of the hand holding the saber is on the left and forward, while the grip of his pistol and the movement of the shoulder strap of the bag are drawn in contrast, so that the man's appearance can be recognized smoothly. In this way, the genius first prepares an overall contrasting perceptual and cognitive mechanism, and then incorporates these contrasts into more than one part of the picture, whether we gradually reduce the frame or shift it to the left or right. These contrasts are designed to increase the speed at which the human eye and brain perceive the image, and they are continuously and fractally composed of incredible precision within this complex screen.

Freeing the brain from the stress of information processing creates the impression of beauty. When a person stands in front of a masterpiece, he is temporarily released from the stress of information processing. (In this case, it is completely different from the emotions that come from the story and meaning of the painting.) I have given examples of contrasting techniques that have been applied to painting, but they can be found in other art forms such as sculpture, crafts, dance, Kabuki and so on. As a result, the tireless efforts of artists to seek "beauty" are all efforts without knowing how to shorten the information processing time of the mechanical brain from perception to recognition.

Another thought experiment involves color. For example, most of us have a favorite color.

Your favorite color is the wavelength that your eyes and brain can recognize the fastest of the various wavelengths. This can be seen from the fact that there is considerable bias depending on ethnic group. For many generations, people in Micronesia, Tonga and Samoa prefer extremely saturated or natural hemp and dried grass colors, and Scandinavian people have incorporated the fresh colors of green and aqua into their art. It is thought that they created the characteristics of the information processing function of their brain, and those colors became the fastest to recognize for survival. It can be inferred that the Japanese tend to prefer colors that are relatively desaturated, and that the colors are those that the brain can quickly recognize. The cultural and ethnic environments differ, and their brains’ processing differs accordingly. It should also be noted that color preference changes with age because the structure of the brain and eyes changes with age.

Some may argue that an empty wall is the most beautiful, but when I tried to capture an image of a wall on a digital camera on autofocus, I found that it was difficult to focus and the shutter could not be released. When we look at a featureless wall, our brain has the same experience. Suddenly, there is a desire to paint on an empty wall or put some kind of decoration on it, because it is easier for our brain to recognize what it is looking at, if there is a contrast. When we look only at a blank wall, we are unconsciously struggling with the mechanical information processing of the eyes and brain, even if we know what it is. By hanging a picture or attaching or placing something in the view, we are released from the stress of information processing in the brain, and that is what makes us like it.

There is no absolute beauty in this world. The answer to the question of what beauty is lies in the structure of our brain. The essence of shapes, colors, movements, and beauty that can be quickly understood in the structure of our brain is the speed of information processing. If there is less stress, we think that we are viewing beauty. The various architectural designs of our world, even urban structures, are conveniently made to suit the structure of our brain. The activities of various people who are struggling to pursue beautiful things are doing nothing but speeding up the information processing of our brain.