Beauties

2004-07-31

Matt Miller (a.k.a. linuxwolf) loaned me his copy of Paul Graham's Hackers and Painters the other day, and in the last 24 hours I've read about the first half of it. Graham's analysis of American schooling from about age 12 to age 18 seems spot on to me (at least, that's how it felt to me growing up), and I appreciate his historical perspective throughout. His call to beauty -- that is, to cultivate one's taste regarding the things one makes (whether that be writing, coding, art, or anything else) -- struck a chord with me. While I am far from one of those who claim that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I would have liked to see him delve more deeply into the nature of beauty. For example, I think that there are different kinds of beauty in any field of endeavor, and in nature itself. The beauty of a desert (such as I experienced in Tucson earlier this year) is different in kind from that of the high mountains here in Colorado, the rocky coast of Maine where I grew up, the rolling hills of the Shenandoah, and so on. In music, the austere purity of Bach (such as the Well-Tempered Clavier, to which I'm listening now) is far removed from the stormy passion of Beethoven, the quiet fervor of Dvorak, the melancholy joy of Ellington, the striving spirituality of Yes, and so on. The same is true of math, physics, biology, painting, sculpture, architecture, writing, coding, athletics, and countless other pursuits -- there is not one beauty in each field, but many varieties of beautiful experience. So it's not all that helpful to challenge people to strive for beauty -- one who would so strive needs to learn more about what makes a certain kind of production beautiful. Part of that is learning the art behind its creation -- and, as Graham says, that often involves a great deal of imitation and putting yourself inside the mind of the person who created the beautiful thing (in painting, this comes in part from copying the works of the old masters; in music, from learning to play the works of Bach and the other masters; in software, from reading good source code). In the past, that learning also came in part not just from familiarizing oneself with the works of the masters, but from working with the masters themselves through apprenticeship. But essential to that learning process is the ability to appreciate many different kinds of beauty -- to analyze beauty into its manifold aspects, such as purity, economy, elegance, coherence, integrity, cleanliness, rhythm, flow, naturalness, symmetry, difficulty, depth, significance, individuality, suggestiveness, and timelessness. The word "beauty" includes as many aspects or meanings as "good", and it's important to understand those aspects rather than to accept each term as an unanalyzable whole.


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