In an op-ed today in the NYT, Lance Hosey makes the pragmatic case for beauty:
“Take color. Last year, German researchers found that just glancing at shades of green can boost creativity and motivation. It’s not hard to guess why: we associate verdant colors with food-bearing vegetation — hues that promise nourishment. This could partly explain why window views of landscapes, research shows, can speed patient recovery in hospitals, aid learning in classrooms and spur productivity in the workplace. In studies of call centers, for example, workers who could see the outdoors completed tasks 6 to 7 percent more efficiently than those who couldn’t, generating an annual savings of nearly $3,000 per employee.
In some cases the same effect can happen with a photographic or even painted mural, whether or not it looks like an actual view of the outdoors. Corporations invest heavily to understand what incentivizes employees, and it turns out that a little color and a mural could do the trick. Simple geometry is leading to similar revelations. For more than 2,000 years, philosophers, mathematicians and artists have marveled at the unique properties of the “golden rectangle”: subtract a square from a golden rectangle, and what remains is another golden rectangle, and so on and so on — an infinite spiral. These so-called magical proportions (about 5 by 8) are common in the shapes of books, television sets and credit cards, and they provide the underlying structure for some of the most beloved designs in history: the facades of the Parthenon and Notre Dame, the face of the ‘Mona Lisa,’ the Stradivarius violin and the original iPod.”
Bill Hicks took this line of reasoning to its logical extreme decades ago; it ends with a beautiful woman, preferably nude, in fully saturated color, selling Coke. And the truth about whether sex really sells, or if it just angries up the blood is, of course, more complicated than the conventional wisdom might admit. But the way the question is framed is problematic. Does beauty in art or nature need justification, a practical purpose, an angle to exploit? Is the ultimate measure of everything whether or not it can be used to turn a profit?
Now. Some people become very fidgety when, for instance, their favorite song turns up in a car commercial. I have little patience for the sort of purist who prefers their idols starving and struggling; as Nitsuh Abebe wrote in a very good profile of Grizzly Bear last year, artists have mortgages to pay and heroin to buy, like the rest of us, and while I personally would never always illegally pirate music even though it is easier and faster as well as free-er, you know. Kids these days. However: egregious brand clashes between band and product are certainly cringe-inducing (remember that painfully awkward Iggy Pop ad for a Royal Caribbean cruise?). On the other hand, the use of Walt Whitman in this Levi’s ad makes me want to high five Don Draper.
It is certainly a marvelous side effect for an artist to have his paintings featured in a movie, or a song used to sell iPods. There is, in fact, a compelling argument to be made that the demands of marketing can make one a better writer or visual artist. There is undeniably a fertile, profitable overlap between commerce and creation. Still, the concept that the value of not just one’s work, but even physical or natural beauty is market-based…that freaks me out. Maybe it’s just because nobody ever pays me for my paintings.