Another great post.
As someone who taught the story of the blind man and the elephant, I love reading such a perceptive take on the story. I wish I had had this when I was teaching. By the way, one of my former students sent this to me. I’m reposting as a way of passing it on to my other students.
Very inspiring. Thanks
You’re welcome! Thanks for stopping by!
You’ve really managed to verbalise something I’ve wanted to say to some people for quite some time. Thank you for the excellent comic!
I’m impressed, this is a really great piece of work Stephen! Keep it up, good to see you seizing your dreams
Love the mood and depth in this one. Nicely done!
You know, I’ve NEVER thought about beauty that way. It’s interesting to see another POV that is a complete 180 from mine! Thank you.
Thanks for considering my opinion on the matter! I appreciate it!
Very inspiring… All of your comics are very thought-provoking, and hit a note I very much needed to hear. I finished school recently, and that alone kind of left me wondering what role what I learned in school and outside of it play in my artwork from here on. I think what you describe here is what kept me reading tutorials and books about art and asking questions about process.
I know what you mean– recently I’ve been learning deeper my need to learn and my need to teach myself– and I feel more hungry for knowledge than when I was in college!
I agree and disagree with a lot of your points, but I would still argue that beauty is almost entirely subjective; sure, there are some things that are more commonly considered beautiful than others, but I think just about anything can be beautiful to someone in some way. I don’t think it’s that there’s a universal elephant that’s hard to see, it’s that everyone has their own personal elephant which they see so clearly but struggle to show to others. The fact that many people’s elephants happen to resemble one another gives the illusion of a universal elephant. I think the fiery connection I feel to a work of art isn’t from glimpsing the outline of some big, profound, cosmic thing, but rather from the realization that someone else’s elephant resembles my own, that they share with me something so small and sharp and personal.
I agree with the intent of your professor: the goal of art education shouldn’t be to try to dictate to you what beauty is, or tell you your own elephant is wrong because it doesn’t resemble what’s common. I think the goal should be to give you the tools you need to help you better reveal your own idea of beauty. But on the other hand, I agree with you that studying others’ art as an example of what is commonly considered beautiful can be a valuable part of that toolkit and can help expand and enrich your own tastes.
Ultimately, I do believe all methods of making art, when seen as an earnest attempt at sharing one’s own elephant, are equally valid. That doesn’t mean every artist’s work is beautiful (to me), or that if every method is valid I should feel satisfied with making art I consider ugly and abandon all attempts at improvement. But I respect the effort and intention of others’ art and recognize it as art even if it doesn’t move me.
I really appreciate your eloquent description of your perspective. I resonate with the idea that we can be profoundly touched when we realize that someone’s art resembles our own ideas of beauty.
My professor frustrated me mainly because if he admitted to have nothing to teach, how could he justify charging me for his services? If there’s nothing to learn, then why was I there? I think I would have learned more if he had given me his theory about what beauty was, and allowed me to develop my own in reaction to his.
As I said in the essay, I can’t prove that the universal elephant is out there, so I really have no legitimate rebuttal to your perspective. Your view is logical and well put.
Why did I write this essay if I can’t prove my view? I suppose it’s because I’ve come to delight in the fact that though I can’t prove the universal elephant is there, no one else can prove it’s not.
What frustrated me throughout my college education was that many people almost religiously insisted on demonstrating to me that beauty didn’t exist. Yet it seemed like a shame to throw away such a profound idea when I could see no legitimate argument that universal beauty wasn’t there.
When I think beauty might contain principles and constants, it fills me with a hunger to learn, like a scientist trying to figure out what makes the universe tick. It moves me to action, to pursuit. The scientist searches because he assumes there is something to find.
My struggle is that I feel like our culture is constantly telling me I am not allowed to be a scientist in regard to art. People seem to find the idea of universal beauty distasteful, even wrong. I think this might be because a statement about beauty is a statement about humanity, about the eyes that perceive the beauty, about ourselves. We are very hesitant to say anything definite about ourselves, because we don’t want to be perceived as absolutist or dogmatic. But I think our hearts betray us– universal statements about humanity brings out our passions and hungers and hopes that we are not alone, that we are not so different that we can’t relate to each other.
When you look out in the world it does look pretty dark and unfathomable. There are two ways of interpreting the darkness. Either there is light in our eyes, but darkness in the world, as our culture seems to tell us, or we are blind but live in a world of light. I would rather believe the world is full of light and I am blind, because at least I’d have something to look at if I ever find a cure for my blindness.
I think you can definitely be scientific about your own tastes; you can say with certainty that A is beautiful to you, while B is ugly. And you can be scientific about which things are more popularly considered beautiful than others. You can be scientific about WHY some things are more popular than others (Evolution? Peer pressure? Cultural conditioning?). And you can be scientific about the common threads that tie together popular taste (i.e. “What is it that so many people like about A, B, and C, and what is it they don’t like about X, Y and Z?”). I think those common threads are the elephant you describe in the comic, and I agree with you that you can be totally scientific about searching them out.
However—and I realize I’m just squabbling over a technicality at this point—when I look at constantly changing tastes in fashion, in architecture, in product design, typography, illustration, music, movies, etc., and how those tastes vary not only by time, but by geographic location and culture; when I think about gay people or straight people, or people who are attracted to skinny people or fat people, old or young, black or white, hairy or smooth, etc., etc.; when I think about how animals are almost exclusively attracted only to members of their own species; when I think about influential artists who were ridiculed in their own time but later regarded as a geniuses who were able to see beauty where no one else could; I have to conclude that beauty is nowhere near universal or constant. The only thing constant about the elephant of popular taste is that it’s always shapeshifting.
If beauty were universal, you should be able to say unequivocally that A is beautiful and B is ugly—to every person (or intelligent alien), to every culture, for all time, in all places—but you can’t. Even if “everyone” loves A, there’s always that one guy who genuinely doesn’t see what all the fuss is about, and even if “everyone” hates B, there’s always that one guy who can’t get enough of it. That guy isn’t wrong for having tastes that violate the “laws” of beauty, he just perceives beauty differently. And even if “everyone” loves A now, in 20 years they might say, “God, what were we thinking?” Even if “everyone” hates B now, in a few decades they might say, “Wow, this is actually pretty good.” If you had been born 400 years ago, would your tastes be different? What might you think of the modern day artists you currently find inspiring and influential?
The world is beautiful only because we judge it to be. The only light in the world is what we bring to it, but even so, the world isn’t entirely dark; we all share each other’s collective light. We can help illuminate the world for others, to help people see the ordinary in new ways or find beauty in places they hadn’t considered before. The bulk of our collective light (that is, what we as a culture generally consider more timelessly beautiful, or “the rules” as you called them) may remain relatively constant, but the outer edges of our collective spotlight are always changing. Shining the light just a little ways out from the edge (that is, “becoming a slave to [the] rules”) makes it easier for people to make the jump to something new. Shining an island of light way off in the distance (that is, breaking too many of the established norms) makes it harder for most people to get there, but they might come around in a few decades (or not).
So I guess to sum it up, I agree with you about the value of searching out the shape of that relatively unchanging bulk of light (or elephant, if you prefer) if you want to use your art to communicate to others. But I don’t think popular consensus among one species on one lonely planet is the same thing as universal objective beauty.
Great points! Thanks for all the thought and time you’ve put into your response. I really appreciate it, because I think this topic is important.
It feels like what you’re saying is that something is beautiful because it tastes good, where as I’m saying something tastes good because it’s beautiful. Ha ha! We are standing on opposite presuppositions about the world that color every idea we come in contact with.
When I hear that a man can love a woman or a man or a monkey, I think, wow, how amazing that men are lovers. Surely love is a part of universal beauty. When I hear that popular taste is constantly changing, I think, wow, we must all love the taste of something new. Perhaps newness is a part of beauty.
Do you see how my presupposition colors my view of the facts? I don’t deny it. Your presupposition colors the facts too, and together we hold our presuppositions by faith. My goal with this essay was not so much to prove my view as to say that no matter how many examples people put forth about how taste changes from individual to individual, from culture to culture, from time to time, they are still only speaking about the nature of taste, not the nature of what is being tasted. All statements made about objective reality (about the elephant) are made by faith, both your statements and mine. We have no evidence, just hunches.
I am like a conspiracy theorist, looking for a pattern in everything. It can be kind of schizophrenic, but in my opinion our culture could use some extra voices questioning the commonly held idea that there is no pattern. Maybe there isn’t! But why do we discourage each other from looking for one? We try to keep people from looking for meaning, which seems wrong to me.
My hope is to spread my hunch by making people my fellow conspiracy theorists.
I point to snowflakes and say, “Wow, there is such a diversity of snowflakes. From what we can tell, there has never been the same snow flake in all times and all places. Perhaps this means that each snowflake followed its own personal set of laws to direct its growth. Or maybe, all the snowflakes followed the same laws, but each held different factors, like temperature, wind speed and humidity and thus they all grew different shapes. Perhaps instead of one variable and many equations, there are many variables and one equation!”
Many people claim the theory of evolution outlines a bunch of random processes, but I don’t think the processes are random, only the variables. Even though from the outside the only constant you can see is that organisms are always changing, that they never stay the same from place to place, from time to time, I think inside of evolution there are some very specific laws.
And like a conspiracy theorist, I try to draw a line between the way these natural phenomenon work and beauty itself. For some reason, our culture says I’m not allowed to make that connection. But I can’t see a reason why not.
This has been a great conversation. Would you mind if I make it a blog post? I would give you the last word if you’d like to give a rebuttal to what I am saying here.
I’d also link to your website, because I see you’re a fellow artist!
If something tastes good because it’s intrinsically beautiful as you presuppose, I still don’t understand how to reconcile that with the infinite variety of personal preferences. If we say that Thing A is intrinsically beautiful, but only 70% of humans think so, are the other 30% somehow broken or defective or blind because they can’t detect the innate beauty in it? Is Thing A somehow beautiful and not beautiful simultaneously?
It seems like you might be saying, “Everything is beautiful. It’s just that each person can only appreciate a limited range of that beauty because in their blindness they can only feel a small part of the elephant; the world is full of light, we’re just too blind to see all of it at once.” But to say “everything is beautiful” seems like just another way of saying “nothing is beautiful”; something is exceptional only by contrast with something else. It gets you no closer to revealing the shape of objective beauty. The same would be true of saying everything is simultaneously beautiful and not beautiful. It’s a meaningless and needlessly complex explanation. (I’m not saying you’ve suggested that explanation, I’m just getting it out of the way.)
So you might say, “Okay, so maybe not EVERYTHING is beautiful. There’s a smaller subset of things that are intrinsically beautiful, and any one person can only see a small portion of that subset because of their blindness.” But how can you even begin to determine the shape of that subset except by observing whether or not people think something tastes good? Whether something is beautiful because it tastes good, or tastes good because it’s beautiful, we’re still basing our evidence of beauty solely on people’s tastes.
The only way we know anything objective about the natural world is through observation and experience. Yes, we have to make a small leap of faith in saying, “The universe is knowable,” but after that presupposition, you can rely solely on observation as a reliable method of determining objective truth. But that observation can be tainted by our subjective viewpoint, so we can only determine that something is objectively true if the observed results are the same every time for every person.
If you gathered 100,000 people and asked them all in turn to hold their hand 1 inch above a candle flame for 5 seconds, all of them would have virtually identical physiological and psychological reactions to it. Clearly something universal is at play here. But if you took the same 100,000 people and showed them a painting, or played them a song, the reactions would be all over the map. If the only evidence of objective truth is people’s observations, but those observations are wildly inconsistent from person to person (the inconsistency being well outside the bounds of being explained by mental illness), then it’s impossible to draw any objective conclusions about which things are beautiful and which are not. Our observations of beauty speak only about us, and say nothing concrete about the object of observation.
I agree with you about “many variables and one equation” as it applies to snowflakes and evolution and other natural processes. The principles behind those processes function consistently and are consistently observable to anyone who looks. But the same can’t be said about the mechanics of beauty, which is why you can’t draw a line between the two. Questions like, “What temperature? Circle or polygon? Water or stone? How many? How tall? How fast? What angle?” are clearly not the same kind of questions as, “Are you sad? Are you happy? How sad? How happy? Is this beautiful? How beautiful?” Whereas anyone can look at a snowflake and say, “Its form is composed of six radially-symmetrical segments and it formed within very specific constraints as a result of consistent physical principles,” you can’t look at a painting and say, “It is beautiful. To be precise, it is exactly 86.24% beautiful.”
You can be very specific about the nature of what is being tasted. You can observe a strawberry and say, “It is composed of these specific chemical compounds which give it its unique taste.” But you can’t use that information to say, “It is delicious.” You can predict that most people will think it’s delicious based on the number of people who have already said so, but you can’t derive any given individual’s perception of taste solely by observing the nature of what is tasted. It always ultimately becomes a question of individual perception.
I disagree that both our positions are based on faith. “Beautiful to one person because they perceive it as good-tasting” is not faith-based aside from the basic assumption that one can know anything about themselves or the universe. “Objectively beautiful in spite of many conflicting observations” requires you to ignore all the conflict and simply take something’s beauty on faith. I’m not saying there’s no pattern to our tastes, and I’m not saying don’t look for a pattern, I’m just saying that the evidence doesn’t seem to support the pattern you’re suggesting.
I’ve enjoyed the conversation as well. Thanks for making me think more deeply about this subject. Feel free to make it a blog post if you’d like.
Wonderful!Totally agree. You have to learn the rules to break them. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but the beholder, like the artist, can, and should educate themselves and the more educated they become the better they can see the quality inherent in real art. And maybe the artists are responsible for passing on this knowledge too by maintaining a level of quality. Drives me crackers seeing people pass off shit as real art and the masseslapping it up because they don’t know any better because they havent been educated not only to see quality but also to trust their real and deep instincts, not the egos instinct. Nice one:)
Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you liked the comic!
I disagree with the idea that your taste for art is tied to your intelligence, but I appreciate your enthusiasm. I too have felt frustrated with a lot of modern art, through I have learned to appreciate it in many ways. The truth is, modern art is not lapped up by the masses, but instead only appeals to a small sliver of people. Popular art like movies, games, books and comics is what the masses lap up, and that’s what I’m really interested in learning how to craft.
inspiring. says what I’ve been pondering for years, but most poignantly, I had a lecturer say the same to me, followed by ‘you’ll never be a painter’. Stupidly, I never painted again, and all i wanted was someone to show me a few tricks of the trade.
I’m sorry he did that to you!
It’s never to late to start though, if you are still interested in painting. I think you can be a better teacher than your lecturer was, and with there internet there are some amazing instructional resources for painters.
Wow….. that’s pretty deep. Makes you think about other things that way too.
Awesome. Let me know if you want to discuss anything!
Wow, Stephen! I’m continually impressed with your wisdom and insight.
You’re destined for great things!
I couldn’t help but think that art=truth in your comic. There is Truth out there, although there are those who would have us believe that there is no Truth to be discovered. Thank you.
You’ve definitely seen through me. Very perceptive.
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
Have you read Makoto Fujimura? His book “Refractions” did much to restore my confidence in current art. He, along with you, is a minority voice (at least in the academy, where I want to make my career) in arguing for the reality of things like… reality.
I really enjoyed your analogy from science, too. I often think it’s my background in science before I really committed myself to the humanities that makes me amenable to sharp thought like yours, Stephen.
This comic is like a life raft to me. Thank you.
I haven’t it read it– I’ll have to look it up. Thanks Trevor!
I love your comics. They’re so inspiring and… life-changing. I always feel so good after reading them, thank you very-very much!
This is incredibly insightful! I feel like I’ve learned something from it, but I don’t know what.
The idea and atmosphere of the comic is amazing, regardless of whether people consider there’s a solid rule of beauty or everyone has a different conception of beauty.
Great, nonetheless. Good job.
Thank you! Yeah, like I said, I can’t prove there’s a solid rule for beauty, but I do hope there is.
Ahh, he problem is, your teacher was right, but you refused to accept that as an answer. If you look at the history of art across many cultures, you will understand that there have been many “Right” ways of doing art. What you wanted, was to be taught how to do art the “right” way for your current culture.
You’ve assumed art has to be hard to do if it’s going to be any good. This is shown by your ironic example of dragging a paintbrush across multiple canvases. You’ve made the assumption that somewhere out there, there is a true and unassailable answer. And there isn’t.
You have touched a part of the elephant, and now you refuse to let go, simply insisting that your part of the elephant is the correct part.
It almost seems that you just want to consider art to be what like minded people around you will appreciate. There is a vast amount of art out there – from many cultures, and many times, and it’s all different, and every single artist thought that their’s was right – and it was.
Hey Kendall, thanks for the comment!
You’ve made quite a lot of statements about me here. More, I think, than about the ideas I’m presenting. That’s okay though. If you’d like to frame this discussion in the context of me, I’m a big fan of myself, so I’m totally down for talking along those terms.
I’m going to go through and address some of the points you’ve made about me:
“Your teacher was right, but you refused to accept that as an answer.”
Yeah, that’s fair, I admit I refuse to accept it as the answer. Can you explain to me how you know for certain my teacher was right? I’m having trouble understanding how you know that.
“If you look at the history of art across many cultures, you will understand that there have been many “Right” ways of doing art.”
I studied quiet a bit of art history in college for my art degree, and from my perspective it looks to be a landscape of echoing cross-cultural archetypes, stories that remix and yet repeat over and again. I know one culture may be more a fan of red than another culture, but it has always amazed me how both cultures love color.
“What you wanted was to be taught how to do art the ‘right’ way for your current culture.”
Actually, what I wanted was to be taught an artistic language that might be able to move across cultures and touch people who are different than me, and yet share something that’s the same. That’s why I feel really proud that recently a fan of these comics came forward and offered to translate some of my comics into Korean:
“You’ve assumed art has to be hard to do if it’s going to be any good.”
If you knew me, you’d know I’m too lazy to assume that. In every comic I make I look for ways to cut corners and do as little of work possible for the maximum benefits. It’s one of the reasons I decided to only use 5 colors for this comic– because then coloring would be a lot easier.
“You’ve made the assumption that somewhere out there, there is a true and unassailable answer. And there isn’t.”
I have made the assumption that somewhere out there, there is a true and unassailable answer. Have you somehow… not… made the opposite assumption? We’re both making assumptions, right? Is that a bad thing?
I’m still curious how you know it’s not out there.
“You have touched a part of the elephant, and now you refuse to let go, simply insisting that your part of the elephant is the correct part.”
Yes, this is the nature of perception. What confuses me is that you seem to be saying that if only I will let go of my part of the elephant and grab on to your part, then I’d understand how wrong and close minded I am. Yet I openly admit the possibility that beauty may not exist in my comic. To me, I can accept both the idea that beauty is there, and the possibility that it might not be there. Your view however seems to only allow for the idea that beauty is not there. When viewed this way, doesn’t it seem like your view is more closed than my view?
“You just want to consider art to be what like minded people around you will appreciate.”
I’m really curious where you’re getting all this information about me– ha ha. Who’s telling you this stuff? I need to have a talk with them.
My greatest hope is actually to create art for and have a dialog with people who don’t agree with me, who are not like minded– like you! Thank you for being here.
I’ve thought a lot about this, and as I start seriously reading about the philosophy of art, the more convinced I become that there ARE rules to art, and there IS structure. I felt sort of let down in art school, because it had the atmosphere of “anything goes!” which meant that the artists who worked very hard honing their skills were often ‘lumped in’ with artists who pursued art mindlessly and lazily.
Of course, I don’t want to support any ideas of elitism or my art is better than your art, but at the same time…
There IS such a thing as beauty, and I do believe that the purpose of art is to portray beauty.
Etienne Gilson (a French philosopher) addresses this at length in his book, “The Arts of the Beautiful”… It’s something that really restored my faith in the arts, and reading it here in your comic sort of makes that point specific to comics. Comics can portray beauty, therefore they ARE art.
Thank you for being awesome
Yeah— I haven’t mentioned it in the comments yet, but that’s what my studies have uncovered as well–
When I look at archetypes and the mechanics of story, the fixed color harmonies and compliments, the principles of contrast, variance, rhythm, and flow it makes me feel like there’s something out there that we share solely on the basis of the fact that we are human, and we all have eyes and hands and ears and minds.
This was so wonderful and inspiring!
Went into deep thought! Very reflective. And the art style is kickin’! Keep at it friend.
If I had a word to define what these words felt like in the corner of my minds,I would simply go with “Beautiful”. Well said,my friend. While no one can define beauty to be in a matter of space and time,the boundaries set by each individual to what it is simply limitless. Something that is so much and yet only a few feel right in ones mind. And to refine and define one’s taste,we take upon a form with texture to paints. To songs to Dances and anything that will help us define,”Yes I feel this is beautiful.” And thus art is born.
I may not know much about you,but rest assure,my soul tonight is in your debt. It may forget the words. It may forget the lines. But you have shown me what I wanted to see for a while. So I thank you.
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *