Tuesday, November 15, 2005

My Quest for Beauty

In 1995, Donna Prestwood, Barbara Benjamin and I, created, produced and hosted 8 two-hour live satellite TV broadcasts for the National Technological University (NTU) on leadership, which we entitled "Leadership in the Interactive Age."


In the session called, Personal Ingenuity and Emerging Technologies, we described three characteristics of inevitable opportunities in technology:

  1. The space between
  2. Synergy
  3. Beauty

My point was, as I presented these three criteria, that if a technology operated on the space between people (things, ideas, concepts), enhanced synergy, and was beautiful (elegant), it probably had a good chance of being a success. I would probably add time shifting now, and still think it's a pretty good list.

I want to focus on beauty right now, because I think it is imperative that we keep our eye on this criteria as we move to more collaborative, emergent behavior types of human systems.
Rollo May was an existential psychologist and a philosopher. I read several books of his in the 1980s. http://www.ship.edu/~cgboeree/may.html

In My Quest for Beauty, May wrote, "Poincare, the great contemporary mathematician, sounds like Plato when he asks the question of how new mathematical discoveries are made. Then he answers,

'The useful combinations are precisely the most beautiful, I mean those best able to charm this special sensibility that all mathematicians know...But only certain ones are harmonious, consequently, at once useful and beautiful.'

Writing about Shiller, May comments, "...we best let him speak for himself.

'Beauty alone confers happiness on all, and under its influence every being forgets that he is limited.'

Shiller hastens to add that this forgetting is temporary, however, for the sense of limitations is crucial to our creating beauty. We actually create beauty out of the endeavor to come to terms with the paradox on the one hand of freedom and on the other of destiny. Our limits come from both nature and spirit, finite and infinite, objective and subjective."

May agrees with Shiller that beauty is born in play. "Play is the one activity where the fusion of inner vision and objective facts is achieved. Out of this comes the living form which is beauty. This living form is vital, alive, dynamic; and at the same time it gives serenity and repose..."

May remarks, "Artists wrestle with fate in the endeavor to make objective their inner subjective vision." And, in order to do that people must be psychologically healthy. Beauty is a result of creativity that is driven by the engine of paradox, the duality of opposites (finite/infinite, life/death, yin/yang, right/left brain). "Death is the mother of beauty", wrote Wallace Stevens.
"Thus creativity brings together what Freud summed up as the two purposes of life: to love and to work. (Otto) Rank was only going further than Freud by pointing out that both of these, love and work, are aspects of creativity."

May later writes, "Let us explore the human mind as it engages in the creative act. The capacity to create - which we all have, although to varying degrees - is essentially the ability to find form in chaos, to create form where there is only formlessness. This is what leads to beauty, for beauty is that form.

Beauty reveals a form in the universe - the harmony of the spheres, as Kepler called it. It is a form which is present in the circling of the planets. It is a form which is felt in the curves and balance of our own bodies. And it is present especially in the way we see the world, for we form and reform the world in the very act of perceiving it. The imagination to do this is one of the elements that make us human beings."

But what is form? "Form is a pattern, an image and an order given to what would otherwise simply be chaos. Form is the nonmaterial structure of our lives, on the basis of which we live and on which we base our own particular character." Henry Miller wrote of creative people that they want "to make of the chaos about them an order that is their own."

In another seeming paradox, May points out that "the form dictates the content." We select a form "because the content can best be formed out of the chaos" and put into "whatever form seems to fit." "Form", he continues, "is nonmaterial, and has its existence only as things are related to other things." Writing about Pythagoras, he explains, "he held that the fundamental element (of the universe) was no substance at all, but was really the form in which everything in nature is related to everything else."

At a personal level, our own quest for beauty through our creativity gives us grace. May writes, "Creativity gives us grace in the sense that it is balm for our anxiety and a relief from our alienation. It is grace by virtue of its power to reconcile us to our deepest selves, to lead us to our own depths where primary and secondary functions are unified. Here the right brain and the left brain work together is seeing the wholeness of the world."

Chaos is essential for creativity and thus beauty. Too much order will stifle creativity. The role of the artist changes depending upon the environment. If too much chaos exists, the artist creates new order. If too much order exists, the role of the artist is to create chaos.

If you have any doubt about beauty being a serious objective of any undertaking, listen to what Rollo May has to say. "Beauty is the expereince that gives us a sense of joy and a sense of peace simultaneously. Other happenings give us joy and afterwards a peace, but in beauty these are the same experience. Beauty is serene and at the same time exhilarating; it increases one's sense of being alive. Beauty gives us not only a feeling of wonder; it imparts to us at the same moment timelessness, a repose - which why we speak of beauty as being eternal.

Beauty is the mystery which enchants us. Like all higher experiences of being human, beauty is dynamic; its sense of repose, paradoxically, is never dead, and if it seems to be dead, it is no longer beauty."

Innovation commons, as well as other open, collaborative systems, are by their very nature chaotic systems. The goal is to find the order in the chaos through the individual and collective creativity of its members. This will happen if their is a shared vision, will and significance in the group. The balance of order and chaos is extremely important, as well as the timing of that balance, which should change from more chaotic to more ordered over time, or else the effort will not be productive. The group has to collectively and individually be on a quest for beauty, in addition to functionality, in order to avoid building a termite mound.

My Quest for Beauty
Rollo May
Saybrook, 1985


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