Beauty … and Sex

Every Thursday my wife Mrs. Cat treats herself to a Culture Afternoon, visiting one of Berlin’s art galleries. On the wall above my desk hang a Chagall print and a pastel portrait by the Russian artist Varvara Shavrova. A Hamburg friend keeps sending me YouTube links to a new band, The XX. Earlier this year 235,000 art lovers queued up to see the Frida Khalo exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Goethe and Molière are read centuries after their deaths. Why are people so passionate about beauty?

‘What is it that makes life so abundantly, so triumphantly, worth living?’ asked the British author and publisher John Hadfield. ‘If I had to answer the question in one word it would be beauty.’ In trying to understand her deep response to fine art, the writer Rebecca West wondered, ‘What in the world is this emotion? What is the bearing of supremely great works of art on my life which makes me feel so glad?’ During his sojourn in Berlin, David Bowie wrote – and sang on his album Heroes, ‘You can’t say no to the Beauty and the Beast.’

We love beautiful creations because of our biology; that is the assertion of Nicholas Humphrey, theoretical psychologist and emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, who has worked at Cambridge, Oxford, Tufts and the City University of New York as well as at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies (ZiF) at the University of Bielefeld. ‘If beauty were of relatively minor significance in human lives, we could push it to one side. But in reality it’s the opposite. With beauty, people can find the very point of being alive,’ he writes in this month’s issue of Prospect magazine. ‘Beauty stirs us up, and takes us over – giving rise on occasion to the peculiar feeling of “flow”, “melding” or “union”.’ In other words we love beauty because of sex – or more specifically, biological survival.

Our hunger for beauty and art has long perplexed me. Why do we so need something that seems so unnecessary? Humphrey argues that our love for beautiful, original things is really a proxy for some idealised person. His explanation, on which this week’s blog is wholly based, is fascinating, and I want to share his thoughts with you.

‘When we are excited by beauty – whether in painting, music, sculpture, words or ideas – what is happening at a deeper level is that we are responding to features in the beautiful object that reveal the hand of an artist’, writes Humphrey, drawing on Charles Darwin’s theories. ‘In the real world any such artist is likely to be an individual with especially well developed manual, sensory, intellectual, and maybe even moral skills. And a person with such skills is likely to be a person with highly desirable traits as a progenitor or parent or companion.’

This idea – that aesthetic preferences arise through sexual selection – provides a ready solution to the puzzling mystery of peoples’ appetite for great art.

‘If works of art are being (or at any rate in the evolutionary past were being) created primarily as a way for the artist to demonstrate his or her desirability as a partner, we should expect these works to be – as they so obviously are – showcases for just those bodily and mental traits that most count in mate-choice: dexterity, sensitivity, creativity, loyalty, mentorship, humour, good judgement, rich resources.’

handofgod1But what about beauty in the natural world? Why are we so moved by the pattern of a seashell and the curl of a forest fern? Humphrey believes that the answer lies in the convergence between ‘the features of works of art that we value because they provide evidence of human skill, and the features of natural things that have evolved and persisted because these features have typically given them staying power and survivability.’ Nature’s symmetry, segmentation, rhyme and balance appeals to us, and we imagine the hand of the artist – a supremely skilled and divine creator — behind them. As the hymn has it, ‘All things bright and beautiful,/All creatures great and small,/All things wise and wonderful./The Lord God made them all.’

‘We love nature because we believe God made it,’ writes Humphrey. ‘But I suspect it would come still closer to the psychological and biological reality to say: “Because God made nature, that’s why I love God.”’ So not only does our love of beauty spring from the drive for biological survival, but so too does our need for God.

Brian Eno once asked, ‘Art seems to be something that we are biologically inclined to do. If we are, then what is the nature of that drive? What is it doing for us?’ At last we have a possible answer, thanks to the beautiful insights of Nicholas Humphrey.