by cheri sabraw
This photograph of a single California Brown pelican floating in the silvery-grey Pacific Ocean is not cropped or enhanced. It represents a real moment in time in the life of a solitary seabird who is resting from flight.
Is this bird aesthetically beautiful? Is the photograph a thing of beauty? Do standards exist that enable us to judge the beauty of a bird or a photograph?
Is a piece of fine art, such as a painting or sculpture, or a work of literary art, such as a poem or a story, or a sentient being or object in Nature, such as a pelican or an ocean, a thing of beauty? Is beauty found in the cliched “eye of the beholder” or does beauty have qualifications?
This austere scene, taken in the mid-afternoon on the Central Coast of California, reveals the silver light of the sun on a distant horizon. We may appreciate the illumination of the line and its contrast to the dreamy clouds. But is this scene or photograph an example of beauty?
Consider Jackson Pollock’s art, particularly his masterpiece entitled
Lucifer, now on display in a new museum devoted to abstract impressionist art, a gift to Stanford University by the Anderson family. Some may view this large work as an ugly and violent smattering and whirling of oil paint thrown onto an unsuspecting canvas. Others may see pure genius in Pollock’s interpretation of Satan. But, do they see beauty?
It was Diotima, an Ancient Greek priestess and teacher, whose dialogue about the love of beauty Plato shares in his Symposium ( 4th century BCE). Diotima suggests that first we must appreciate the beauty of a single person or object. We may agree that a single pelican embodies what Plato believed constituted beauty: proportion, harmony, and unity.
We are aware that our senses identify the pelican as an example of beauty. Diotima tells us that after seeing beauty in a particular bird, we are now capable of experiencing beauty in all birds. We move from the specific to the general.
Ecstatic emotion may flood our senses when the silver line expands to reveal a three-dimensional candlelabra of flowing light and motion, coming toward our eyes in gentle waves. Our hearts open to the beauty of all light and all seas and all waves.
Diotima would suggest we are now ready to see absolute beauty.