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The Yin-Yang of Beauty: Musings of a Godless Taoist

Yin and yang stones

“The essence of the beautiful is unity in variety.”

-William Somerset Maugham

In life in general there are skeptics, Jews, Hindus, Wiccans, and everything in between–but when it comes to art, we’re all natural Taoists. I’ve always felt that art and beauty are grounded by a fundamental interplay of the opposing “forces” of repetition and variation, a kind of yin-and-yang of stasis and change.

For example, think of some of the basic elements of music such as pitch, rhythm, timbre, dynamics, and articulation. The presence of some or all of these elements is necessary for us to identify certain sounds as music, but the mere presence of them is not sufficient to ascribe musicality to certain sounds. There is, after all, a distinction to be made between noise and music. My living room chandelier may hum at a faint yet constant B-flat, and my toddler daughter may bang on a toy drum, but clearly the sounds produced by both are not musical. Musical elements must be executed and combined in a specific manner to actually be considered music, and they must be executed and combined in an even more specific manner for music to be considered more or less beautiful. (I won’t get into a philosophical discussion here over the objectivity or subjectivity of beauty, but suffice it to say that we all make judgments as to the quality of different music.) We can also say the same thing about arts other than music: performance arts such as acting and dancing as well as visual arts such as painting, sculpture, photography, etc. There is some quality (or qualities) that exist in these human activities and artifacts that enable us to a) classify them as art and b) deem them to be beautiful to varying degrees.

I believe we can boil this quality down to the presence of certain fundamental patterns of repetition and variation. Consider this the next time you listen to one of your favorite songs. (I know I’m stuck on music, but it happens to be my favorite art-form and I believe the most accessible to this type of observation.) Pay attention to the song’s basic elements and form. Listen to the beat and the melody. Notice what changes and what doesn’t over four minutes, when the changes occur, and how often they occur. Can you observe in the elemental patterns an ongoing, structured dance between the opposing characteristics of rest and movement, homo- and heterogeneity, and unity and diversity? Are you able to sense how these patterns play a role in evoking feelings such as tension and resolution? I may be a religious skeptic, but I think the Taoists are on the money with this one!

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