No Algorithm for Beauty{12}

Ageless Beauty. Fragment of a Queen’s Face (Egypt), The Met Collection (image, public domain)

Of the many distractions that cross my path or are delivered to my inbox (courtesy of the great worldwide interwebs), one actually caught my attention enough for me to respond with a simple click and a curious eye. Pinterest had thoughtfully sent me an unsolicited email with the subject line, “We found some new Pins for your Cult of Beauty board.

Beauty in a garden gate…

Now for those of you not familiar with Pinterest, the online bulletin board allows you to categorize and save images and links to various online resources, all in one place, online. For example, if I see a righteous recipe and keen photo for a pumpkin pie, I can save it by ‘pinning’ it to my Favorite Recipes page on my Pinterest board. Any time I wish to check out the recipes I’ve saved, I can easily return to that page and retrieve said recipe.

One Pinterest board I’ve created is called “Cult of Beauty” and if you’re wondering how the heck I came up with that name, well, I can tell you it wasn’t my idea. I was inspired by a touring art show, that I wanted to see so badly in San Francisco, but unfortunately my farm cards played a close-to-home hand in requiring me to stay put during the time of the show, which by the way was called The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant Garde.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco website describe the show in this way:

The iconoclastic belief in that art’s sole purpose is to be beautiful on its own formal terms stood in direct opposition to Victorian society’s commitment to art’s role as moral educator. Aestheticism is now recognized as the wellspring for both the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements. The Cult of Beauty showcases the entirety of the Aesthetic Movement’s output, celebrating the startling beauty and variety of creations by such artists and designers as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James McNeill Whistler, Edward Burne-Jones, E. W. Godwin, William Morris and Christopher Dresser.

If I may paraphrase, the show was about pretty things. And I like pretty things, I marvel at what the human eye, hand and mind can create. And my standard for a beauty is wholly personal, and wonderfully transitory, based in context, mood, moment and attachment to the heart and mind.

Beauty in adornment (Bee, honeycomb and honey jewel by Ilgiz Fazulzianov)

When I see something exceptionally beautiful online, something so moving that I wish to revisit it, I pin the image to my Pinterest board: Cult of Beauty. This visual curiosity shop of treasures (to me) is all over the board, crossing media, artists, cultures, purposes, intents and movements. So when Pinterest thought their algorithm could systematically ‘help’ me pick new images, my interest was piqued. Could some formulaic code figure out what I thought was beautiful based on my viewing patterns and subjective past choices? I think not, but I wanted to look anyway. Yes, they got me this time. This chump clicked on the email link to see what they thought, I thought, was beautiful and worthy of my board.

Beauty in a book cover

As a page, fraught with incongruous images appeared, I smiled. While they were okay, and I guess attractive enough, the cherry-picked posts were not (in my humble opinion) aesthetically worthy of my cache of “Cult of Beauty” images. Sure they offered paintings, and prints and statues, and objects of curious design, but none so moved me as to save it to my board. I tilted back my head and cackled like a villain in a kid’s cartoon, “Bwah-ha-ha, you didn’t win this time online masters!”

Beauty in the everyday: Perfectly ripe peaches on my counter.

In this day of complete and utter invasion of privacy when I wonder who is keeping track of my keystrokes and online whereabouts, buying patterns, and reading choices, I sit smug in my kitchen nook typing that at least there is no algorithm for beauty, that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder and as fleeting as beauty itself.

One small win for Tom-kind. One large victory for our human hearts and souls.

Beauty’s visage (Ingres, Face of John the Baptist)

Beauty in the eye of the beholder… (Hiroshi Yoshida, El Capitan)