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No Algorithm for Beauty

No Algorithm for Beauty
The Met
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)


  1. With a tilt of MY head, I join you in a hearty “Bwah-ha-ha, you didn’t win this time online masters!”. I hardly ever see any pin ‘suggested for me’ that rings a bell, and follow very few pinners (96) often liking the majority of their pins but repinning very little. Some of us just want to do the rogue thing by randomly typing words of personal interest in the search box and be happily surprised with the result. Your ‘Cult of Beauty’ pins tell a bit of who you are, just as my ‘Whimsy’ & ‘Humorous Images’ boards describe my personality.
    Sometimes it’s just all…too much fun.

  2. How timely – On my “People” board I have a photo of a gentleman who has a big smile on his face! He’s holding a giant Penhill Watermelon Dahlia. He looks awfully familiar… is it… no, couldn’t be… but it is! It’s Tom!

  3. That Garden Gate IS stunning. I might need to start an Art Nouveau board, being totally captivated by the work of Alphonse Mucha and how it translated into furniture. Thanks for another (always outstanding) idea. Your peaches are amazing!

  4. Thanks Tom for the lessons on Pinterest, Art & Beauty and also for those wonderful images.
    I was struck by this sentence from the Fine Art Museum’s definition of their show, “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.”

    For sure art activism with a moral imperative is needed now more than ever. Sadly, as Timothy Snyder pointed out in his little pamphlet of a book, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Fascism, Communism, and Nazism all subverted liberal democracies and forced art and artists to adhere to their totalitarian goals. Think Socialist Realism (Communism) and Leni Riefenstahl (Nazi) propaganda.

  5. Another timely blog, Tom. In this age when we are seeing so much misery, so much hatred, it is SO important that we turn our eyes to the beautiful, whatever that may mean to each person. I see great beauty in the eyes of my dog, as I know you do too. I see beauty in the birds that feed at my bird feeder and retire to the “cafe” of my lilac tree to chatter and gossip. There is beauty in silence and in friendship and in music. It is all around us, and we must take time out of our busy lives to find it, to see it, and to let it change our hearts.


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