Beauty, the beholder and the eye.

Look at this:


It’s a shot of the MAHLI (Mars Hand Lens Imager) on Curiosity’s arm.

I think it’s a beautiful object.

Immanuel Kant said that if we think something is beautiful we want everyone to agree with us. Whilst obviously a notorious pissant, Kant was probably on to something here. (Although it could be said that we’d like everyone to agree with all of our opinions, not just our aesthetic ones – though that might just be me).

So, while some people may not have immediately thought “beautiful” upon seeing this photo, I’ll try to explain why I did, and hopefully you’ll agree with me. Or, at least, not disagree with me, which is probably as much as we can hope for.

Let’s be clear – I’m talking about beauty in terms of human creation. ‘Natural beauty’ is something else entirely. Personally, I think we like the look of flowers not because of any inherent perfection in the shape of petals, but because we are instinctively, emotionally, biologically moved by nature itself, and as an expression of the natural world, flowers appeal to us. In that sense, all nature is beautiful. All of it. So much so that a great deal of art amounts to the representation of nature. And, of course, many people have identified a Divine Artist as the great Creator. Somewhere a long the line we replaced our inward love of Mother Nature who gave birth to us with an outward admiration for Father God who makes things like us.

But I digress…

Beauty as created by people…

I work in the arts, where the philosophy of aesthetics is something we wrestle with daily. Along with budgets, contracts and who’s rostered on to clean the kitchen. But mainly aesthetics.

After thousands of years of debate, we still can’t define beauty, but I think we can talk about it as a system; a dynamic between concepts in opposition.

In my field, what we often appreciate is the way a creative work expresses a dynamic between form and intent.

The intent is the creator’s message, or mood – the psychological state they aim to share with the beholder.   It’s the payload, if you like.

The form, or language of an artwork enables a beholder to comprehend, or unpack the creators intent. It’s the delivery mechanism.

Throughout the history of art, schools and movements in various disciplines have, in essence, moved back and forth along the continuum between rigid formalism and expressive intent. Neither end, at its extreme, delivers much in the way of beauty. Both concepts tend to get in each other’s way. There is no perfect mid-point either, but the joy of art as an evolving tradition is the continuous experimentation with those two values.

What about this MAHLI shot then..?

Well, first of all, obviously MAHLI is not a work of art. It’s a work of science.

But as a human creation, it still operates within that dynamic field between form and intent. It’s a mechanism intended to perform a defined range of tasks within a certain environment.

The intent is exceptionally clear. As is the form – the restrictions imposed by available technology, environmental conditions both on Mars and on the way, and its restrictions within the wider mission.

The dynamic landscape this piece of work was created in is mathematical in its purity. There is no compromise based on taste, or guesswork, or feeling. Every shape, form, curve, angle, texture is the expression of an intent,formed in response to conditions.

As such, it is one of the best examples of human beings creating like nature, rather than in imitation of it.

Nature doesn’t make a flower a bright colour to delight us. It’s that colour because it has to be in order to work properly. Same with MAHLI.

Look again. Does it look more like something that was sculpted, or something that grew?

Now you might say, ‘Yes, but that would apply to pretty much anything we make, from a car engine to a block of flats to a milk bottle.”. In part you’d be right, but for me the sheer intensity of both the intent and the formal restrictions of this object lift it into a rarefied creative space that most human-made tools simply do not inhabit. No compromises. That’s a idea the highest minds in both art and science hold dear.

And you might also say “But where’s the humanity? Where’s the soul? How can it have beauty without the warmth of humanity?”

Firstly I would respond by mentioning the degree of human care that went into it’s creation. As I’ve said before, this whole mission represents the culmination of so many careers, every component of the mission was put together with a level of devotion, attention, care and passion that there really is only one way ti can be put: MAHLI was made with love.

And then I’d say that it comes back to intent – that element of the artistic equation that could also be called ‘inspiration’.

You see, MAHLI is an eye.

On one level it’s intent is to peer at rocks very closely and take highly detailed photographs. But it’s true intent is at a mcuh deeper, more human level. Its intended to change our perspective, to put us on another world, to see and think about things we never had thought about before, to deepen our understanding of and appreciation for the nature of our fragile existence. To look at life in a whole new way.

Goals don’t come much more noble, more artistic, more beautiful, more human than that.

And, at the end of the day, I’d have it on my coffee table.

It’d be a conversation starter.


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