Knowing this month’s theme is Beauty, I started thinking about what makes something or someone visually “beautiful”. First I looked up “beauty in art” and found the “golden ratio”– otherwise known as the “golden proportion” or “golden number.” Basically the premise behind the golden ratio is that there is a mathematical ratio that, if applied, helps to improve the visual beauty of any design, or composition. That golden ratio is always 1 to approx 1.618 (represented by the Greek letter phi ()). Here it is visualized in the Golden Rectangle and Golden Spiral.

The golden ratio can improve the aesthetics of proportions.

The golden ratio can also be found in nature, and even in the human form. The golden ratio has existed pretty much since nature started designing itself, and has been used for thousands of years. Many believe the Egyptians incorporated it into the design of the ancient pyramids.  Leonardo Da Vinci knew it and used it in his artwork, including the Vitruvian Man and the Mona Lisa.

The golden ratio intrigues me. The idea that we are naturally attracted to it is really compelling. However, I think we have to be careful how far we apply this “litmus test” for beauty.

For example, after doing an internet search on “beauty and the golden ratio,” I was led to this disturbing video:

This video refers back to the research of a man named Dr. Stephen Marquardt, a maxillo-facial surgeon who developed a patented Beauty Mask based on the golden ratio. I’ll admit, I was pretty weirded out by the video (what was wrong with the girl’s actual face??), and by the implication that we should manipulate our features to conform to some kind of “ideal” beauty (one that seems to me to favor White European characteristics, even though Marquardt asserts it can apply to all races and ethnicities). Marquardt’s site even includes suggestions on how to use make up, surgery or dentistry to “fit” into this Mask.

If you are as morbidly fascinated as I was by all of this, you can visit here, here and here for even more images and examples (i.e. Johnny Depp in the Beauty Mask!).

I actually don’t disagree that the faces he presents are beautiful, and I do realize that, visually, I judge some people are more beautiful at face value than others. But two things don’t agree with me: 1) The implication that beauty can be calculated and “pre-packaged”. 2) The assumption (and this one is very common!) that this kind of beautiful is somehow a superior aesthetic to which we all should aspire. This can be dangerous thinking.

Supermodel Alek Wek – does she fit the Beauty Mask? I don’t think she does, but it doesn’t make her any less stunning.

As an artist I am continually thinking about things like proportion, design, symmetry and balance. The golden ratio can provide that. When it comes to human form, symmetry and balance play an important part in attractiveness. But does beauty really all boil down to numbers and proportions? Doesn’t beauty comes in many layers, shapes and sizes??

What the golden ratio does not and cannot create is a depth of beauty that comes with human emotion, psychology and memory. The Beauty Mask is just that–a lifeless mask without any depth. It may indicate a type of beauty, but does not monopolize it.

Applying the golden ratio to visual art is one thing, however, human beings are not a canvas that hangs still in a gallery. We are performance art, kinesthetic and dynamic. Get to know a person, spend some time with them, and you may find that beauty either fading or becoming amplified over time (the familiar fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast that Beth referenced recently is so popular because it holds an essence of truth about finding beauty in ugliness).

Portrait of Madame Matisse, by Henri Matisse — beautiful or not?

Woman, I, by Willem de Kooning — beautiful or not?

Maggie,  by Chuck Close — beautiful or not?

I think “beauty”, like the word “love” holds a myriad of definitions and perceptions. I also challenge the notion that beauty and ugliness are mutually exclusive. At the risk of sounding cliche, there can be beauty in the mundane, the ugly, the discarded. The golden ratio is an important piece of beautiful, natural design, a perfect image of balance. But there is more to beauty than perfection.

I’ll leave you with a scene from one my favorite movies, American Beauty. This pretty much sums up my thoughts on the matter (turn up the volume-the sound is a bit low). I wish I could be more like Ricky Fitts in this scene, who is able to see beauty beyond the cliche and the obvious; and he is deeply moved by it. Shouldn’t a part of beauty be about evoking deep emotions? That is something you will never get using a mask.

What about you? Do you think the golden ratio is a good indicator of beauty? What do you find beautiful in others? Leave your thoughts in the comments!