Beautiful Theories

Reflections on the way to a singular place where visual art, physics, and dance converge

BY MINDY ALOFF

IN THE LATE 1970S E. H. GOMBRICH, THE AUTHOR of Art and Illusion and The Story of Art, visited Portland, Oregon, to deliver a public lecture. The following day a journalist met him in a large, dark, and otherwise empty banquet hall. This interview was Gombrich’s last official obligation in Portland, and the reporter noticed that he looked haggard. But she wasn’t fazed. She had taken exception to some of the ideas in his books, and she was going to grill him. So she did: What exactly do you mean by “perception”? Why can’t art make a statement? How can you say that about abstraction? After half an hour she had him hunched over and staring at the half-moon in one of his thumbnails. Then she made a breakthrough: she posed a question that provoked him to drop his mantle of pre-war courtesy and answer her in a voice that was soured with true vexation. The question was “How can you believe in absolute beauty?” Here is a portion of his reply:

“The accepted view since Romanticism is that beauty is wholly relative and that every age and every nation has its different ideals. This was the way in which the classical ideal of beauty was undermined. I think this has by now been much overstated. I do think that there is a normal biological reaction to health and harmony and beauty which transcends the different culture modifications. . . . I haven’t gone into it and wouldn’t go out on a limb to say, ‘This must be so.’ But if you look at Indian miniatures, or Persian, or if you look—and that is a less savory subject—at the success of pinup girls. . . . it seems to me very unlikely that every human being could become a pinup girl. I do believe that there are objective criteria from an objective basis, both in perception—I don’t believe that people always saw the world differently—and in beauty.”

I was that reporter, and I remember now how Gombrich’s answer set my teeth on edge. What is “normal”? How could Gombrich link Persian miniatures and pinup girls? What could a Caucasian woman in the Pacific Northwest in 1977 possibly share with either the artists or the models of art from across the world five centuries ago?

Yet I also remember the annoyance in his voice; and in looking at the bare text of his remarks on the yellowing newsprint, I am struck by how little of that tone survives explicitly in his words. “I think this has by now been much overstated”: what a way to say “Help! Let me out of here!” If you didn’t know the dynamics of the interview itself, you’d never guess that this was the naked moment in our hour-long confrontation—naked in the sense that the disclosure of anger can be a kind of intimacy. I have the urge to reach back to my younger self and shake her. “Listen to him,” I want to say. “Especially since you’re of another persuasion. Consider his proposition that beauty is not a product of style, or craft, or degree of seriousness in the artist, but rather a universal subject, as recognizable as a tree, regardless of the context—Persian, pop, paradise, pulp—and that to recognize it is a mark of health. Consider the discrepancy between your use of ‘beauty’ to mean some disembodied abstraction and his immediate and unswerving location of it in the human form. Consider his implication that some things about life are not relative, that people aren’t always strangers to one another, that values which may have a local origin in this or that civilization may universally endure. And for God’s sake, lighten up.”

Of course, it is possible that in the intervening years Gombrich, who is now eighty-four, may have revised his views on the matter. I, who am roughly half his age, have certainly revised mine. Yet no individual recension could be as dramatic as the circumstances giving rise to the conversation itself. First of all, E. H. Gombrich has become so famous and so much revered that he is practically a myth in his own lifetime. (When I called the New York Public Library to check his age, the art librarian who performed the research prefaced his answer with “You won’t believe this, but E. H. Gombrich is still alive!”) It would be unlikely today that a cub reporter from an alternative weekly would have access to him alone, for an hour, anywhere in the United States. Even if such access were granted, it seems unimaginable that any newspaper, even an alternative weekly, would publish his theoretical speculations without a critical framework, especially since those remarks contravene our received ideas about relativism, ethnicity, and sexual politics. In addition, his own critical temper is out of date. Gombrich felt his answer deeply, yet he articulated it with detachment, and with patience and clarity as well. One knows exactly where he stands. Much of the arts criticism I read now is impatient and ambivalent; it sounds engaged until you try to sort out its principles and realize that its arguments are based on contradictory premises conjoined by grammar and syntax. When you try to hold them in mind, the construction won’t bear the weight of memory, and collapses, like a castle of sand.

To a large extent this reflects the fragmentation that in the past quarter century has affected our lives on every level. If I were going to interview Gombrich in 1993, I would probably do it by phone, and he and I would each probably receive several interruptions from call waiting, and I would probably follow up with faxed queries, one or more of which would probably be lost in the course of transmission.

Also, I wouldn’t ask him directly what he thought about “beauty”: I’d break down the question, come to the point for the reader on the go. I’d ask him what he thought of the Museum of Modern Art’s Matisse retrospective. Or I’d bring up The Crying Game. It’s improbable that Gombrich has run out to see The Crying Game, but sometimes people do surprise you. Say he had seen it. I’d ask him what he thought of the moment when the terrorist looks at a snapshot of his hostage’s girlfriend—a knockout—and the hostage, noticing the other guy’s interest, says, “She’s not your type,” to which the terrorist replies, “She’s anybody’s type.” The movie succeeds (or, depending on your taste, fails) because both statements turn out to be true. And now I can feel my younger self plunging her arms through time to shake me. “Okay,” she says, “where does E. H. Gombrich stand on that? And do you, Older Self, mean to equate the beauty of intellectual argument with the beauty of women’s bodies? Who’s dealing in ‘disembodied abstraction’ in this thing we call identity, anyway?”

WHEN THERE’S A FRACAS LIKE THIS GOING ON AT home, it can be helpful to take a walk in a new neighborhood. I found one: theoretical nuclear physics, embodied in Dreams of a Final Theory, a book published this past winter by Steven Weinberg, one of the winners of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1979 (for work on elementary particles) and the author of another physics book for the general reader, The First Three Minutes (an account of the Big Bang theory). Theoretical physics is about as new a neighborhood for me as downtown Calcutta or the rose gardens of Shiraz. I’ve never taken a physics course; in fact, I studied no science of any kind after tenth-grade chemistry. One of the virtues of Weinberg’s book is that it is able to communicate to a scientific ignoramus, and does so because of the same qualities inherent in Gombrich’s communication—detachment, patience, and clarity, organically connected by deep commitment to the subject. As it happens, for Weinberg, too, beauty of an objective sort is central to his commitment.

In order to explain the nature of that connection, one needs to give a sense of the book at large—of its mission. The argument of Dreams can be baldly described as follows. Weinberg wants the federal government to make good on its promise—confirmed by congressional vote—to invest in a big machine, a particle accelerator, called the superconducting supercollider, which would cost some $8 billion over a decade. The reason to buy the machine is that physicists working on elementary particle theory need it to gather evidence that will support or refute a group of theories about the way the universe works at the level of strong and electroweak forces—the bedrock level of the field, in both the Heisenbergian and the academic senses of the word. The physicists value these theories (which currently hang fire as probable speculations) because their reconciliation would bring into logical alignment several irreducible principles fundamental to what the very term “physics” has come to mean. If these principles could be logically reconciled, the result would be a grand unified theory of the behavior of the elementary particles of the universe—a solution that working physicists often refer to by its acronym, GUT, and that is also the “final theory” of Weinberg’s dreams.

Weinberg believes that the principles can be reconciled in his lifetime—perhaps as soon as the end of the century—through the symbiotic process of theory and experiment, the findings of one giving rise to explorations in the other until a coherent equilibrium on paper becomes reproducible in the lab. And they ought to be reconciled (here is where beauty comes in) not because they will necessarily make our lives easier or even because they will make physicists’ careers flourish but rather because intellectual adventure on the highest level is, in itself, necessary to the spiritual nourishment of our society as a whole. “It is when we study truly fundamental problems that we expect to find beautiful answers,” Weinberg writes.

We believe that, if we ask why the world is the way it is and then ask why that answer is the way it is, at the end of this chain of explanations we shall find a few simple principles of compelling beauty. We think this in part because our historical experience teaches us that as we look beneath the surface of things, we find more and more beauty. Plato and the neo-Platonists taught that the beauty we see in nature is a reflection of the beauty of the ultimate, the nous. For us, too, the beautv of present theories is an anticipation, a premonition, of the beauty of the final theory. And in any case, we would not accept any theory as final unless it were beautiful.

Just as Gombrich linked beauty in art to the larger issue of what human beings hold in common, so Weinberg links beauty in physics to the larger issue of what the human mind seeks to understand. “The physicist’s sense of beauty is also supposed to serve a purpose,” he writes. “It is supposed to help the physicist select ideas that help us to explain nature.” In other words, for both Gombrich and Weinberg, beauty is not an end in itself; it is a guidepost, a sign that we are on the right road to a more encompassing goal— happiness, wisdom, spiritual vitality. It is an indication of deeper needs that we can barely articulate without traducing them—making them sound trivial, pompous, or banal—in a world where to admit need is taken as another kind of sign, a sign of weakness.

When the drive to appear invincible, to be certain, overrides the impulse to express such weakness, beauty can seem no more substantial than a greeting card. “In the last analysis, the acid test for any scientific theory is its empirical validity, and beauty be damned,” the physicist Roger S. Jones contends in his recent book, Physics for the Rest of Us. He concludes: “Accuracy, not aesthetics, is the ultimate criterion for science.” Jones speaks for many contemporary artists as well as for some contemporary scientists. But he does not speak for those to whom we keep returning for guidance. For example, he does not speak for Albert Einstein, to whom Weinberg is admittedly indebted for his identification of beauty with scientific persuasiveness. To embrace accuracy as the ultimate goal of truth, in any sphere, does appeal to the part of us that pleasures in mastery—in being able to color within the lines. This mastery is crucial to human development on an intellectual as well as a physiological level, but it is not as freeing as the notion of playfulness—of improvisation—for which one has to throw away the coloring books and begin with a blank page, a ready hand, and an open mind. I’m not saying that science should not be accurate; I’m taking issue with the fiat that accuracy is all, even in such a field as theoretical nuclear physics. Einstein, through Weinberg, has given me the confidence to make the objection, regardless of my impoverished scientific background—that is, he has persuaded me that there is a grand ongoing human conversation between art and science in which I, and other general readers, can participate and learn and grow. Indeed, the tragic implication of Weinberg’s book is that his belief in the inevitable discovery of a grand unified theory will foreclose the possibility of a certain kind of improvisation for himself and his peers. His recognition of that foreclosure affords his argument for beauty—and for the superconducting supercollider which that beauty underwrites—a touching humility.

Weinberg cautions against using the physicists’ criteria for a beautiful proof as an exemplar for artists, and I think he is judicious to do so. Artists have too many exemplars now. They can see the history of art in slides; they can follow the history of dance on video screens; they can hear the history of music on a Sony Walkman. The impulse to make art may begin in the need for self-expression, but it ends in the attempt to reconstitute what one thinks the world has lost—to make it new. Yet we live at a moment when so much from the past is being found that “new,” like “beauty,” has become a term drained of meaning. Still, Weinberg also makes a point that may prove relevant to the education of audiences for art—the audiences from which artists themselves emerge. He draws a distinction between beauty and elegance. “The quality that mathematicians and physicists sometimes call elegance,” he writes, “achieves a powerful result with a minimum of irrelevant complication.” But a beautiful proof need not be elegant in this way. For example, “The equations of general relativity are notoriously difficult to solve except in the simplest situations, but this does not detract from the beauty of the theory itself.” Far more fundamental to a theory’s beauty than an uncomplicated proof is the simplicity of its basic ideas. Newton’s theory of gravitation involves three equations; Einstein’s involves fourteen. Newton’s is the more elegant. Yet, as Weinberg argues, Einstein’s is the more beautiful, owing to “the simplicity of his central idea about the equivalence of gravitation and inertia.” Elegance, like intelligence, breeds admiration. Simplicity, like depth of human feeling, stimulates conviction and love. Is it an accident that some of the most intelligent figures in our century have cherished simplicity? And by “simplicity,” I mean something particular—not simplemindedness, not minimalism, not utilitarian geometry, not stripped-down style. I mean emotional and spiritual integrity, of the sort that Kierkegaard referred to in his title “The Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.” I mean a quality that, if one is open to it, may be apprehended with the speed of feeling, regardless of the degree of elaboration in its projection as theory or design.

HOW DOES A PERSON BRED on the glamour of complexity retool to appreciate simplicity? If you were a modern dancer, I might send you to learn how to perform Martha Graham’s back fall on one count. Mechanically this is one of the hardest movements in Graham’s vocabulary, but dramatically it is her trump card. Having someone on stage suddenly plummet backward in the blink of an eye is one of the simplest and most powerful effects Graham ever devised. It is pure emotion made visible; it is beautiful. The choreographer likened the feeling of the back fall to the moment when you walk into a room and, to your shock, spot a person for whom you hold a hopeless passion. The very sight is stunning, she explains, like a blow. “I want; I cannot have; I still want, with all my being”: that is Graham’s beauty, and the back fall instantaneously sums it up.

Yet even for a trained Graham student, the back fall on one count takes years to master. So I’ll suggest something simpler.

Try this. Stand back from a mirror and lift one arm directly before you, your downward-facing palm about two feet above your waist. You’ve performed an action. Now you’re going to make it a gesture. If you lock your elbow and stiffen your fingers, you’ll have a salute. But salutes aren’t beautiful in the way I want you to experience “beautiful”; they are merely functional. They fit the body into a prescribed form. I’m hoping, instead, that you will find the form within your body. Relax your arm, and perform the original action again. This time imagine that you’re going after something that, for one reason or another, you can’t possess by stepping forward. You’re shopping, and you see just the thing hung high in a window display, price tag dangling seductively. You know the right answer, but you’re planted in the back of the classroom and the teacher is paying attention only to the front row. You’re in bed, propped on one elbow, your words hanging in the dark air, as someone you’re crazy about slides away, perhaps irrevocably. To the tips of your fingers you want. Yet remember to keep your shoulder down too: that will give you the strength to seize your goal, if you’re lucky enough to reach it, or, if you’re unlucky, help you to keep your balance.

Now for your head. Your arm wants; your head aspires. Look along your raised arm to your wristbone. Then, spotting it, carefully raise your face until your eyes focus on a point one foot directly above your wrist. If you do this fully, lifting your face rather than your eyes alone, you should feel the gesture you’re making. The feeling is of both heightened effort and iieightened openness. You may also feel vulnerable. If you aren’t a dancer, you’ll be vulnerable to your own self-mockery; if you were an animal, you’d be vulnerable because you are exposing your throat. And because you are lifting your face despite your vulnerability, you are going to look more open, younger. Furthermore, the distance between what you reach for and what you aspire to—between your fingertips and your focus—will make the thing you want loom larger; the length gives your desire dimension. This is not, in itself, a difficult assignment, but an untrained dancer, sneaking a glimpse of himself or herself in the mirror, might break up in a laugh, like an amateur vocalist listening to a tape of himself singing in the shower. My aim is not to make you beautiful but to remind you of the dynamism within that which we call longing, whether for love, truth, freedom, sanity, harmony, justice, well-being, joy—the dynamism on which, I believe, beauty in art depends.

The gesture you have just practiced comes from the Balanchine repertory. One can find it in ballets from every decade. It is most obvious in Serenade and the other romantic fantasias, but when one’s attention is called to it in the purely classical works—the tutu ballets that supposedly show Balanchine at his coolest and most reserved —one realizes how much more there was to this choreographer than elegance.

This past spring I attended a rehearsal of one such work, Symphonie Concertante, conducted by the guest teacher Maria Tallchief at the School of American Ballet, whose students were preparing to perform the ballet at the New York State Theater during the New York City Ballet’s Balanchine Celebration. No individual holds the key to George Balanchine; every dancer he worked with has a piece of the secret, and sometimes those pieces make for disagreements. But Tallchief, one of his most important ballerinas of the late 1940s and the 1950s—she was one of Symphonie Concertante’s two original ballerinas—carries a big, impressive section of that secret in her memory, and when she speaks, one listens hard. It was from Tallchief that I learned about Balanchine’s direction to the original cast to look one foot above the wrist in the first arabesque position—to lift the face, and thereby animate the pose. She also spoke of how a dancer should think not of standing in place but rather of peering into the distance while momentarily at rest, “as if looking over a balustrade into the lake”—thereby lifting the diaphragm and giving the stationary moment a sense of movement, even though the body is not visibly moving. “Don’t say no,” Tallchief remarked at one point. “As Mr. B. used to tell us, lift your cheek to be kissed, and say yes.” What the dancer thinks and imagines is part of the dance.

These tiny points about the mind at play help to turn generic ballet behavior into living Balanchine style. They are objective criteria, as measurable in effect as turnout from the hip, the very basis of classical dancing. Once the dancers began to absorb the instructions in their bodies, Symphonie Concertante—a Swiss watch of a ballet, with a cast of twenty-five, to a Mozart score—began to keep time as simply as an hourglass. Once the dancers’ technical strength and the choreography’s intricacy were quickened by touches of aspiration and longing, the whole confection perceptibly lightened. “You are beautiful!” Tallchief exclaimed at one point. At that rehearsal Symphonie Concertante flourished.

AN OBSERVER REMOVED FROM THE REHEARSAL PROcess, however, takes away a complex lesson too. The beauty of Symphonie Concertante will not persist as a cut flower. It must be nourished daily by the dancers’ own desire to be more-more lengthened out, more musically precise, more willing to take risks, more determined not to settle for the sort of “perfection” that reduces to mere congruence between the lines of their bodies and static mental images. In the midst of what is surely among the most decorous and understated ballets that Balanchine ever made, they must find a way to be hungry, to crave. To remain a perennial, the ballet must be steeped in some kind of psychic soil. Without that subterranean aspect the beauty of Symphonie Concertante is no more than elegance.

And perhaps beneath this complex lesson is another, simpler moral: that whatever one considers to be the ideal of beauty—Gombrich’s grand harmony; or Weinberg’s grand unified theory, embodied by a machine we may not be able to afford; or the grand illusion of harmony composed of sweat and striving, suggested by the rehearsal—the origin is the same. One of Balanchine’s compatriots, Boris Pasternak, identified it first. You may know the sentence I’m thinking of. My younger self— who used to pin up literary maxims by her desk— plucked it from Doctor Zhivago. Her pinup disappeared long ago, yet its message is graven on my brain. Scrawled on a scrap of foolscap, by an impatient hand, it read, “The root of beauty is audacity.”