Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous drawing “The Vitruvian Man,” based on the writings of the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, has become a symbol of Western civilization. Its idealization of beauty based on universal proportions has come to represent everything we associate with the Italian Renaissance. Nevertheless, to look at “The Vitruvian Man” or “Canon of Proportions” as something universal is both scientifically inaccurate and ethnocentric. After all, it’s easy to forget that the standards of beauty we often take for granted are extremely subjective and often a product of our unique society. When we forget this, it’s hard to make sense of something like the force-feeding of young girls in Mauritania — a practice that results from the association of obesity with physical attractiveness. While such a strange custom may seem bizarre and backwards to a civilization that fawns over Angelina Jolie, if we remove the many layers of bias imposed on us by our society, force-feeding seems no different and no worse than the eating disorders that effect many Americans.
What makes this issue so interesting is its similarity to something so seemingly unrelated: music.
Everyone is aware that all music is subjective, but that doesn’t prevent many people from confusing what is familiar in music with what is universal in music. Americans in the early 21st century listen to a variety of different musical styles, but almost all share certain basic similarities that are often absent in some non-Western music. The fact is, the majority of classical and popular music that people listen to, from Bach to Britney, is written in a very specific musical language — one that didn’t emerge until around the same time that Da Vinci drew “The Vitruvian Man.” This hasn’t stopped a long line of critics from arguing that divergent forms of music, from the atonal music of twelve-tone serialists in early 20th century Vienna to a variety of non-Western styles are not only displeasing, but are unnatural. Such critics not only obscure the distinction between what is subjective and what is objective, but are often guilty of ethnocentrism in their dismissal of other musical cultures.
Human appearance, like music, is constantly in dialogue with the culture that surrounds it. Like music, it makes use of subjective elements in complex traditions of aesthetic criticism. As a result, human appearance is nothing short of an art.
Any work of art has three elements to it: a superficial “technical” element, an intellectual theoretical element and an emotional element. In music, the technical element is the ability of the performer to play the correct notes with the correct sound. It is not technical accuracy that makes a performance interesting or moving, but it is necessary as a first step. Human appearance similarly has a technical element. It is the extent to which a particular figure is free of the most blatant blemishes or asymmetries.
The theoretical aspect of music and human beauty concerns its organization, from the most minute to the broadest levels. It informs us how overall structure is related to the language of the individual music phrases or the individual contours of the body. The way we listen to music is the way we look at human beings: observing proportions, repetitions and similarities with what we believe to be typical. The more we familiarize ourselves with a “composition,” the more we notice the overall shape rather than the small, technical details. Because we can’t listen to a piece of music or look at a person without comparing them to some preconceived notion of what is right, the theoretical aspect is both the most subjective and the most interesting.
A great work of art is charged with emotional content. A piece of music expresses something inherent in human experience, while the appearance of a certain individual may trigger what so many refer to as “love at first sight.” As natural and universal as these emotional responses may seem, it’s important to remember that the way in which they are communicated is dependent upon a framework of understanding limited to a certain community or society.
Human appearance is thus an art. Although a human being is not forged by an individual artist, it is criticized the way a painting or a piece of music or any other work of art would be. Understanding physical attraction in this way helps us realize, for example, that our idolization of Angelina Jolie is the product of the same factors that produced our idolization of Beethoven: a specifically Western ideal that values the refreshingly new and complex within the parameters of the familiar.