It is half a mile since I began running this
morning, moving steadily down a long, steep hill that turns into a rural paved highway a short distance out of town. Nearly three miles of straight white lines lie before me before the road turns toward
the Missouri River. Line after line after line, each one similar to the others,
painted in stark relief against the weathered, pale gray cement, stretches out upon the canvas of newly harvested fields. Stark. Plain. Functional. Few people would perceive a deeper, intrinsic
beauty in something as mundane as a line.
with each stride I make, I cannot help but to marvel at the continuity and monolithic beauty of this modest stretch of highway. Ancient civilizations often designed similar geometric patterns of lines or angles
that reflected not only the art and architecture of the time, but some greater essence that spoke to the minds and creativity
of the culture as well. Cities of antiquity, often constructed for defensibility
to confuse invading foes, have been superseded by repeating grid patterns of streets and highways that say more about function
itself – and, in essence, beauty – has undergone transformations in interpretation as seen in the evolution of
form and function from civilizations like Egypt and Crete, to the classical Hellenistic styles, and onward through the middle
ages, the renaissance, and into the modern world. Yet throughout all these eras, throughout every culture, one form has seemed to remain unchanged, possessing both utility
and – through it sheer common occurrence – function that transcends subjective ideals of art and aesthetics in
general: the straight line.
the study of what makes something beautiful – or ugly – relies upon one’s ability to both observe an object
at the sensory level as well as the ability to distinguish or to discern an object’s properties that make it pleasing
or otherwise. It is distinguished from the study of “art” in subtle
and hotly contested ways that I shall not attempt to lay out in this brief essay. Yet
suffice it to say that under the philosophy of aesthetics, beauty – what is inherently agreeable to all - and taste
– what one learns that they should find agreeable – are two separate things.
Still, what one finds beautiful and what is inherently beautiful may certainly differ when we observe various cultures
over varying times. However, even more fascinating to ponder is the abstract
question as to whether or not aesthetics is determined by a single species or whether there is some universal, transcendent
characteristic to beauty and aesthetics upon which any species, anywhere, can agree upon, whether terrestrial or from another
as I run down this little used highway, watching as line after line stretches for miles ahead, I imagine what art must be
like if another culture on a world far away from us was to consider the straight line the highest form of beauty, the greatest
form of art. In our culture today, the straight line, whether it is a long stretch
of road, the edge of a skyscraper, or the sheet of notebook paper, is considered rather mundane and “normal.” The aesthetic value of the line is seemingly taken for granted, although physicists
and mathematicians alike may perceive a different kind of utilitarian beauty in it.
In curved time and space, both scientists and mathematicians understand that the straightest line in the universe is
actually a curve. Why, then, wouldn’t the line be considered sometime,
somewhere, the greatest aesthetic achievement? Some of the greatest sculptures
and paintings – whether classical or post-modern – are valued as such because of the play of light or the notion
of symmetric or asymmetric curves and forms that delight the senses. Yet the
line, the plain, old, straight line, is arguably downplayed as beautiful in and of itself, a form unworthy of serious consideration
as Art unto its own end. Still, there are many places where lines may be found that can give one pause for reflection on the
inherent beauty of the form.
into school this morning, I was mesmerized by the contrasting play of wispy, randomly formed cirrus clouds dotting the eastern
horizon crisscrossed by a dozen relatively straight lines formed by the exhaust of jets that have passed overhead. The puffy, narrow trails of white lines intersected one another at curious angles while others appeared
perfectly parallel or perpendicular to each other like graffiti on the canvas of an impressionist sunrise. What was it, I pondered, that would compel our culture to prize the random shapes and colors of this sunrise
while minimizing – or even detesting – the haphazard white lines strewn upon the morning sky like fatal strokes
across an otherwise perfect picture? Or do we, in fact, count these long, straight
lines as equally compelling aesthetic virtues?
a place, if you will, where the line is revered as the highest aesthetic art, where mile high, pencil-thin sculptures erupt
across an alien skyline like glass straws emanating with light. Art forms minimizing
or altogether eliminating the straight line are sold and collected, but not with the same intensity of interest or fervor. The greatest works of architectural and aesthetic renown are structures comprised
of converging or diverging lines, enmeshed with perpendicular, parallel, and parallel-like forms that splay forth in symmetrical
and asymmetrical designs. Would such an aesthetic value have any influence upon
a culture’s development, its epistemology, or its metaphysics? Or, would
these latter have, instead, an influence upon the culture’s aesthetics? A
culture, alien or otherwise, whose aesthetics are influenced most by the form and function of the line would be a fascinating
one to observe. Regardless, each time I drive, each time I run down that lonely
highway, I will ponder the value of aesthetics and what it means to define the mundane as beautiful.