The Marginalian
The Marginalian

On “Pure Design” and What Beauty Really Means

“Pure Design appeals to the eye just as absolute Music appeals to the ear.”

The question of what design is and what makes it good and the parallel question about the essence of beauty and its origin have long occupied the minds of artists, scientists, and philosophers alike. In A Theory of Pure Design: Harmony, Balance, Rhythm (public library; public domain), originally published in 1907 — the same year French philosopher Henri Bergson shared his insights on intuition vs. the intellect — American painter, art historian, and theorist Denman Waldo Ross (1853-1935) sets out to explain “not the artist, but the mode of expression which the artist uses,” proposing a framework for understanding both design and beauty as interrelated phenomena. The classic manual is now regarded as a seminal text of American design theory.

In a section entitled “THE MEANING OF DESIGN,” Ross offers a baseline definition:

By Design I mean Order in human feeling and thought and in the many and varied activities by which that feeling or that thought is expressed. By Order I mean, particularly, three things — Harmony, Balance, and Rhythm. These are the principal modes in which Order is revealed in Nature and, through Design, in Works of Art.

He then expresses the relationship between the three in a “logical diagram”:

Ross goes on to define “Pure Design”:

By Pure Design I mean simply Order, that is to say, Harmony, Balance, and Rhythm, in lines and spots of paint, in tones, measures, and shapes. Pure Design appeals to the eye just as absolute Music appeals to the ear. The purpose in Pure Design is to achieve Order in lines and spots of paint, if possible, the perfection of Order, a supreme instance of it, the Beautiful: this with no other, no further, no higher motive; just for the satisfaction, the pleasure, the delight of it. In the practice of Pure Design we aim at Order and hope for Beauty. Even the motive of giving pleasure to others lies beyond the proper purpose of Pure Design, though it constantly happens that in pleasing ourselves we give others pleasure.

But such ambiguous terms as “beauty” and “pleasure” require their own definition — or at least sharp awareness of the lack thereof. In a section titled “BEAUTY A SUPREME INSTANCE OF ORDER,” Ross offers a thoughtful meditation:

I refrain from any reference to Beauty as a principle of Design. It is not a principle, but an experience. It is an experience which defies analysis and has no explanation. We distinguish it from all other experiences. It gives us pleasure, perhaps the highest pleasure that we have. At the same time it is idle to talk about it, or to write about it. The less said about it the better. ‘It is beautiful,’ you say. Then somebody asks, ‘Why is it beautiful?’ There is no answer to that question. You say it is beautiful because it gives you pleasure: but other things give you pleasure which are not beautiful. Pleasure is, therefore, no criterion of Beauty. What is the pleasure which Beauty gives? It is the pleasure which you have in the sense of Beauty. That is all you can say. You cannot explain either the experience or the kind of pleasure which it gives you.

While I am quite unable to give any definition or explanation of Beauty, I know where to look for it, where I am sure to find it. The Beautiful is revealed, always, so far as I know, in the forms of Order, in the modes of Harmony, of Balance, or of Rhythm. While there are many instances of Harmony, Balance, and Rhythm which are not particularly beautiful, there is, I believe, nothing really beautiful which is not orderly in one or the other, in two, or in all three of these modes. In seeking the Beautiful, therefore, we look for it in instances of Order, in instances of Harmony, Balance, and Rhythm. We shall find it in what may be called supreme instances. This is perhaps our nearest approach to a definition of Beauty: that it is a supreme instance of Order, intuitively felt, instinctively appreciated.

A Theory of Pure Design: Harmony, Balance, Rhythm is now in the public domain and is available for free in its entirety in multiple formats.

Published September 14, 2012




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