Institute holds symposium on meaning of beauty

By Kirsten Adams


Artists, scientists, musicians and professors met recently at the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla for the first Conference on Beauty.

The symposium was dubbed “The Beauty Salon” by participants for its similarity to the original intellectual salons of 18th century France. Co-hosted by the Ilan-Lael Foundation, the conversation focused on the definition of beauty and its role in contemporary society.

Moderator Rebecca Morales, who holds a Ph.D. in urban planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the idea for the conference was born after a conversation with acclaimed sculptor James Hubbell on the true meaning of beauty.

“We thought it would be valuable to gather people of different perspectives to discuss ‘what is beauty?’ ” Morales said. “Especially in the context of contemporary society.”

Those different perspectives included Hubbell; Eduardo Macagno, dean of biological sciences at UCSD, sculptor T.J Dixon; Stephan Haggard, professor of Korea-Pacific Studies at UCSD; Martha Longenecker, founding president of the Mingei Museum; and John Malashock, artistic director of the Malashock Dance Company.

“Beauty is one of the characteristics of things we perceive,” Macagno said. “We define beauty as something that feels good, or maybe something that shocks us.”

While the artists in the group tended to perceive beauty as something found in every form, Haggard argued that it was the rarity of beauty that made it so extraordinary.

“If you look too hard to find beauty, it won’t be there,” Haggard said.

Besides the definition of beauty, the conference discussed the role of beauty in modern culture, especially in light of recent developments in science and technology.

“Science was so successful that we tried to make art intellectual,” Hubbell said. “The beauty left us.”

Dixon spoke about the ability of beauty to change society, and the redefinition of beauty in today’s culture.

“We are redefining beauty and using it as a way to teach tolerance,” Dixon said. “I think that that’s just wonderful.”

Opinions on the true nature and role of beauty varied, but conference attendants agreed that it was something abstruse and mysterious.

“Trying to define beauty is like trying to define love,” Hubbell said. “If you are successful, it disappears.”