Catalyst Conversations: On Beauty

Sitting in a packed room at the Broad Institute, I was privileged to be part of the audience for the HUBweek installment of Catalyst Conversations. Thursday’s conversation began with a spirited presentation by David Tester, Senior Software Engineer at Google and Visiting Researcher at the Broad Institute. Tester’s talk revolved around the question “is life sciences a beautiful thing?” Endeavoring to answer this question, he looked to nature, positing that perhaps beauty could be found in mathematics and repetition, citing naturally occurring examples of fractals such as ferns and shells. Tester often used beauty as a metaphor for concepts such as truth, knowledge, and power. While his explorations into what beauty could be were interesting and expansive, he made it a point to never give a single definition, ultimately telling the audience that he felt beauty was too elusive a concept to conform to a single definition.

Emily Eveleth followed Tester’s presentation with an in-depth view of her series of large still life paintings featuring donuts. Eveleth’s view of beauty had a much more down-and-dirty quality than Tester’s; rather than equating beauty with some form of truth, Eveleth seemed more interested in finding beauty in corporeal reality and lived experience. In explaining her monumental painted pastries, Eveleth revealed that the models often lay in her studio collecting mold for weeks- a perfect example of how she gleefully blurs the line between repulsion, attraction, sexuality, and desire. Her complex, multifaceted view of beauty was similar to Tester’s in that she too focused on beauty as a quality that reveals reality.

The question and answer session of this conversation was the highlight of the evening for me- the audience seemed more than usually interested in asking exploratory questions aimed at getting to the heart of the matter. Many of the questions seemed to revolve around the problematics of trying to come up with a unified theory of something so subjective. A particularly poignant moment occurred at the very end of the evening, when one audience member cited periods in history when science and math have been used to justify a specific view of beauty: such as the enactment of ugly laws, or eugenics policies in Germany and the United States- both of which resulted in horrible human rights abuses. This was a welcome reminder that while such conversations may seem superfluous, they have very real ethical implications. All the more reason to keep having these discussions- I’m looking forward to the next Catalyst Conversations, hope to see you there! 

Celine Browning is an artist, writer, and educator living in Boston. For more information about her work, visit: celinebrowning.com.

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