on beauty

What makes a piece of work beautiful? Beyond the sheen of high production values, of course.

Robert Crease in The Prism And The Pendulum talks about the beauty of a scientific experiment, and in turn quotes G.M. Hardy in A Mathematician’s Apology describing the properties which make a mathematical proof beautiful.

The first two are unexpectedness and inevitability; the combination of these first two reminds me of the best answer to the story-question ‘what happens next?’ – ‘that which I didn’t know I wanted to happen next’. And then economy – although I prefer elegance – and depth; the most elegant action with the greatest impact.

Crease also quotes Faraday on what makes an experiment beautiful, that it be ‘the best-acting thing’, with depth, efficiency and definitiveness: that it answers its question once and for all.

I really like these, and reckon they extend into play. I’d picked up Crease’s book again recently while prepping for a workshop for CogNovo, an experimental psychology lab on creativity in the University of Plymouth. In the workshop, I’d run a simple participatory experience – a set of games making a contest – in order to reflect on the experimental process (a bit of a homecoming for me, an ex-psychologist now making this kind of playing theatre).

In one of the games, The Game’s Afoot, you’re collectively changing a game a rule at a time to try and make the game better for everyone, players and spectators. It’s a model of an iterative creative process. For each iteration, you ask the question ‘is it better?’ or rather a bigger set of questions on whatever the dimensions of better matter for you, and discuss from everyone’s perspective how it is better or not. And the inclusivity of the discussion makes this a lovely game for creating an open horizontal space where everyone’s insight has equal value.

I’m used here to asking ‘is it more fun?’ ‘is it more balanced?’ ‘is it more resonant?’ for dimensions of what makes a game better. But can you ask ‘is it more beautiful?’ And can you thus simply iterate your way towards beauty, or does the quality of beauty also rely on a bolt of inspiration from somewhere outside the box?

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