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The Perception of Beauty: From Salento to New York

Does an object, a person, a landscape remain forever beautiful? Beauty is variable because it is we who change.

New York, Hudson River (Photo by Sebastian Leon)

Every time I think of something “beautiful”, the first image that comes to mind is the sea of Salento. But our perception of beauty does not remain unaltered and becomes the instrument for understanding and defining the very concept of beauty. Beauty understood not as something to invent, but to discover. Where I’ll be able to find it in New York will be a surprise even for me.

Every day, in my line of work, I deal with “beauty”. Each day, I try to understand what the other person wants, and a question always arises: if taste is innate as a capacity to appreciate, is the definition of beauty also innate in us, or is it a result of our cultural baggage, of our social status, influenced by the place in which we grew up and to which we belong, by our relationships?    

Every time I think about my home and I think about something “beautiful”, the first image that comes to mind is the sea. But can you define the sea as beautiful? Wait before answering. Imagine those who spent their entire childhood at the beach, those who associate the sea with a salty flavor, that unique scent that you recognize right away, the sound of the waves, the horizon that gets lost in infinity, the colors that blend together, just as they do on a palette. Each time that I think about the sea, it seems like a painting to me, a watercolor. The image brings back to mind that memory and in a flash, you feel the sensation of the summer sun that warms your skin, you hear the children’s laughter, you taste the flavor of summer dishes, of the evenings on the seashore with your friends, you listen in silence to the sea during the winter, interrupted only by the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks. Because the sea is also beautiful during the winter.

But is the sea beautiful for everyone? Now try to imagine those who were forced to set sail in that sea, who view the sea as a threat or as a hope, those who put their lives at stake. Think about those who had to cross the sea in order to escape war, persecution, hunger — those who chose the sea with all of its hidden dangers. Imagine cold, fear and uncertainty. Imagine finding yourself facing the sea and not having any choice, because if you had one, you wouldn’t have ever chosen that sea. The sea is the same one that I see, that evokes that beautiful emotion, but this time, it’s different, those who see it are different.

Salento, Puglia: The sea at Santa Cesarea Terme (Photo by S.G.)

And to the question, “is the sea beautiful?”, the answer cannot be only one, but there are for sure an infinite number of answers. The feelings that that image evokes will determine the subjective definition of “beauty”. Such a definition is in reality a figment of the imagination of the sea, fabricated through memories, experiences, emotions collected over time, that define our personal opinion and make us see something as beautiful.

The same thing happens when I observe a painting or a work of design. The technical and encyclopedic basis, the beauty of the esthetic technique, evokes within me the pleasure and appreciation for detail; then unexpectedly, in that precise moment, I feel a completely personal sensation — a perception that develops the sensorial information received externally.

I very often hear people use the word “beauty”. For example, you say, “You’re a beautiful person”. Why is this expression used? I’ve asked myself this question, and I’ve asked others. And the answer was always the same: “Because I like the way it makes me feel”. This sensation is therefore caused by a series of characteristics and details that the observer finds to be beautiful. Perhaps because it reflects determinate moral values that are shared or it complies with classic standards that we are used to. A beautiful person is made up of many internal and external characteristics that cannot be separated. We observe that person, we become familiar with that person, and as such, our senses turn on and we become fascinated. 

But does an object, a person, a landscape forever remain beautiful? Beauty is variable, because it is we who change. It doesn’t remain static and constant, but it changes the way our social, cultural, and relationships statuses change, becoming the instrument in understanding and determining the very concept of beauty. Which is why the concept of beauty cannot be associated with something solely esthetic.

After having arrived in New York I asked myself how come the concept of “beauty” was so different, why do we see beauty in things that are so different? And I stopped to think: perhaps it is also the time that is dedicated to the contemplation of that which can be considered beautiful that influences one’s own opinion. And still other questions: to define something as “beautiful” is the result of an immediate judgement or of a thought process? Is it enough to look at something beautiful only once, or is it necessary to observe beauty, educate oneself about beauty, to educate about beauty?

In the meantime, I will lend you my eyes as an Italian artist that looks out for, loves and observes “beauty” in New York, to recount my perception of beauty with a different viewpoint.

Think of it as a trip that we will experience together, in which beauty will be the revelation.

Beauty understood not as something to invent, but something to discover.

Where I will find it in New York will be a surprise even for me, but when I encounter it, I’ll tell you about it.


Translated by Emmelina De Feo

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