Denis Dutton: Are Some Things Universally Beautiful? Philosopher Denis Dutton says the places and people we find attractive can be traced to the preferences of ancient man.

Are Some Things Universally Beautiful?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today - beauty. What is it anyway? Well it turns out we may actually need beauty like we need oxygen, water. We may need it to survive. There's a story Robert Gupta tells in his TED Talk. Robert's a violinist with the LA Philharmonic, and one day ...


ROBERT GUPTA: One day Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez was walking along the streets of downtown Los Angeles when he heard beautiful music.


GUPTA: And the source was a man, an African-American man, charming, rugged, homeless. Playing a violin that only had two strings.

RAZ: You may know a bit of this story. There was a movie about it called "The Soloist." And what happened was that Steve Lopez was like blown away by the music. And so he struck up a conversation with the homeless violinist. His name is Nathaniel Ayers and eventually they became friends. Nathaniel was an amazing musician, he'd been trained at Juilliard earlier in his life. And it was a hard life he lived because Nathaniel also suffers from schizophrenia. And not too long after Steve Lopez came across Nathaniel, Robert Gupta did as well.


GUPTA: I met Mr. Ayers in 2008 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. He had just heard a performance of Beethoven's first and fourth symphonies and came backstage and introduced himself and was speaking in a very jovial and gregarious way about Yo-Yo Ma and Hillary Clinton and how the Dodgers were never going to make the World Series, all because of the treacherous first violin passage work in the last movement of Beethoven's fourth symphony. And we got talking about music and I got an e-mail from Steve a few days later saying that Nathaniel was interested in a violin lesson with me. Now I should mention that Nathaniel refuses treatment. Because when he was treated it was with shock therapy and Thorazine and handcuffs and that scar has stayed with him for his entire life. But as a result now he is prone to these schizophrenic episodes. Wandering the streets of skid row, exposed to its horrors with the torment of his own mind unleashed upon him. And Nathaniel was in such a state of agitation when we started our first lesson at Walt Disney Concert Hall, he had a kind of manic glint in his eyes. He was lost. And he was talking about invisible demons and smoke and how someone was poisoning him in his sleep.

RAZ: Robert was freaked out. He was afraid that his gifted student would go off the rails and lose himself and lose the moment.


GUPTA: And that I would ruin his relationship with the violin if I started talking about scales and arpeggios and other exciting forms of didactic violin pedagogy. So I just started playing. And I played the first movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. And as I played there was a profound change occurring in Nathaniel's eyes. It was as if he was in the grip of some invisible pharmaceutical, a chemical reaction for which my playing the music was its catalyst. And in a miracle he lifted his own violin and he started playing by ear. Certain snippets of violin concertos which he then asked me to complete. Mendelssohn. Tchaikovsky. Sibelius. And through playing music this man had transformed. From the paranoid, disturbed man that had just come from walking the streets of downtown Los Angeles to the charming, erudite, brilliant Juilliard-trained musician. And I understood that this was the very essence of art. This was the very reason why we made music. That we take something that exists within all of us at our very fundamental core, our emotions. And through our artistic lens, through our creativity, we're able to shape those emotions into reality. And the reality of that expression reaches all of us and moves us, inspires and unites us.

RAZ: And for Nathaniel that was the power of beauty, the beauty that he felt in that music. But why was it so powerful and how did he know it was beautiful? Well this is a big and still unanswerable question for philosophers, including Denis Dutton, who asked that very question in his TED Talk.


DENIS DUTTON: Of course, a lot of people think they already know the proper answer to the question, what is beauty. Now this is an extremely complicated subject. In part, because the things that we call beautiful are so different. I mean just think of the sheer variety, a baby's face, Berlioz's Harold in Italy, a central California landscape.


JUDY GARLAND: (as Dorothy) I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.


DUTTON: Movies like the "Wizard of Oz" or the plays of Chekhov.

A Hokusai view of Mount Fuji. Van Gogh's "Starry Night."


GARLAND: (as Dorothy): We must be over the rainbow.


DUTTON: Der Rosen Kavalier.


DUTTON: A stunning match-winning goal in a World Cup soccer match.


DUTTON: This brief list includes human beings, natural landforms, works of art, and skilled human actions.

RAZ: But, why? Why are these things beautiful?


RAZ: Well, no one knows for sure, but ...


RAZ: ... some people have tried to figured it out.

MELAMID: I cannot hear you. Hello, hello.

RAZ: Including this guy.

MELAMID: How are you? Oy vey, as we say. I am Alexander Melamid and I'm an artist. I came from Moscow, Russia, in 1970 to New York.

RAZ: And back in 1995.

MELAMID: Many, many years ago, actually.

RAZ: Alexander Melamid did a kind of, what, a scientific art project?

MELAMID: Exactly, yeah, sure. We, I mean, you know, most people identify beauty with art. That art represents beauty. It's not clear what beauty is, but the idea was to understand what people want to see from art itself.

RAZ: Okay, so most people think art is beautiful and if Alexander could figure out what kind of art they liked, he could probably figure out what kind of art they thought was beautiful and why they thought it was beautiful. So he decided to test this out on 17 countries.

MELAMID: The United States, Russia, Ukraine, Denmark, Germany, England.

RAZ: And a few others, and he gave people in each country a series of questions. The same questions, everywhere, about what they like when it comes to art.

MELAMID: So beginning was kind of a general ...

RAZ: General questions, you know, like rough surfaces or smooth surfaces?

MELAMID: Would they want to see brushstrokes, or you don't want to see brushstrokes?

RAZ: That sort of thing. But then, it got a little bit more specific, like what's your favorite color?

MELAMID: Do you prefer abstract painting or realistic painting?

RAZ: Do you like famous people from history or famous people who are still alive? Do you like people with clothes on or without them? And the results began to come back.

MELAMID: Like in France, they like half naked people, you know ...

RAZ: Where as in the U.S., not so much.

MELAMID: Americans are more Puritan. I mean, that's obvious, you know.

RAZ: Okay, maybe not that surprising. But some of the other results were, like favorite color. In China, in 1995, most people, nearly a quarter, said blue. But not just in China, the same exact ratio in Russia. The highest number there also liked blue.

MELAMID: Ukraine.

RAZ: Blue.

MELAMID: Denmark.

RAZ: Blue.

MELAMID: Germany

RAZ: Blue.

MELAMID: England, Italy, Kenya.

RAZ: Blue, blue, blue.

MELAMID: I realized that that's it. It doesn't even matter, you know. We are all similar, you know.

RAZ: And it wasn't just the same color that people found beautiful in each country, but most people also preferred Spring. They preferred paintings of outdoor scenes to indoor ones, preferred paintings of lakes and rivers and forests over cities. Alex got enough information like this to basically construct the ideal artwork, the ideal of beauty, according to each country. And it turns out it's a landscape, which takes us back to Denis Dutton's TED Talk ...


DUTTON: This landscape shows up today on calendars, on postcards, in the design of golf courses and public parks, and in gold framed pictures that hang in living rooms from New York to New Zealand. A landscape that just happens to be similar to the Pleistocene savannas where we evolved. It's a kind of Hudson River School landscape featuring open spaces of low grasses interspersed with copses of trees. The trees, by the way, are often preferred if they fork near the ground. That is to say, if they're trees you could scramble up, if you were in a tight fix. The landscape shows the presence of water directly in view, or evidence of water in a bluish distant, indications of animal or bird life, as well as diverse greenery, and finally, get this, a path. Perhaps a riverbank or a shoreline that extends into the distance, almost inviting you to follow it. This landscape type is regarded as beautiful even by people in countries that don't have it. The ideal savanna landscape is one of the clearest examples, for human beings everywhere find beauty in similar visual experience.

RAZ: For Alexander Melamid, the guy whose research led to this conclusion, when this picture emerged, this image of a landscape, well, in a way it was almost disappointing. He wondered why beauty, or at least what we think of it, isn't more complicated.

MELAMID: You know, it was - we were sad at first, and then it was fun, you know, and that's what it is. The truth is simple. It turned out to be not as complicated as I wanted it to be. But maybe simple truth is real truth. The sky, a lake, mountains, meadow, and George Washington and hippopotamus.

RAZ: George Washington and a hippopotamus, because after he had his poll results Alexander Melamid painted each country's ideal landscape. They were mostly similar, but George Washington and a hippo were two specific additions Alex made to his landscape painting for Americans, because people that he surveyed in the U.S. said they preferred famous people from history and wild animals.

MELAMID: We could put any wild animal but we wanted to keep some fun in this painting. So, yeah. Myself interpreted it as hippopotamus.

RAZ: And you can find a link to all of Alexander Melamid's paintings at

MELAMID: I personally like hippopotamuses. I mean, they're cute.

RAZ: More from philosopher Denis Dutton. That's in a minute. I'm Guy Raz. You're listening to the TED Radio Hour, from NPR.

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