International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Review
Pursuit of Elegance by Matthew E. May,
Broadway Books, New York, 2009, 216 pp.,
Charles Dickinson review
pop nonfiction like SUPER FREAKONOMICS and THE OUTLIERS prominently
displayed on bookstore shelves, it's easy to overlook another entry
in that category:
IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing.
Author Matthew May
has taken on the task of unpacking what makes for elegance (Why is that
enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa so beguiling?). But of course, elegance
is far more than the arts.
Elegance also applies to the world of industry and commerce (think iPod
or Toyota's lean manufacturing).
Quite often we see something that's agreeably elegant and sense its
"inevitability"--so simple once seen, but how to arrive at
that particular? One overarching concept for elegance May repeatedly
stresses is that it is not only what's done, but importantly what's
not done (here he harkens back to Taoist philosophy of 2,500 years past
and the wisdom of "not doing" from the TAO TE CHING).
But inevitability and "not doing" are too general and not
much in the way of handles for what constitutes elegance. Rather May
has come up with four key ingredients of elegance and devotes a chapter
discussion to each of four S's: Symmetry, Seduction, Subtraction, and
May defines the symmetry of elegance as highly context-sensitive and
resonant with the natural order of things. This symmetry strikes us
as both fresh and yet familiar. In a fascinating discussion, May examines
the art of Jackson Pollock, a twentieth-century iconic painter of abstract
art who didn't touch brush to canvas, but instead "flung"
and otherwise applied paint. Was his work randomly ordered? Many thought
so. Or did he intuitively grasp the symmetry of beauty such that his
paintings (now selling for upwards of $40 million) were fractals: the
universal organizing principle of nature discovered by Mandelbrot two
decades after Pollock's death in 1956?
Seduction? This ingredient involves. Elegance seduces with the power
of what's missing. We supply from our own experience what's needed to
make the whole. So we can identify all the more. Witness the sfumato
(smoky) blurred corners of Mona Lisa's mouth and that smile that seems
to change ...
Subtraction often comes to mind when one thinks of elegance. A Shaker
chair with less structure would not be a chair. Design at the balance
point of nothing to add and nothing to take away. May explains why Southern
California hamburger chain In-N-Out Burger has cultlike appeal. Elegance
as subtraction means only four items on the menu. But if customers want
more, then they learn the "secret menu," which elegance as
seduction gives: what they really want, what they want to make their
Sustainability as elegance adds timeless quality. More than the power
of durable design, the sustainable solution cascades into long-reaching,
positive developments. Consider the well-known "Broken Windows"
(or "no grime, no crime") theory for policing, pioneered in
New York City and adopted everywhere.
While May doesn't lay out a recipe for elegance (who could?), he does
outline where elegant solutions happen. Not easy, not forced, elegance
is not found on the "near side" with such approaches that
stop short of confronting complexity as the "voluntary simplicity"
movement of the 90s in the Pacific Northwest. No, elegance is to be
discovered over there, on the "far side," where with relaxed
awareness, "a-ha" moments, truly grounded in a rapidly changing,
progressive society, can surprise us all.
© Charlie Dickinson November 2009
To Eat The Dog? - The real guide to sustainable living by Robert
and Brenda Vale,
Charlie Dickinson review
If everyone on Earth shared equally the lifestyle enjoyed in North
America, then five planet Earths would be needed. Obviously, an unattainable
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