The Aesthetic Value of Simplicity

by Dwight Furrow


Black Square, Malevich 1923

However, traditional Western aesthetics apparently demurs on this point since it enshrines complexity as a fundamental aesthetic value. Works of art are considered great if they repay our continued attention. Each new contact with them reveals something new, and this information density and the way it is organized to reveal new dimensions is what brings aesthetic pleasure. Achieving unity in variety is the sine qua non of aesthetic value according to most accounts of our aesthetic tradition. Unity, balance, and clarity are valuable only if they are achieved by organizing complex phenomena. Novelty and the availability of multiple interpretations in part define the kind of interest we take in aesthetic objects. Monroe Beardsley in his influential work Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (1958, 1981) went so far as to argue that complexity along with unity and intensity provide logically necessary (and perhaps sufficient) conditions of aesthetic value.

It's worth noting that in my own small corner of the world of aesthetics, wine-tasting, complexity is admired and simplicity a sign of inferior quality. Legendary and high scoring wines all exhibit complex flavor profiles and extensive evolution on the palate. Simple wines might be enjoyable for dinner but seldom induce rapture.

Since complexity and simplicity at least superficially appear to be contradictory criteria it would seem that simplicity has no role to play in Beardsley's attempt to codify aesthetics. Of course, as I noted above, there are art works that apparently don't exhibit complexity, and today Beardsley is regarded as over-reaching if he intended his criteria to be logically necessary or sufficient. Such definitions have fallen out of favor in most philosophical circles to be replaced by generalizations that hold only for the most part. Yet, complexity, unity, and intensity are useful reference points for evaluating works of art despite the exceptions.

Perhaps Beardsley is guilty of cultural prejudice in ignoring the role of simplicity that characterize other aesthetic traditions, but the prominence of complexity as a fundamental aesthetic value does raise questions about what role simplicity should play in our aesthetic judgments. No doubt we sometimes enjoy simplicity but the question is whether it is a fundamental value or not and how we are to understand that value.

To be fair to defenders of complexity, they need not deny that simplicity can sometimes enhance aesthetic value. Beardsley's criteria (complexity, unity, and intensity) interact and influence each other and none can be maximized. Too much complexity is just confusing and undermines the unity of a work. Complexity without organization is meaningless and bringing unity to a work often requires that an artist heavily edit, i.e. simplify, initial drafts or sketches. Art and music composition students are constantly enjoined to simplify because simplification can make the focal point of a work stand out. But this demand to simplify treats simplicity as having instrumental value only. Its purpose is to make a work more coherent. The aim is not simplicity itself but rather to utilize simplification as a way of achieving other artistic aims such as unity or intensity.

Similarly, pauses in music or negative space in painting are deployed because they create tension and contrast; both make use of simplification to achieve an effect. But that appears to be a strategy that aims at intensity rather than adopting simplicity as an independent value. Similarly, we often welcome simplicity as a contrast to sensory overload. After viewing several disturbing and difficult paintings in a museum we might welcome a simple landscape; after listening to Wagner or Mars Volta, we might really appreciate Erik Satie or some homespun blues. But again this seems to be an instrumental use of simplicity to achieve balance in one's experience or to relax and prepare the mind to appreciate more complex works. At most simplicity seems to be a secondary value, a useful tool for achieving more fundamental aims.

However, Japanese aesthetics provides insight into how we should understand the appeal of simplicity. Simplicity seems central to the goal of Shizen, which means to be without pretense or artifice–“from itself, thus it does” according to one translation, “what is spontaneously or naturally so”. Kenko, the 14th Century Buddhist monk often cited for his authoritative commentary on aesthetics writes:

A house, though it may not be in the current fashion or elaborately decorated, will appeal to us by its unassuming beauty — a grove of trees with an indefinably ancient look; a garden where plants, growing of their own accord, have a special charm; a verandah and an open-work wooden fence of interesting construction; and a few personal effects left lying about, giving the place an air of having been lived in. A house which multitudes of workmen have polished with every care, where strange and rare Chinese and Japanese furnishings are displayed, and even the bushes and trees of the garden have been trained unnaturally, is ugly to look at and most depressing. How could anyone live for long in such a place? (From Kenko, Essays in Idleness: he Tsurezuregusa of Kenko, trans. Donald Keene)

Ornamentation and decoration are avoided because the intent is to make the object look as if it arose naturally even when it is obviously an artifact.

In the case of Shizen, is simplicity a tool to achieve naturalness or is it an inherent component of naturalness? Of course a work can be simple and artificial; simplicity does not logically entail naturalness. Perhaps we should understand simplicity in Japanese aesthetics as a symbolic device to signal naturalness in much the way simplicity in Quaker aesthetics symbolizes devotion to God. This would be to view simplicity as having merely instrumental value, a tool to signal an ideology, but I think that would be a misunderstanding. Simplicity does not merely indicate naturalness, it exemplifies it, shows what it is saying, or at least it can in the hands of someone with talent.

To make sense of this in the context of Western aesthetics it is helpful to invoke a concept that seems to have slipped from view in modern aesthetics although it was central in the Renaissance—the concept of sprezzatura. The 16th Century Italian diplomat and author Baldassare Castiglione first used this term in The Book of the Courtier. He defines it as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it”. The courtier, Castiglione argued, has the ability to display “an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them”.

What Castiglione is pointing to here is the aesthetic pleasure we get from ease, when effects flow naturally from a source without apparent force or manipulation, a display of what something is without addition. This is likely the source of the aesthetic pleasure mathematicians and scientists report when they witness an elegant proof or theory. It is why we are thrilled by vocalists who hit the high notes without straining or athletes who seem to glide when they run. These examples are of course kinds of human actions but I think aesthetic objects can display ease and naturalness as well displaying their essential character without adornment or obvious effort on the part of the artist who puts it on display.

In these cases, simplicity is not an instrument to achieve ease; simplicity constitutes ease by displaying it. It seems forced to understand the aesthetic aim in these cases as something other than simplicity such as unity or balance. Ease itself is aesthetically satisfying.

As you might have guessed if you have read my other writings, I'm nattering on about this because it has something to do with wine and food.

Simple wines and foods are good because they often have lots of flavor. But they also have appeal because there is an unaffectedness to them. Simple chopped tomatoes macerated in lemon juice and olive oil served over pasta; roast chicken with some aromatics in the cavity and basted with olive oil or butter; a fresh rosé from Provence or Lambrusca from Emilia Romagna—these can be aesthetically pleasing not only as a contrast with excessive complexity or as a means of generating intensity but because there is a naturalness to them, a display of what something is that settles effortlessly into the flow of life around it.

Isn't that why a simple, well sung folk or blues song can be beautiful? Such phenomena may lack the thrill we get from structure and organization finding unity in complexity. The unity is there but it doesn't arise from an active pulling together of diverse elements. The unity exists without addition or amendments and that naturalness is part of the appeal.

Thus it seems simplicity can sometimes have independent aesthetic value. Some simple things are just boring. And sometimes as noted above simplicity is an instrument to achieve intensity. But ease and lack of affectation does seem to be something we enjoy even when we grant the aesthetic value of complexity.

For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution.