TED2008: Is beauty truth?

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(Unedited running notes from the TED2008 conference in Monterey, California. Fourth session.)

After music by Jill Sobule live from Aspen, and by Thomas Dolby‘s band in Monterey, the TED’s fourth session, hosted by Director of TED MediaJune Cohen, is on "What is beauty?", on the existence and the hidden meanings of beauty.

Anchor speaker Nancy Etcoff, evolutionary psychologist and author of
"Survival of the prettiest", had unfortunately to cancel because of a flu. June introduces the session by summarizing Etcoff’s views: Beauty matters to us. We are constantly scanning for it, evaluating it, responding to it. But what do we find beautiful and why? Etcoff contends that beauty is an
evolutionary advantage and argues that not only culture determines what
is beautiful, but that we have an innate understanding of it, and the
perception of beauty is therefore a human universal.

Isaac Mizrahi is probably best known for bridging the gap between
"high" and "low", for creating couture collections (sketch at left) for
both luxury brands (Liz Clairborne) and affordable retailers (such as
the US’ Target). He’s also a performer, talk-show host, designer of
theatre and opera costumes, and much more. He has written a book that
will be out in a few months, "How to have style", where he expounds on
his belief that inspiration leads to creating a personal style.
"I’m gonna talk about my process, but it’s difficult, I don’t know where it started. Process has alot to do with physique: who you are physically. I dont’ sleep much, for years I’ve been sitting up, and i think that my creativity is greatly motivated by this kind of insomnia. I lie awake, I walk around — actually I also walk during the day and follow people that are interesting. As a matter of fact, a lot of my design comes from the tricks of the eye.  I don’t know where inspiration comes from: it comes from lying awake and thinking. For me, it doesn’t come from research. One of the funniest things I’ve always done it was this past Christmas, at the Guggenheim in NY, I read "Peter and the Wolf" with kids, and that’s my own kind of research. I’m really lazy about research. Your creativity should be like a bodily function.  Sure, if I’m commissioned to do costumes for an opera, I do research, because it’s interesting. I watch alot of movies, and trying to find balance of irony and earnestness. Balance is really what it is about, that’s part of my process. I go back to color all time. Natural colors are just so beautiful. How can I ever make anything that is as beautiful as Greta Garbo? That’s what makes me lie awake at night. I also go to astrologers and tarot readers, and do what they tell me to do. If I only do one thing at a time, I get bored very easily, so I do alot of things, and try not to look back.

Sigfried Woldhek calls himself a "dreamcatcher". He gets three minutes on stage to tell about a discovery that he made about the face of Leonardo da Vinci. "We know all about Leonardo’s research, but we don’t know his face. There is controversy even about his self-portrait. I looked at all of his drawings, several hundreds, searching for self-portraits. By elimination, I shortened down the list to three: the self-portrait, the young "Musician", and the "Vitruvian man". If you zoom into these three faces, and map them chronologically,   and compare them with the Verrocchio statue for which Leonardo posed as a teenager, the evidence is compelling: This is the face of Leonardo:


In museum circles, the director of the Guggenheim Foundation Thomas Krens has a controverisial reputation. He has challenged the definitions of high art with exhibits such as "The art of the motorcycle" (1998), rewritten the book on how to run a museum, and transformed the Guggenheim into a global brand, with currently five museums (NY, Venice, Las Vegas, Berlin and the Frank Gehry Bilbao museum) and one to be added in Abu Dhabi.
He picks 27 more-or-less random images that demonstrate that beauty is truth: an Egyptian sculpture, a Chinese bronze, Michelangelo, paintings by Leonardo, Rubens, Picasso, Matisse, Vermeer, Warhol, sculptures by Beecroft, Richard Serra, and more. All these are objects of beauty: how do you tie them together? How do we experience art, truth and beauty? How do we consume culture? How do we contain/communicate the richness of our culture? Truth and beauty don’t reside in the objects themselves, but in the nature of the communication between the object and the viewer. The public art museum is an 18th century idea, the idea of an encyclopedia, presented in a 19th century box, an extended palace, that more or less fulfils its structural destiny sometime toward the end of the 20th century. AndrĂ© Malraux (1952): "Our museums conjure up for us a Greece that never existed". So the museum was an artificial space. Moreover, until recently most art museums have focused only on European and American art. Museums have to understand that all institutions change. Cultural narrative are infinite and endless. There is also a political dimension: museums need to become cultural agitators, while keeping being curators of collections. Plus: audience matters; art is for the masses. We need to make sure that the objects can tell a story and that story can be communicated. At the Guggenheim we think of museums as platforms and networks of exchange. Our buildings are based on the idea that 1+1=3. (Krens also talks about the Guggenheim projects for new museums that weren’t built). The current Guggenheim proposition: bridges to the Middle East, with the Abu Dhabi project. AD is mostly desert, but unlike Dubai is made of many islands, and the local government is planning to develop one with a big cultural district "that will become one of the biggest concentrations of culture in the world". There will be a Guggenheim, a Louvre, a performing art center, various other museums, a Yale University campus, a Biennale platform, etc built by star architects (Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel etc). There are also plans to extend the concept of the museum out into the desert.

June Cohen gives an update on TED.com, the platform through which TED distributes since mid-2006 the videos of the conference’s speakers. It’s currently running at over 3 million video views a month — that’s 100’000 a day. June announces new channels: Miro, Adobe’s Media Player, and soon even on the inflight entertainment system of Virgin Atlantic. The pace of release will also be increased to daily, and sometimes later this year TED talks will be available with subtitles.

Next year, TED will celebrate its 25th anniversary. It was founded in 1984 by designer and information architect Richard Saul Wurman, who sold it a few years ago to Chris Anderson. Chris now runs it as a non-profit. The two men go on stage. It’s a very emotional moment for them and for the TED community. Wurman retells how the idea for a conference about the convergence of technology, entertainment and design came to be, how the format of the event evolved over time, etc. He then introduces his new project: 192021.org, a study (leading to books, exhibits, and more) of 19 cities in the world that will have over 20 million people in the 21st century with a common methodology — because although today the world is more a network of cities than of countries, there is no way currently to gather comparable data on global cities.

The final speaker in the session is Garrett Lisi. Most of the year, he
is a surfer. But last year he published online an "Exceptionally simple
theory of everything" that has attracted lots of controversy
— his
work is clearly on science’s speculative outposts — but also lots of
diligent attention in the scientific community. This is the first time
he talks publicly about his theory.
Here is the abstract of the
theory, that tries to give a coherent, beautiful (Murray Gell-Mann, at
TED last year, pointed out that in fundamental physics, beauty is a
successful criterion for choosing the right theory
) and unified
explanation of all known fundamental interactions in physics:
fields of the standard model and gravity are unified as an E8 principal
bundle connection. A non-compact real form of the E8 Lie algebra has G2
and F4 subalgebras which break down to strong su(3), electroweak su(2)
x u(1), gravitational so(3,1), the frame-Higgs, and three generations
of fermions related by triality. The interactions and dynamics of these
1-form and Grassmann valued parts of an E8 superconnection are
described by the curvature and action over a four dimensional base

E8 is a mathematical shape with 248 symmetries — a
large, complex but elegant bundle (at left an illustration from
Lisi’s paper)
. Lisi believes that the relationships between the symmetries represent known particles and forces, including gravity, and hopes that the Large Hadron Collider, the new particle accelerator at CERN in Geneva that will go online later this year (Brian Cox will talk about it tomorrow) may offer indications on whether his theory has legs. I am not sure that I fully understand it. If you’re like me, refer to the
Wikipedia page, or to the full paper (31 pages, PDF).