The Golden Ratio: Fast Company misses the point

Golden spiral in rectangles

Golden spiral in rectangles“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been meaning to do a post on this one since last month, when I followed the link from the Art Newspaper to the Fast Company article “The Golden Ratio: Design’s Biggest Myth.” It’s a great article but not for its insight into its topic, of which there is little. It’s great because it consolidates several common spurious arguments about the golden ratio in one place. Nice to have all of that together.

I’ve written about the Golden Ratio, aka the Golden Section here before, in a series of three posts I did back in 2013:

It’s not essential to (re)read them but you might want to as they do provide some context for this post, as well as an explanation of what the golden ratio actually is. This page (which isn’t one of mine) might be helpful too.

The Fast Company article’s first objection to the ‘science’ of the golden section is that “the golden ratio doesn’t come out to 1.6180. It comes out to 1.6180339887… And the decimal points go on forever.” It seems to me that’s only a problem in design if you think humans can sense or otherwise identify spatial relationships with an absurdly high level of precision, and that we will somehow be troubled by the fact that such relationships are only instantiated approximately. Personally, I think that’s a pretty silly objection. If we couldn’t identify approximate relationships, we’d never identify any relationships. It’s an imperfect world.

The next objection is that some of the claims that have historically been made about the Golden Ratio are preposterous, and the historical source material is of dubious provenance. These claims may be true as far as they go, but they don’t do much to discredit the utility of the Golden Ratio in design. True, Zeisling (who they identify as the premiere apologist for the ratio) does sound like a bit of a loon, seeing the Golden Ratio in places where it’s clearly just a projection on his part. But while the Golden Ratio isn’t quite as ubiquitous as its boosters said it was, it (and its close relation, the Fibonacci sequence) do crop up in some unexpected places, like growth patterns in cacti, sunflowers and pine cones. So perhaps some of the mysticism can be forgiven … but regardless, whether or not you get all mystical about the Golden Section doesn’t really matter either, from the standpoint of whether the Golden Section is a useful compositional framework.

And don’t get me started on the “nobody’s favourite rectangle” nonsense. To me, the fact that most people don’t seem to find golden rectangles more beautiful than other kinds of rectangles is about as meaningful as saying that major scales are useless for composing good music, because most people don’t find C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C to be the most beautiful thing they ever heard. And really, how would you locate any kind of beauty in a simple rectangle? Even Mondrian never went that far.

The argument that contemporary architects and designers tend not to use the Golden Ratio much doesn’t really tell us anything either. For starters, what’s the aesthetic worth of contemporary architecture? A lot of folks tend to think that traditional architecture, such as you’d find in say Venice or Paris, is far more beautiful than the contemporary stuff. Maybe our contemporaries should be using the Golden Section, but aren’t because it’s out of fashion these days. Or maybe they don’t really care about beauty, or if they do, they don’t seek it in harmonious proportions.

To be fair, the article does quote a couple of designers who acknowledge that the Golden Ratio is at least potentially valuable as one of the tools in the designer’s toolbox. And I have to say that approximates my own view as well: it’s not some kind of magic shortcut to effective composition, but used properly it can definitely help.

Interestingly, the article ends with an observation that in a different context could be used to justify the use of the Golden Ratio and other geometries as compositional frameworks: “We’re creatures who are genetically programmed to see patterns and to seek meaning.” True that, and I would go a bit further and argue we are creatures who take pleasure in finding patterns and creating meaning. To the extent that the Golden Ratio can help us to create patterns in our works for others to find, is the extent to which it can help us create works with depth, fascination and, perhaps, beauty.

Book Review: The Life and Art of Harry and Jessie Webb

The Life and Art of Harry and Jessie Webb
by Adrienne Brown
Introduction by Robert R. Reid
Salt Spring Island: Mother Tongue Publishing, 2014

Almost a year ago I came across a series of locally published books called “The Unheralded Artists of BC,” celebrating all-but-forgotten BC artists, many of whom were active in the early modern art circles of mid-20th century Vancouver and the Island. I’ve long been interested in that period and in my initial rush of enthusiasm I said I’d review all the books individually as I worked my way through the series. So far that mostly hasn’t happened, apart from a single review I wrote back in July of last year. Not that long ago though I picked up the seventh and most recent volume in the series, “The Life and Art of Harry and Jessie Webb”, and now here’s my second review.

The concept continues to fascinate, although I’m not sure I can fully articulate why. Artist biographies tend to follow a familiar pattern: years of struggle, followed by recognition and the ensuing period of success (and perhaps followed by an optional slide into obscurity, if the artist lives long enough). There are variations of course; sometimes the recognition comes after the artist is already dead (Van Gogh, Modigliani), or too old to really enjoy it (Cezanne). But what if the success doesn’t really come at all? It raises some interesting questions.

If recognition always aligned with artistic achievement the questions might be less interesting. But of course we know from history that it doesn’t work that way, and there have been many fine artists who have created amazing work in obscurity. How artists negotiate the particular challenges that accompany a lack of recognition is a topic of some moment, and sadly all too relevant to a lot of us. The local history aspect of this series is pretty interesting too, touching on a range of cultural personages and landmarks that used to be well known but are now little more than fading memories.

Harry and Jessie Webb met at the Vancouver School of Art in the late 1940s, where they studied with some of the better known regional artists of the period, including Peter Aspell and Lionel Thomas. They emerged newly married into the burgeoning Vancouver modern art scene in 1950 and for the next few years pursued their artistic ambitions in a succession of low-rent flats. Judging from their photos from this period they were a couple of beatnik archetypes incarnate. And they didn’t just look the part: they were founding members the Cellar Jazz club, helped to start a short-lived literary review, hung out with jazz pianist Al Neil, read the San Francisco poets, and once had Kenneth Patchen over for tea.

They painted of course, but they were mainly printmakers. Specifically, their medium of choice was the reduction linocut, taking multiple impressions from the same block of linoleum while progressively cutting away sections of it each time. (Picasso was known to favour the same technique, but he didn’t invent it, and in fact the Webbs got there before he did.) The book contains a number of excellent colour reproductions of the Webb’s linocuts, gouaches and oils. In my opinion the linocuts are their most realized and effective works, stylized in the way things were back in the 50s, but never mannered: lively, well composed, with interesting and sometimes surprising colour harmonies.

The Webbs attained some level of recognition, with shows at the Vancouver Art Gallery and elsewhere, but wealth did not follow. With the arrival of a daughter in the mid-50s and a growing need for stability they began the inexorable drift away from artmaking as their principal focus. Harry Webb turned his creative talents toward landscape architecture, in which field he had considerable success in the following decades. Sadly for Jessie Webb this began a long period of decline into depression and troubles with alcohol. The Webbs were divorced in the early 70s, and the last two chapters of the book chronicle their lives separately, one for each.

In all, a worthwhile portrait of two artists and a unique moment of our cultural history.

The book mentions a related cultural artifact of which I was unaware, the NFB documentary In Search of Innocence. Shot in Vancouver and Victoria in the early 60s, it features a number of local artists including Harry Webb, Al Neil, Don Jarvis, Jack Shadbolt, Margaret Peterson and one of my old teachers, Roy Kiyooka. It’s harder to find than it ought to be, but at least copies can still be ordered from the NFB. I’ll probably write about it one of these days.