Emphasis & beauty: More … or less?

Today, two questions for you to ponder:

  1. To emphasize something (an idea, a word, an image, a sensation, anything), should you add or remove?
  2. To make something more beautiful, do you need to add or remove?

So this is a post about adding and removing.

I come at this, naturally, from the perspective of a writer. And as you might remember from my post about “color in writing,” I like to use art as an analogy for writing. Of course, I could also use sound, or smell, or touch or taste — but that is harder to do on a blog. So let’s think about words as visual stimuli.

I. Zen writing or Thai writing

Look at those two temple scenes above (both from Wikipedia). I’ve been to both temples. Both are Buddhist. One is in Kyoto, Japan, the other in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Both cities are among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

All of that is beside the point. If you’re like me, you will immediately focus your glance on one object: the pile of sand (or was it pebbles?) in front of the Kyoto temple. You will then scan the Thai temple for something to focus on … and give up, returning to the pile of sand.

Which style, the Zen or the Thai, is better at emphasis?

The Zen, of course. And it does that by removing details, the better to show one stunning detail.

The Thai style, by contrast, is not interested in emphasis. It is interested in sensual barrage.

So, although both are nominally Buddhist, you realize that the two styles present two separate conceptions not only of aesthetics but also of religious experience. If you are like me:

  • the Zen experience leaves you serene,
  • the Thai experience leaves you stimulated.

(Incidentally, you will generally find the same contrast between Japanese and Thai food.)

Is one “better” than the other? That’s not a fair question. But life isn’t fair, so I will answer it. The Zen aesthetic is superior.

Now, let’s say you are a designer of temples (= writer). You better know at the outset which experience you’re trying to create. If you’re trying to make people serene, you better not incorporate any “advice” from the Thai guys; if you’re trying to stimulate, don’t listen to the Japanese.

Put differently: author, know thyself.

II. “Baroque” writing or “Baroque” writing

Let’s take another example. The caricature of Baroque and Rococo art is that they are overly ornate — Thai, rather than Zen, if you will.

This abbey in Ottobeuren, Bavaria, near where I grew up, is an example:

Do you see the wound of Jesus on the ceiling?

Didn’t think so.

Now let’s try this famous painting by Caravaggio, also nominally “Baroque”:

Do you see the wound of Jesus? Of course you do. You see nothing else.

Which is “better”? Again, it is not a fair question, and let me answer it anyway. The Caravaggio is better. It is superb, in fact, one of the best paintings in art history. Ottobeuren is kitsch (which doesn’t prevent hordes of American tourists from visiting it).

But in the interests of fairness, I must qualify that the intent of the two artists was different:

  • The purpose of Ottobeuren is to overwhelm you when you come in.
  • Caravaggio’s purpose is to focus your attention on one action — with light, detail and gaze (ie, that of the disciples) all subservient to that purpose — so that you contemplate a story around that action.

What would Caravaggio have done if his patron had asked him to put, oh, a little angel or curlicue in the upper right hand corner, to “make better use of that space”? Caravaggio would have ignored him.

III. Microsoft or Apple

Let me sign off on this little meditation with the famous spoof of Microsoft “improving” Apple’s iPod packaging. As you watch and smirk, think of your Powerpoint presentation, your corporate memo, your essay, your book or whatever: Are you going to commit, with courage, to the point you want to make? Well, then cut the crap. Get Zen. Put the finger in it.

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67 thoughts on “Emphasis & beauty: More … or less?

    • Hmm. I hadn’t extended my thought exercise to make-up. But I admit that I’ve never seen a naturally beautiful woman who has benefited from make-up.

      The question is whether less-than-beautiful women can use a bit of Thai-dying up. The risk there is overdoing it.

      But that points to another aspect: In the above examples (temples, paintings…) I assume that you’re working with a thing of beauty. The proportions are right, the meaning is there, etc. So the question is how to bring that out.

      Returning to writing: If a writer has ugly thoughts — banal, boring, uninteresting — then he might indeed consider adding. I suspect that explains why a lot of academic papers are the way they are. It’s a form of hiding.

    • Yours is neo-Scots.

      Mine would like to be Zen, but I have yet to find the perfect WordPress theme. The ones that seem Zen are too dark. I’ve convinced myself that black text on white is easiest on the eyes.

    • You gotta switch to the self-hosted version (wordpress.org) and design your own theme. I designed mine, and it’s a perfect reflection of who I am. (Yes, I promise I’ll discuss this with my psychiatrist as soon as I can afford one.)

      Seriously, you can make your theme as Zen as you want it, black lettering on a white background, with a picture of a little tree in one corner and a huge pile of sand in another. You can make it Zenner than Zen; so Zen that your visitors will be fluent in Japanese within minutes just by looking at your theme!

    • self-hosting would just give a non designer more opportunities to make some very bad visual choices.

      andreas, if this is a “template” for ease of use and hierarchy of information it is the best design i have seen. (relative to the linked blogs provided by responders)

      if you have access to a mac and the time to search, iweb (free mac software) has thousands of customizable blog templates. very WYSIWYG 🙂

      i am not sure how much you tweaked this template but you’ve made some fine design choices.

    • Relative to some of those dreadfully ill-designed and myspacey “linked blogs provided by responders,” I can tell you exactly how much our self-professed technophobe tweaked his template: he added a little map of Hannibal’s travels to the banner.

    • Hemingway exchange with a “critic” who interrupts his writing in a cafe:

      “Hem, I have to tell you I find your work just a little too stark.”

      “Too bad.”

      “Hem, it’s too stripped, too lean.”

      “Bad luck.”

      “Too stark, too stripped, too lean, too sinewy.”

      “I’ll try to fatten it up a little.”

      “Mind, I don’t want it obese.”

      “Hal, I’ll avoid that as long as I can.”

  1. Andreas,

    Hmm, you got me. I am speechless as I don’t know how to put this critique diplomatically without being way too offensive. I better wait till others have a go first. 🙂

    P.S. Cheri, I thought women can be both Zen and Thai at the same time in a moment’s notice. 🙂

  2. OK Andreas, will you lay on the couch over there and relax. Relax now? Is your editor trying to get you to go Thai? But you want to go Zen? Tell us now.

    It depends on your chapter, and without knowing it or reading it, there is no “better” only “different”. Zen enough?

    P.S. Hope you don’t mind me saying, this post is one of the least convincing post I’ve read here. I am trying to be fair and looking at your reasoning alone (even I had a great laugh at the spoof iPod ad, and I actually own that first iPod).

    • You misunderstood the bit about the conversation with my editor (so I took that out). That was a great conversation, and we see eye-t0-eye on the chapter. But because it was a good conversation, it got me thinking more deeply about this stuff.

      You win mega points for giving this post your thumbs down publicly. Excessive politeness is a slow poison.

      Once you’ve thought about it, perhaps you can explain what makes it so unconvincing. Perhaps YOU can then convince ME.

    • i never saw any reference to your editor, since i reply after it was taken out. though it was the first thought that popped into my head, from previous blogs, that you had a “discussion” with your editor.

      perhaps kempton finds this blog entry unconvincing because it seems more relaxed?

      less is more – of course. unless you are dolly parton in which case more is more, but even she manages to get the focus upon her hair and/or breast.

      i proudly admit to owning a bauhaus knock-off or two. peter g. makes the connection to design as i do. the you tube video will give me nightmares of by-gone clients, who are always right by virtue of being the customer…

      for the non mac users, what comes in the box at the prix fixe of $1500? an all in one computer and screen, wireless mouse and wireless keyboard, a 4.75″ x 4.75 ” instruction book of less that 100 pages – more than enough.

    • The context of the book chapter makes a big difference to me in saying what I said. I will re-read the passage and think more on it later.

      In the mean time, let me go onto this path before I forget. Instead of “Zen writing or Thai writing”, what if it is conversation instead of writing.

      “Zen conversation or Thai conversation” anyone?

  3. Andreas,

    Given your interest in design, simplicity, and the iPod/iPhone, have you ever considered who the people were who designed the original Western Electric “302” phone

    the once ubiquitous “500″ telephone

    and the “Princess” phone

    which together span more than half a century?

    It turns out they were all primarily the product of one man: industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. Dreyfuss steadfastly refused to add any ornamentation (“Thai”) to his many designs, but instead let the design grow out of the underlying technology and the end users’ needs (“Zen”). He recounts this conflict between “Thai” and “Zen” in his autobiography Designing for People.

    • Fascinating example, Jim M.

      It sounds like this Henry Dreyfuss was a proto-Steve Jobs, limited by the inferior technology available to him.

      The interface of the first two phones seems to be a circle, which Steve Jobs later re-discovered for the original iPod. Then Dreyfuss tried the buttons, but he had to have 12 whereas Jobs (iPhone/iPad) can now afford to have only one.

      “Designing for People”: good read?

    • Dreyfuss was not a strict minimalist but he certainly prescribed to the ethic “form follows function”.

      let’s hope your books function is not to exhaust it’s readers. 🙂

    • If memory serves, Dreyfuss refused to participate in a design competition for a new Bell System phone when told it meant producing a design without first consulting with Bell System engineers. Much later Bell came back to him for help: All of the winning designs proved impractical to manufacture.

      I found this book interesting because of the breadth of his experience. He designed Westclox clocks, Hoover vacuums, John Deere tractors, the Twentieth Century Limited … and …

      well you’ll have to read the book.

  4. Design based on function:

    We needed to breathe, pee and look around and our design had to accommodate these and other functions.

    Function begs form.

    Useless design does not get reproduced in Nature. It represent a waste of resources and is naturally stopped.

    • “an unmixed metaphor” – can color enhance a structurally unsound design? never. if it does not work in grayscale there is nothing that the addition of color will do to improve it.

  5. I have nothing coherent to add, but a few random observations.

    I’m reminded of the discussion in Amadeus when the Kappelmeister says that Idomeneo has “too many notes.” Mozart asks “which ones should I take out?” Zen is Zen and Baroque is Baroque. You may like one more than the other but the real question is how well the artist has done his or her job in the medium they are working in.

    Also, this opens up some interesting speculation on what makes a great artist. If an artist is born into a period (e.g., Bach and baroque) and perfects that style and raises it to new levels, are they any better or worse than an artist to chafes against the prevailing style and breaks out with a new style? Because coming up with a new style often involves adding or subtracting.

    Lastly, on the subject of adding and deleting, Leonard Bernstein did a wonderful analysis of the 1st movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony based on discarded sketches and crossed out portions of Beethoven’s manuscripts. He plays parts of the movement to show how it would have sounded if Beethoven hadn’t changed it. Interestingly, most of the final version reflects deletions of longer, more involved passages. At least in that case, Beethoven thought that less was more. Sorry I can’t find it on-line–it came out as an EP record a long time ago.

  6. Definitely aesthetics befits the Germans! Very thought provoking.
    I read the other post on color writing to get more info.

    1. The Zen experience leaves you serene, the Thai experience leaves you stimulated.
    2. Am I against colorful writing? You must be mad. Of course not …. The problem is that color without substance is just a paint bucket that tipped over from the other post on color.

    I agree this cannot be more beautiful than that. It is a matter of taste, where age (as Phil suggests), culture, periods of the same culture count.
    Baroque and classical are working concepts here, seen as abstract categories.

    Classical enters too the equation since classical art is based on rationalism, on a sense of beauty that prefers simplicity over complexity. But again, who can say the Greek temples (simple, serene) are more beautiful than the Khajuraho ones (complex, stimulating).
    Universal Platonic beauty will exist only with absolute globalization- a dull scenario indeed.

    The abbey in Ottobeuren, Bavaria – an example of excessive ornamentation. Caravaggio is baroque too but being closer to the centre – counter Reformation baroque Rome – he cannot forget the classical even if he tries, while Bavaria (or Luis XIV rococo) are at the periphery – in art at least – so they overdo things a bit.

    I mean, Italian art, not matter if baroque or romantic (a third concept deviant vs the classical) is always deeply classical: a sense of grace plus an instinctive taste for a balance between ‘the colour and the substance’, as you call them, is typical of our aesthetic attitude.

    Puccini and Richard Strauss are both romantic tho dissimilar. Vivaldi and Bach are baroque but Vivaldi (more simple, serene) is different from Bach (complex, stimulating), which doesn’t mean Vivaldi is greater than Bach, quite the contrary (although an Italian might prefer his music ‘corrected’ a bit by the grace of Italian or French performers).

    Mozart, he’s the borderline guy, the perfect blend of the Italian taste and of the German knowledge. I don’t think it’s by chance he was born along the Roman Limes, ie between two worlds.

    I tried to be concise, simple. No way. I must have German or Thai blood 🙂

    I only now realise there were other comments. Too late 😦

  7. I’ve to get back to work soon but here is my take after re-reading the current version of the post (minus that book chapter reference).

    – First, I am not sure how solid is the analogy between art (examples given in the post) and writing. But I am going to assume it works for now.

    – If “The Hannibal Blog” is NOT a wonderful piece of “Thai Writing”, then I don’t know what is ! Andreas is “Thai Writing” here, how so? Well, in all the blog posts, including this we, Andreas is building (i.e. adding) to a previous conversion that happened earlier, in this case the “color in writing” post.

    Very “not” Zen writing.

    – “To make something more beautiful, do you need to add or remove?”

    Well it depends.

    For sculptures, the artist gets a piece marble and slow chip away what is unnecessary. This is a clear case of “remove”.

    For Tibetan Sandpainting, it is absolutely “add”. In fact, I submit, to truly appreciate the Sandpainting, one has to be presence during its creation. And ideally, if we are lucky, be present when it is finally destroyed.

    The intricacy and the temporary nature (some say it is like life) of sandpainting is what attracted me to it.

    – Now, coming back to book writing. It really depends on what type of book the author wants to write.

    For me, if I am reading about a biography about a person I am very interested in and admired, I want it well presented but I want the “ADD” button being pressed very often so I can understand more of the complexity of the person.

    Take Warren Buffet’s biography “Snowball” by Alice for example, including notes, it sits at 928 pages. I included the notes because I read the notes very often while I read the bio. I recent learned that Alice is going to open up some of the additional materials (she researched and wrote the book over 5 years and interviewed Warren for hundreds of hours) and put them online. Well, I am going to read THOSE too! And thats what I meant by the “ADD” button being pressed very often.

    Now, if the book is an instructional book or a cook book, I want some great pictures, I want it a bit fun to read, but mostly the instruction text has to be as clear as they can write. So in this case, it is likely the “REMOVE” button that I want pressed more often.

    – So when devoid of context, it is hard to say “add” or “remove”.

    – I hope I am not too confusing. Now it is time for me to get back to some work.

    • Well, that all makes good sense. However, I can’t see how anything in my post would deny it. For example:

      “Now, let’s say you are a designer of temples (= writer). You better know at the outset which experience you’re trying to create. If you’re trying to make people serene, you better not incorporate any “advice” from the Thai guys; if you’re trying to stimulate, don’t listen to the Japanese.”

      Isn’t that exactly what you’re saying, too?

      On the matter of biographies: I am with you that they benefit from adding lots and lots of detail. But I’m not against detail. I’m for making all the details subservient to a theme. So the really, really good biographies — such as Ambrose’s of Meriwether Lewis or Isaacson’s of Einstein (both of which I loved) have oodles of detail and yet ensure that the details colors in a picture of a character.

      stepping back, I think you got stuck on something in the post, perhaps taking something too literally. What I’m saying is far less radical than you imagine.

  8. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, is it not? I tend toward the Zen, the woman without (or, at least minimal) make up, just about anything sans glitter. But that is just me.

    • I like and tend to both, the Zen and the Thai. And the woman, without or with make-up, I like both.

      Let me explode topics a bit, and ‘add’.

      I like both sides of the moon, the dark indistinct and the crystal-clear. In writing I like balance, discipline, clear argumentations, polished sentences but also lush jungles of words and ideas – in literature (and thought) we have impressive examples of both ways.
      In short, I like variety. With women too. But I am absolutely monogamous.

    • Nice metaphor, that moon thing. But, basically, you are saying you would be happiest in a relationship with a woman who has been diagnosed with MPD. 😉

    • you are saying you would be happiest …with a [MPD] woman

      If you mean a ‘multiple personality disorder’ woman that’s it! I hide a secret (split personality or something) so I might do outing soon in my blog. I like drama.

      I am a bit autistic these days. I offer very bad blog dialectics :-\ :-\

    • I was also facetious tho partially.

      I’m not a bi-polar, of course, and yet, it being at the ‘core’ of my blog themes – there’s for ex both the protestant and the catholic in me, which, for a MOR, God, an outing is badly needed. So I’ll write a post on the two sides of the moon, and the temples of words, and I’ll quote your beautiful oldie, maybe like this:

      ‘Whenever I look at you
      You think I’m untrue
      Cause I say I love two,
      But I really really do
      Both of them being you.’

      Art is terrific. Even a song can sometimes say more than 20 books.

      [Btw ‘you’ is not ‘you’: I am not gay]

    • To be honest, MoR, I think we are all at least a tiny bit bi-polar, maybe even multiple personality. We just call them “moods”… or sometimes “online personae”.

      It’s when they get their own names, their own realities, and we lose control of different sides that it gets all clinical.

      To return this to the theme… at parties and social gatherings, I am more likely Thai. When alone, or with a woman, I tend toward the Zen.

      On the golf course, I can be both.

    • I agree. While reading what is left of Ennius from (Magna) Grecia, I realised he had three souls, Greek, Oscan, and Latin. Average Americans may have even more.

      Back to the theme, which we possibly never abandoned, I instead am a switch:

      Thai and or Zen in any situation – parties, women etc according to moods (devil’s advocate, provocateur but also socially correct).

      Golf is non existent to me: I prefer swimming in the Med or climbing mountains.

    • MoR, I live too far from the sea now, some 70 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and we have no mountains in Florida. I hiked in mountains, not climbed, when I did live near enough to those (well, almost mountains in southern California). Golf is a walk in the park (often spoiled), a series of puzzles and more puzzles within them to solve, a socialization, and an introspection. It is not, however, truly exercise.

    • Climbing was … disproportionate. Walking mildly uphill more truthful.

      At the moment I neither swim nor go uphill, just walk around Nero’s Domus Area fooling around with my Blackberry-like phone, a privilege (Nero) no doubt.

      But mountain or sea I’d badly need since doses of Roma, thinking & English are too much, I’ll be honest.

      Have to adapt to retirement and have possibly faith in my (no big deal) protestant doggedness. Not that all Romans are soft, but personally from Roma that I get dolce vita, while from the Alps dura vita.

  9. The Zen style is for introverts. The Thai is for extroverts.

    Since there are three times as many extroverts than introverts in any given population, it would follow that the Thai, (or ornate) style, would be more popular.

    This would go for writing too. So, if your book draft is Hemingwayesque (minimalist) in style, you might best change it before publication date.

    • Since there are three times as many extroverts than introverts in any given population

      I always thought it was the other way around but you just don’t notice them…

  10. Zen laughing in a Thai setting; a simple mind set in a complex world.

    Isn’t this a nice experience in the world of blog; intelligent bit stream digging up, refreshing memory, putting in perspective and empathizing.

  11. @Phil
    An interesting correlation. It might be valid though for some cultures sonly. I have doubts extroverts are so numerous world-wide since non Indian far-eastern folks – to which belong both the Japanese and the Thai btw- are ‘loads’ and mostly introverts.
    Another possible evidence your correlation might be non universal: if my parallelism Thai-Classicism makes any sense, the folks who created classical antiquity – with all its rigour, discipline, concinnity – were mostly extroverts. Although your correlation, being worth pondering, it’s much more … present oriented maybe, I lack words.

    Zen laughing in a Thai setting
    Weird, but intriguing.

  12. In reply to ALL the comments: This is an interesting post. it seems to have failed in that I did not make myself clear.

    Some (but not all) of you seem to have inferred that I dislike Thai temples.


    Perhaps you missed this between the lines. I’ve been to every Thai temple between Ayutthaya and Chiang Mai because I adore them.

    In fact, I must have been to 90% of ALL Buddhist temples between Nepal and Kyoto, Mongolia and Borobodur.

    And I am fully aware that each temple does something different to you, which must be appreciated. So I do appreciate being “stimulated” as well as being “serene”.

    As I was writing the post, however, it occurred to me that I loathe — loathe! — the tendency of writers to pull their punches and pretend to a false equivalence of absolutely everything. Political correctness run amok. Must not offend anybody.

    So I “added” (hmmm) one slight personal judgment in the word “superior”, after winking that this is “not fair”.

    The point is really subtle. Kempton seems to think that I am “against adding”. Well, no. You can’t have an empty book. In fact, you ahve to add a lot to make a Zen temple or a Caravaggio painting. But what do you then remove? How do you order detail to create your desired effect? This is the subject of this meditation.

    • Perhaps one’s feelings dictate the ‘add’ or ‘move’ during the creation. An artist feels overrided.

    • Some (but not all) of you seem to have inferred that I dislike Thai temples

      Didn’t have this impression frankly ‘some (but not all)’ of us got it wrong. You were clear to all i believe but i’m getting suspicious, Thai and Zen are serious stuff and your knowledge on that deeper than I foresaw – your wife etc. – so abusing a philosopher let me say wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen, ie I’d better shut my helluva mouth up.

    • To add my voice… I saw little to suggest you saw one as superior to the other. Each has its own power, it’s own essence. I may have a preference but that does not make it superior. Not even for me.

  13. have i missed your point or have you missed mine?

    whats the text version of a raspberry thwst 😛 politically incorrect enough?

    design 101, writing 101, art 101, music 101… on the subject of composition, what to leave in and what to take out? negative space is as important as positive space.

    actually it looks like only a few missed the subject of this meditation. Dreyfuss, the Bauhaus artists, Beethoven, Caravaggio the builders of the Zen temple all knew what to leave in and what to take out. Which is what makes their compositions not only effective but some would argue superior.

  14. wait a minute. looking back, i’m not sure anyone missed your point! maybe we are not being blunt enough for you.

    phil says very clearly “one size does not fit all” know yourself, know your audience almost paraphrasing your blog post.

    really you are either overestimating the intelligence of this audience or underestimating it!

    if any of us could give you instruction on “how do you… to create the desired effect?” wouldn’t you be reading our great novels, listening to our great music or marveling at our paintings and temples?


  15. i think you should ask your better half if you are having a meltdown. he, he, he.

    this really is about the book being nearly finished? which explains the tone of your blog and your rant about politeness. too bad cheri is not available to sooth, i think joe is ill.

    your book will not be “one size fits all”, but that does not mean it may not be as great as you wish it to be.

    besides, isn’t deconstructing greatness just an exercise? making a great effort to not mix metaphors… how many people have deconstructed the mona lisa? how many reconstructed paintings of this caliber have been created based on these deconstructions?

    isn’t it more pleasant to deconstruct the work of others than face the angst of creating?

  16. thanks for the link to maslow the mensch blog – it’s very helpful for new people to connect to the older posts.

    on that blog the point was already made what’s the point of studying the greats and the response was “All I know is that I do study the great. Without even knowing why.”

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