MFA exhibit showcases a collector who says he has unlocked a secret of design - using math

Horace Brock, at the MFA in an exhibit of works from his collection, has strong ideas about what makes certain objects visually appealing. Horace Brock, at the MFA in an exhibit of works from his collection, has strong ideas about what makes certain objects visually appealing. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / February 22, 2009
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Looking harried but still dashing, like one of Saul Bellow's larger-than-life, take-on-the-world characters, Horace "Woody" Brock excuses himself to take a phone call. "That's the problem with your generation," he tells the caller (presumably not his mother). "You're lazy, you leave everything to the last minute."

Brock, who has a brisk mind, is a man on a mission. He read mathematical economics and political philosophy at Princeton (he has five degrees in all) and is the founder and president of Strategic Economic Decisions Inc., a think tank specializing in applying the economics of uncertainty to forecasting and risk assessment.

But phooey to all that; Brock has deeper things to think about. He believes he has cracked the secret of beautiful design. He even has equations and graphs to prove it.

A tall man, he has a tendency to overwhelm objections before they've even been voiced (which is another way of saying I found it hard to get a word in).

When we meet, he is perusing for the very first time the installation of "Splendor and Elegance," the exhibition of his extraor dinary collection of European decorative arts and drawings at the Museum of Fine Arts.

He's delighted, and he lets MFA director Malcolm Rogers and curator George Shackelford know it. He asks that his compliments be passed on to all who have helped. The whole thing looks, he says, beautiful.

And so it does. There is an exquisite Louis XVI Neoclassical pediment clock from about 1790 (Year One of the French Revolution), a swirlingly organic Louis XV Rococo candlestick in gilt bronze after a design by Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier, and, from about 1685, an ineffably suave Louis XIV clock, whose long oak case, veneered with tortoiseshell, brass, and pewter, was designed by the French genius André-Charles Boulle.

"This is completely amazing," he says. "It's the earliest piece by Boulle in the US."

The drawings, too - insouciantly scattered among furniture, clocks, candle stands, and even a barometer - are so fine they would justify a show on their own. Among them is a ravishing study of a groom loading up two frisky horses by Théodore Géricault, a study of a sculpture of Atlas by Tintoretto, and a stormy depiction of a city under siege by the Dutchman Dirk Langendijk.

But none of these beautiful objects, many of which Brock has generously promised to the MFA (where he is on the board of overseers), seems to have as much grip on his imagination as his theory of beautiful design.

"Now that's - that's the really important thing. These objects," he waves his hand - "I'm just the custodian. You don't own treasures like these. But my theory of beauty in design - that is a major contribution."

Brock's theory, which is clearly laid out in a succinct and fascinating essay included in the show's catalog, comes with a two-page appendix, replete with a graph, equations, and multiple axioms.

"The thing about beautiful design is you don't need me to explain it. You just sense it. That's how it's supposed to be," he reassures me. "But some of us have the job of trying to find out what's going on."

What about this theory, then?

In truth, it's satisfyingly simple. Designed objects, Brock writes, can be broken down into "themes" and "transformations." A theme is a motif, such as an S-curve; a transformation might see that curve appear elsewhere in the design, but stretched, rotated 90 degrees, mirrored, or otherwise reworked.

Aesthetic satisfaction comes from an apprehension of how those themes and transformations relate to each other, or of what Brock calls their "relative complexity." Basically - and this is the nub of it - "if the theme is simple, then we are most satisfied when its echoes are complex . . . and vice versa."

He gives the example of a chair in his collection designed by the English Regency architect Henry Holland. The dominant design motif, which can be found in the chair's arm, is an S-curve. (Mathematically, an S-curve, which twists in space, is complex when compared to a straight line or unidirectional curve.) The back of the chair, writes Brock, sees that S-curve first reversed and then rotated 90 degrees - a simple two-step transformation.

Complex theme, simple transformation: Voila! The chair is beautiful.

Testing the theory
Brock wants to be clear that his theory applies only to beauty in design - in other words, architecture, furniture, and other kinds of decorative art: "That's very important - I wouldn't want to claim too much." But in his catalog essay he claims his account "makes it possible to clarify, and indeed to quantify, one of the deepest principles of aesthetics: People . . . tend to be bored if there is too much simplicity (the kitchen chair, certain Gregorian chants) and overwhelmed if there is too much complexity (pastiche Victorian furniture, much 20th-century classical music)."

In his estimation, the theory also subsumes most previous theories of beauty in design - from Pythagoras's golden rectangle to Hogarth's "line of beauty," from the celebrated golden section to the Fibonacci series - into a neat mathematical equation.

"You can see I think about deep things," Brock tells me. "By nature I'm forced to. Sometimes I wish I weren't, but it's just who I am."

But just how deep does this theory of beauty go? And isn't it a bit, well, pat to reduce something as complex and mysterious as the human apprehension of beauty to a mathematical equation?

"My view on that [kind of objection] is absolutely definite," says Brock in a booming voice, his head rolling on its base like a lion's. "It's absolute crap."

"Mathematics is hugely under-estimated," he continues, more gently. "It's not about numbers, it's about orders and relationships."

But can orders and relationships always be calculated? And when it comes to beauty - even just beautiful design - do they tell the whole story?

Brock makes it clear that his theory does not try to account for things like "quality of craftsmanship, attractiveness of materials, or the uncanny ability of some artists to capture a particular atmosphere." Nor does it explain, for instance, the impact of color or the social or emotional associations of beautiful objects - the idea, for instance, that beauty, as Stendhal put it, is "the promise of happiness."

What, then, are we actually left with? And how great is its explanatory force?

When I try to bring up Kant, Schiller, Hume, and other philosophers who have addressed the subject of beauty, Brock cuts in: "I think all those people were fuzzy-wuzzy."

Fair enough. I do, too, much of the time. But his own theory, intuitively attractive though it sounds, starts to look like something of a procrustean mistake - an exercise in hacking off or ignoring great slabs of reality in order to make it fit a predetermined idea.

Beauty, I would suggest - even when narrowed down to beauty in design - has a holistic nature. It can't be divided up into component parts, nor can it be reduced to a single theory. It has something ungovernable about it, something that defies formulae.

Brock's theory discounts, for instance, the possibility that one part of the beauty equation - certainly beauty at its most intense - seems to involve a thirst for the unexpected, or at least a resistance to cliché. Jorn Utzon's Sydney Opera House, for instance, might fit Brock's theory of relative complexity (he cites it as an example of great beauty in design), but can't part of its beauty be attributed to the fact that one hasn't seen anything else like it?

It's hard not to like the boldness with which Brock's theory does away with the idea that beauty is simply in the eye of the beholder. That piece of received wisdom has never felt satisfactory, if only because - notwithstanding shifts in convention - there seems to be so much common ground in people's conception of beauty. But can it be explained with such a simple formula?

Asked what effect beauty has on him, Brock is wonderfully direct. "It's like great sex or great food - I mean, it's all a variation on the orgasm, isn't it? All these things are types of joy. You don't have to be embarrassed by it."

And yet his theory seems untouched by the idea that our sense of beauty may have evolved in relation to the sexual instincts, and thus reflect all the messiness and unpredictability of Darwinian evolution (the subject is explored in depth in Denis Dutton's new book, "The Art Instinct").

Brock, who in his youth studied classical music at New England Conservatory, credits his love of music - particularly Mozart and Beethoven - with shaping his theory of beauty and his interest in design of that period. He often uses musical comparisons to illustrate his ideas about design.

But is Mozart's music beautiful only because of its exquisite balance between theme and transformation, or (to use another of Brock's formulations) between order and disorder?

How does one account for Mozart's ability to infuse his arrangements of sonic frequencies and duration with intimations of so much else - mischief, yearning, despair, delicacy, sheer playful exuberance and so on? All this feels inseparable from our sense of the work's beauty.

Backlash against beauty
"The stark reality is that the kinds of things I have loved have become ever more unfashionable since I began collecting 30 years ago," harrumphs Brock in his essay. "Bluntly, beauty per se is out, and 'interesting' shock art is in. And as for my love of elegance, God forbid! This is today's form of 'the love that dare not speak its name.' "

This is amusing, and Brock would have been right about it 10 years ago. But over the past decade, beauty has come back on the agenda - both in contemporary art and philosophy - with a vengeance, thanks to writers and academics like Dave Hickey, Peter Schjeldahl, Elaine Scarry, John Armstrong, James Hillman, and Umberto Eco. It is not an exaggeration to say that, after decades of repression, beauty has become the burning issue in contemporary art and architecture, not only in the commentary but in the practice, too: More and more artists are making work that aspires, quite shamelessly, to be beautiful.

"A major part of the repression of beauty," wrote Hillman in a 1991 essay called "The Practice of Beauty," "has always been an inability to find for it a rational definition." In other words, there has been a feeling that "we should not talk about beauty because we cannot define what we are talking about."

Brock's theory may seem to provide a solution in this respect.

But then again, it may not. In his great novel, "Herzog," Bellow warned against "the dream of intellect, the delusion of total explanations." Keeping these cautionary words in mind, I prefer - rather than seeking the truth of beauty - to subscribe to something the philosopher Gaston Bachelard once wrote: "The world is beautiful before it is true."

Sebastian Smee can be reached at


European Decorative Arts and Drawings From the Horace Wood Brock Collection

At: Museum of Fine Arts, through May 17. 617-267-9300,

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