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Subordinate Complexity

April 24th, 2004 | 2 min read

By Keith E. Buhler

Everyone creates. So everyone must (or should) care how to create well. From writing, to making images by photography or painting or drawing, to speaking, to planning one's day, we are all MAKING. How do we create well? It seems that complexity is less beautiful than simplicity. Messiness is ugly, orderliness is beautiful, and unstructured messes are usually complex (like a child's playroom) whereas structures perfectly ordered are usually simple (like squares or circles). For instance, a clear cylindrical glass vase, with a white flower in it, resting on a clean white tablecloth is an image simple and nice; a dirty broken bottle, shards lying on a dusty crumpled old rag, on top of a dirty, stained wooden table is complex and distasteful.

So it seems that complexity (10 parts or more) is less beautiful than simplicity (4 parts or less). Now, how is it that people create large, complex structures that are beautiful? How is it that the we come by aesthetically pleasing leather sofas, functional construction equipment, beautiful photos of people's faces? Looking at divine creations, how is it that ants are neat and trees beautiful?

Conversely, how is it that people create simple structures that are ugly? How is it that we come by punk rock songs wherein the same chord is played for the entire painful duration of a 2 minute song, or that people would prefer to live in a house that is a sprawling system of multiple rooms and bathrooms and closets rather than a square shack or a warehouse? Again, looking at God's creatures, why is it that snakes, simple creatures (for bones they have a spine and ribs, and thats it) are considered by most people to be utterly repulsive?

Self-portrait in a cap, with eyes wide open, e... Self-portrait in a cap, with eyes wide open, etching and burin, 1630 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The answer struck me yesterday. Beautiful things that are complex are still orderly, it is just that the complexity is subordinate to simplicity. These creations display a strict hierarchical order of simplicity at "the top" and subordinate complexity at "the bottem". The perfect image is the tree. What is a tree? An average oak tree visibly consists of one trunk, two or three major branches, extending out and eventually branching into several (more than 4) smaller branches, those each extend into several twigs, and each twig will usually display an array of leaves (and even those display veins within). The conglomeration of branches, twigs, leaves, and trunk is complex; but the system of trunk-branch-smaller branch-twig-leaf is simple... exactly 4 parts! (There are, of course, things such as roots, bark, and the innards of leaves, but as these do not appear to us, I ignore them. I am only dealing with the tree as an immediately visible object)

If this is so, one may evaluate complex ugly images (such as the cover of a PennySaver magazine) by pointing out that the "leaves" are larger than the "trunk", and that there is no discernable and consistant order of relation between parts. One may evaluate complex beautiful images (such as a Rembrandt painting) by observing that there is a distinct and unimpeached hierarchy displayed throughout.

One may, and should, even evaluate this post. It is a creation. Is it orderly, or haphazard and unbalanced? I only said I realized a truth, I didn't say I had yet implemented it in my own creations.