Messy Histories: Mathematics

I have never, ever, got maths. Even thinking back to my earliest school memories I get a sinking feeling when I recall those pink covered maths books. It’s the process which bothered me, the fact that there was only one way of getting from question to answer, from A to B. If you didn’t know it or understand it – and I didn’t – that journey was a challenge. And if you did slip up you were screwed, because there was only ever one concrete answer. I hated than there was seemingly a million ways to be wrong, and only ever one to be right.

I understand that some people find satisfaction, even beauty, in the systems of numbers and their logic, though I’ve never been able to see it. That’s not me disputing its existence, but acknowledging that I recognise this limitation to my perception. It’s almost ethereal to me, even now; there are moments when somebody’s explaining it to me and I get a sense that it’s almost within my grasp, but this never lasts. The deep fog around my understanding never fully clears, just momentarily and patchily retreats to a gentler haze.

But I’m also aware aware of how deeply maths is embedded as an influence and device within some of my favourite arts. Music basically is maths – trust the numeric patterns and you’ll get a right answer. In visual art, too, it’s had a significant role. Being a natural law rather an invention of man – despite what the Renaissance might have had you believe – maths can be found working within artistic traditions from around the world.

Though I can never find a satisfying answer to the question of why we find certain ratios and patterns aesthetically pleasing which goes beyond familiarity, that their frequency in nature has got us used to them as being ‘the way things should be’. Maybe it’s because of this that many of the images I’ve been looking at for this week have a kind of divine leaning. The rules of maths being used as proof of teleological arguments, evidence of God’s hand in the design of the world. Whether you go with that or not, its resulted in some beautiful things being made.

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