Kurt Vonnegut was making fun of himself when he said, “. . . [A]rtists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They will keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.” 1 It would seem that rather than artists keeling over, it is beauty that is dying off. If we look at Vonnegut’s “canary in the coal mine theory of the arts” 2 and pertain it to beauty in the arts, then we might draw the conclusion that our world is in trouble.
The other day, while visiting a friend, I wanted to discuss with her some of my ideas about beauty. She squinted her eyes and looked at me, “Can’t you use another word for it?” I barely got a chance to say much at all, as she couldn’t move past the idea that beauty was surface rather than intrinsic.
I understand her distaste. Western culture has openly and aggressively “cut” beauty down to parts – re-sculpting the body landscape. Currently, for adult women, being underweight with large breasts, big lips, small hips and hairless bodies is desirable. Once we begin to cut, pluck, and rearrange, we have to rely on (expensive) “specialists” to keep up the work. The natural relationship to our bodies is lost. Beauty has become warped into an industry that, at its worst, tells us if we don’t fit the homogenous standards of physical beauty that are being sold to us through mass media, than we will never be loved by anyone, or we will never find a good job (which takes us back to never being loved by anyone because we won’t have the money to buy stuff which makes us more lovable).
We do the same thing to our (domestic) home, the earth, and once we go against nature, she begins to break down. Erosion, global warming, and loss of diversity are just a few examples of what begins to happen.
Beauty does carry a lot of weight in our psyches whether we want to admit it or not. Its original meaning and what it’s been twisted into are very different. I doubt beauty is ignored by artists today, but rather reflected to show what it has become. In order to understand the shift in status of beauty as an important quality in life, we need to look at the evolution of beauty in our culture.
Beauty has not always been something that it is “subjective and superficial.” Before the 17th century, beauty was not just on the surface, but believed to be intrinsic in all things. 3 From the Greeks to the Renaissance, it was essential to understand Beauty (with a capital “B”) if you wanted to live well. The world itself was seen as an organism – alive, enchanted – we had a relationship with it. We not only knew the world, it knew us. Our actions had immediate consequences. Harmony and balance in the world, patterns of the Universe, were important and were considered beautiful and good. One would say that the world is beautiful because it is the work of God. Beauty is (evidence of) the Divine. 4
With the beginning of Cartesian and Newtonian thinking, we began to see the world as inanimate (dead) parts, therefore its (and nature’s) intrinsic beauty no longer existed. Economics and warfare helped to shift thinking away from the magical and mysterious and more toward the controllable and regimented. Beauty lost its objective quality because it was not a “thing” and could not be measured or controlled. We knew the world and nature (as parts), but it did not know us. When we look at the Universe as “parts” then we lose the beauty of the whole. In the book, Design for Life, author Van Der Ryn writes that “in the [modern] Rational Mental world, beauty no longer has any meaning,” and that nature “is seen as simply a collection of separate and unrelated resources to be used to improve the human economic and material condition.” 5
Plato said the only real thing in the universe is Beauty. The far-eastern Vedics said the only real thing in the Universe in Brahma, and that all else is Maya, or illusion. They are talking about the bliss of realizing we are One with everything, of experiencing such completeness that we lose our Selves. It is as if the body becomes a string that sets to humming as it resonates with the vibration of life. Beauty is relational. The relationship is based on harmony that brings about a loss of ego – moments of just “be”-ing are “be”-autiful. The experience of beauty extends beyond the self and out into the world, as well as arising from the cosmos to the self (and the rest of the world).
The Navaho word for beauty, hozho, describes “the oneness of all things when they are joined together in a wholesome state” and “is not separated from goodness, from health, from happiness or from harmony.” 6 In the Navajo worldview, this state of beauty is the harmonious relationship to oneself, to one’s community, and to the cosmos. The world is balanced and whole.
What happens when we live in a world that barely leaves us time for relationships? “Time is money,” is a modern dictum. On the surface we value doing, and being productive over connecting with one another in a meaningful way. We have to “go, Go, GO” all the time. We end up living in a state of nearly constant stress and fear. As we spend more time working, often alienated in little grey cubicles without fresh air or windows (not beautiful), making obscene amounts of money for corporations that don’t value us as living beings, we lose what it means to be alive. We shut down our thoughts and feelings in order “get through” another day, hour, minute. Our relationships with ourselves, one another, and the planet are not harmonious, but subjugated to abstract concepts of time, money, and power. We become mechanical, with little time to think and less time to feel. Our worlds become so narrow that we lose the awareness that our actions have consequences—sometimes affecting someone or something on the other side of the planet.
Most people would agree, “It is crazy not to celebrate whatever reconciles us to life,” 7 but evidence points to the contrary. On the most surface level, we recognize that beauty signifies life as evidenced by our obsession with appearing youthful. We are willing to spend millions of dollars every year on face creams, botox(!) injections, liposuction, silicon implants – all to appear young (beautiful). But, we still can’t buy immortality. And the idea that we can cheapens the value of beauty. I would even argue that plastic surgery has become an extreme status symbol, so the value of life is not on the forefront of people’s minds so much as the value of economics. We are a culture of consumption. We value money (which is entirely abstract) over life. “Today, America, with 4 percent of the world’s population uses 40 percent of the world’s resources. This is a violent, unnecessary, and unsustainable act.” 8
Do we have to wait until we are at death’s door to understand that life is beautiful? In an interview for the movie One Giant Leap, Tom Robbins talks about interviewing dying patients. “Not one of them said they regretted not making more money or working harder, they all seemed to say their regrets were not spending more time with the people they loved and not traveling more and relating more to the world, the planet.” 9 People wanted to spend more time not only with loved ones, but the world! Humans need to connect with one another, and I would venture to say that the world needs to connect with us as well.
How do we connect with that aliveness, when it does not appear to be valued or recognized? I believe that instinctively, we still do value beauty as an embodied, intrinsic quality in all things—we are just taught that we don’t. Christopher Alexander, architect, believes that we can “feel that there are different degrees of life in things” and that everything is connected as its own “center” in the “whole.” “Even with our scientific heritage – feel one place to be more significant than another . . . furthermore, this experience is shared and common. It is not idiosynchratic.” 10 Reflection, intuition, and nurturing are qualities that we all have, but which are of little value in a consumer culture.
Children learn very quickly, usually through shaming and embarrassment at school, that they must strive to be competitive and the “best” (or have the newest, most expensive toys, as seen on TV). What we are drawn to—open, instinctive relationships—begin to shut down, and what comes naturally gets turned off. Even some of Alexander’s architecture students had a difficult time admitting that their “feelings” were correct. They thought his questions on aliveness were “tricks.” 11
Relationships require responsibility. To reconnect with the “whole” of the world, we must first know ourselves. We must take the responsibility to slow down and trust our feelings. What is it we are drawn to? What stops us from our busy-ness and connects us to everything? Do we decide that we can do without so many distractions, so many toys, so much television, so much time working for someone else’s fortune? Can we see ourselves as more than producers and consumers (machines)? Do we decide to take the time to notice the people who love us? Do we decide it is important to value not only our own lives, but the lives of strangers? Can we get beyond controlled, homogenous “parts” and allow the mystery of evolving, ever-changing relationships to unfold? Can we make a commitment to strive for harmony with ourselves, our community and the cosmos?
How much do we really want to live, to experience our lives?
I agree with Plato, we are alive because of Beauty. Admitting that beauty is necessary for a good and sustainable life may be a brave and necessary act. The door is open for us now. It is time to take beauty into our everyday lives. It doesn’t have to be high and lofty, artistic or expensive, it can be just simple and good. In the wise words of Vonnegut, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” 12
1 Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., “Physicist, Purge Thyself,” Chicago Tribune Magazine 22 June 1969.
3 Sandra B. Lubarsky, “Toward A Beauty-centric Education,” 1.
4 Sandra B. Lubarsky, October 28, 2008.
5 Sim Van der Ryn, Design for Life: The Architecture of Sim Van der Ryn (Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 2005) 142.
6 Crispin Startwell, Six Names of Beauty (Oxford: Routledge, 2004) 135.
7 Peter Schjedahl, Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetics (New York: Alworth Press, 2002)
8 Van der Ryn 154.
9 One Giant Leap, dirs. Duncan Bridgeman and Jamie Catto, DVD, Palm Pictures, 2002.
10 Christopher Alexander, The Phenomenon of Life: Nature of Order, Book One: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe (Berkeley: Center for Environmental Structure, 2004) 72.
11 Christopher Alexander 74.
12 Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., “Knowing What’s Nice” an essay from In These Times (2003)
c Holly Troy 2008