Richard Jacobs, the author of that fabulous series of letters to Christa Assad collected in the book Searching for Beauty, has another interesting post on his blog. Mostly it is the third in a series he is doing about his trip to visit the potters of North Carolina. So of course I have been fascinated to hear his thoughts on the potters of one of my neighbor states. The part that really caught my attention, however, was his questions about his role as a collector. He writes:
“How can I justify all these purchases of something as non-essential as pottery? Is it a foolish self-indulgence, particularly at my time of life? Should I have long stopped the acquisition of pottery and rather concern myself with how I am going to dispose of it? Do I dare claim that my acquisition of pottery is somehow a more noble impulse than those who prefer to do their shopping at Wal-Mart or Target? Is not the raw lust of consumerism behind all such activities? Schiller, the German Romantic poet of the 19th century, discussed this issue and I responded to his comments in my 46th letter to Christa Assad,
“One cannot easily shift consumer desires from commercial and manufactured commodities to the more ephemeral objects of aesthetic refinement. It is difficult, as creatures of habit, to accord objects of beauty a different status than those objects bought off the shelf in other consumer transactions. How can we claim a special endowment and more noble intention in seeking to secure a work of art? The desire of acquisition, ‘restless and plagued by imperious want’ as stated by Schiller, might obtain the object, but it cannot give you the resources to appreciate the beauty of the object. How do we attain that ‘higher power and greatness’ inherent in the disciplined encounter with the subtle elements of the beautiful? Without beauty, is not consumerism, even possessed by those with the ability to sponsor extravagant purchases, finally a state of ‘exhausted desire’?”
My response was this:
I was really intrigued by the part of this post that was from your 46th letter to Christa. Your book does not seem to include it, but I was interested in seeing what else you might have to say on the topic. I’m not entirely sure I understand everything you are getting at here, and I have to admit that my familiarity with Schiller is wanting.
What I think you are asking is whether we can fully separate a pursuit of beauty from “the raw lust of consumerism” (I’m a bit slow sometimes, so please forgive my lack of comprehension of the obvious….). As you point out, the ability to acquire a thing is independent of that person’s ability to appreciate it, so purchasing an art object does not actually mean that it was, is now, or ever will be seen for the beauty it possesses. It can be, but that means something more than merely the powers of acquisition.
To see the beauty requires a native talent, aptitude, and perhaps some previous exposure or education. And so it seems like the appreciation of beauty is also a faculty that has no natural bounds. It is an insight. More things are appreciated for their beauty than we are able to put a price tag on or round up in our vaults and troves. The beauty of a shadow dappled evening, the glorious cloud spangled sunset, an ephemeral scent of coffee in the morning, a smile that lights up and then is gone, a mathematical proof, the microscopic view of a dust mite…. All these things require an insight into that special feature of our world that can be summed up as the appreciation of beauty.
So it seems more likely that not only is seeing beauty independent of the concerns of consumerism, but it is also prior to them as well. I once discussed this with an anthropologist friend of mine, and it was her estimation that the function of beauty has been with the human race throughout most of our evolution as an intelligent life form. And consumerism is, after all, only a recent manifestation, and perhaps even only an accident of certain cultures. Seeing beauty, on the other hand, is a fundamental truth of what it means to be human.
Beauty is how we decide between things, what we like and what we don’t. It divides the world for us. It is the description we have given to those things about the world that we are drawn to. It separates the world into the sacred and the profane. We don’t need to look to find the value of beauty because the value is implicated in the description. Beauty PRESUPPOSES value. It has a normative function, almost akin to a moral imperative. And the difficulty of putting a price on it has relatively insignificant bearing on beauty’s place in the human drama. Beauty is simply everywhere. We find it at the loftiest peaks and in the humblest hovels. In as much as we are guided by the things we believe in we are also guided by our appreciation of beauty. In as much as we are creatures of desire we also desire beauty. This goes for rich and for poor. It is a human need, so that includes everybody. Seeing beauty is in no way attendant upon one’s purchasing power. It is only an elitism of culture that disguises this.
You ask the question: “Do I dare claim that my acquisition of pottery is somehow a more noble impulse than those who prefer to do their shopping at Wal-Mart or Target? Is not the raw lust of consumerism behind all such activities?” Obviously for some it is, and the purchase of an object has no more meaning than a momentary impulse or evidence of a spending addiction. For others the value is no more than an object’s simple function, and even art can be seen more for its apparent function or role that it plays than an inherent beauty.
This is no more obvious than in institutions where the value of beauty has been superseded by monetary worth. At the high end where the most dollars are spent on art it often even comes down to merely the reputation of the artist. Sometimes collectors are guilty of looking at the maker as the only qualifying factor, and the object itself seems almost irrelevant. It is not being purchased from an appreciation of its beauty, its value as something beautiful, but from its worth as an example of this particular artist. Sometimes owning a Da Vinci is more important for its prestige than for the fact of having been blown away by its beauty or hearing the angels speak. It becomes a commodity for all intents and purposes, something mundane and emotionally torpid.
As you put it at the end of your quote, “Without beauty, is not consumerism… finally a state of ‘exhausted desire’?” Things of beauty are as liable as anything else to becoming commodities. But what a thing is ‘worth’ is not always the same as what its value is. Can you put a price on yesterday’s sunset, the difference between two smiles and three? Stripped of outside values like beauty, “the desire of acquisition, ‘restless and plagued by imperious want’” can sometimes look darn near circular, possessing for the mere sake of possessing (or the future promise of trading up, and possessing something more). Things with even outstanding commercial worth can sometimes be notoriously skimpy on value outside the capacity for actual transaction. A piece of paper, some ones and zeros in a computer….
An appreciation of beauty, on the other hand, speaks directly to our animal soul. This object has this effect on us, moves us with admiration and transports us. The appreciation of beauty gives wings to our imagination. We hear the angels sing. And so the quest to surround ourselves with beautiful things is probably as old as the human race. Older perhaps. Beauty does not need to be defended for its role in the games we play with money. Beauty underlies much of what we do and often transcends it.
Like most other things with value, beauty can also be used to serve the human capacity for greed. But its appearance in the machinations of greed do not define it. Worth does not simply translate into value, value into worth. “The raw lust of consumerism” defines the pursuit of beauty no more than the intimacies of love are defined by venal carnality and ‘the oldest profession in the world’. Even the most sublime manifestations of the human spirit can be bartered away and dragged through the soil of tawdry human negligence and misuse.
The truth is that we appreciate beauty all around us and every day of our adult lives. And quite often we are responsible for adding to the things and moments of beauty that sustain the world. We spread joy and laughter as the natural manifestation of our person. We add beauty to the lives of others simply through the kindness and gentleness of our creative souls. Only occasionally are we moved to pay for it. But that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes beauty is worth paying for. There is no need for apologies