Its been a while since I’ve heard anyone claim “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I hope we have moved on from that, from the idea that beauty is entirely subjective and that it has no independent reality from the person who sees it. To locate beauty just in the eyes of beholders makes it seem like a figment of their own imagination, that it would hold no weight in the ‘real’ world. No wonder some folks feel that beauty is unnecessary or has little value to us. No wonder a segment of the art world has derided beauty as a frivolously indulgent pursuit. What more flimsy a thing could we build our grand and important statements on than something merely in the eye of the beholder?
And its true that beauty does seem dependent on our ability to appreciate it, in some sense at least. I would argue that its more like hunger being something that is in the belly of the famished. Yes its personal, but its also real and has real consequences in the world outside. People starve. Hunger is no more a figment of our imaginations than beauty is, but why?
Well, first of all, beauty is a reaction to the world, to some circumstance that others can conceivably also relate to. The fact that not everyone sees beauty the same way or in the same places has made it seem as though it had to be entirely personal. The idea being that if I get something but you do not, beauty is therefore dependent on the viewer. But its not an issue of originating beauty as much as its an issue of the capacity for finding it. Bellies don’t invent hunger, they suffer it. In other words, its not a question of the subjective location as much as its a question of whether we have the keys required to access it. It takes more than eyes to suffer beauty, but what exactly?
Imagine beauty was hidden somewhere, perhaps behind a locked door. Now imagine that some people had the keys to unlock the door. Having those keys means we get to see what others do not. And yes they are our keys, and possible even our doors only, but the things they unlock are no more a part of us than any other thing we can relate to in the world.
Finding something beautiful is like feeling how heavy something is. Some folks will find that an object seems heavy and others that it seems light. HOW we understand the world is up to our capacity, the things we have been educated about, and the skills and strengths we have cultivated. If it takes exercise to lift 50 lbs easily, sometimes it also takes exercise to see beauty. The weight/beauty is out there. How we deal with it is down to our own capacities.
So, a few weeks ago a friend posted something on facebook that caught my eye. It seemed an opposite example of misunderstanding beauty. Here’s what was posted:
A student made a comment today, during reading group, about beauty. She said that beauty was not strictly necessary in our world. We could live without it. If our happiness depended on living in a world with beauty, then we could simply live life unhappily. She ended her argument with the phrase, “So what.”
What this person’s thoughts said to me was how we can lose sight of the value of beauty, but also that we can forget our own role in addressing it. Its not as if the world contained some finite and objective amount of beauty. Rather, beauty exists everywhere we find it and more. And finding it is a skill that can be nurtured. We will run out of beauty around the same time we will run out of hunger. In other words, we won’t. These things are a condition of our normal existence. But in what way?
A world without beauty is not some sterile place where beauty is impossible. Try to imagine it. What would have to be the case, physically, for it to be like that? Such a place could not exist for the simple fact that beauty is a basic way that human beings understand the world. And that can mean even the least likely sorts of things. Humans can and do find beauty in even the most agonizing conditions. Beauty is not a first world condition.
Instead, a world without beauty is a place where human beings have somehow forgotten to understand the world as containing beauty. Like an immunity. Its less a comment on the physical constituents of the world than our own capacity. We would somehow have to be less than human for this to be the case. Like the villain in the Bond movie of this name who could not feel pain. Beauty is as natural to us as a baby squealing with joy and a person’s spontaneous smile and laughter. We cannot help ourselves. Its how we do this human thing.
If the deficit exists it is our deficit. Blaming the world we live in for a lack of beauty is like blaming our kitchen for our hunger when the fridge is stocked, the pantry overflowing, and the stove in perfect working order. If we have not learned to cook its not the kitchen’s fault…..
Beauty is neither wholly of the world nor wholly of ourselves. Food is how we interact with the world for sustenance. What makes something food and what makes other things non-food? That’s a good question! Beauty is its own kind of nourishment, and we are often surprised at how many and unexpected the things are that can be found beautiful. Like frogs legs and insects: Qualifying as food tells us as much about the way of life as it does the digestibility of things. Beauty is at the intersection of humans and the world, and we find it in similar ways to how we find food.
But the world faces a crisis of starvation too. Whole populations are going without sufficient food. It may be hard not to think that since beauty can also be created, a situation that has less of that created beauty suffered some irreparable deficit. We sometimes feel we need to fix the world, add more beauty to it like replenishing water in a well, grain in a silo. A world overflowing with beauty would be a wondrous thing! Truly!
And you won’t get an argument from me that we should stop adding beautiful things to the world. The problem, as I see it, is that its one thing to make the world more appealing, but something altogether different to make people more sensitive to the nuance. The danger, as I see it, is that we can focus too squarely on the volume of ‘beautiful’ things and not on our ability to hold them. The thing we have to keep in mind is that a world replete with beauty will do no one any good if nobody gets it. Its as much an issue of capacity to make sense as it is quantity and quality.
The question is, how do we help more people see more beauty in the world as it is? How do we train them? Is a narrow diet more informed than a broad palate? Can we feed the world on cockroaches when very few people consider them worth eating?
My sense is that our ability to see beauty is like using a limb in that it gets stronger, more competent, with exercise. It also seems that cross training has mutual benefits and that obsession and exclusivity warp our capacity. Perhaps overuse will make us jaded, lessen the impact of beauty in our lives. We can become musclebound and rigid if we don’t take breaks or nurture other aspects of our lives. Variety seems healthy. Poor quality diet and scarce opportunities can weaken us. But who doesn’t enjoy the odd glass of wine with dinner or occasional dessert afterwards? A balance and moderation seems healthy.
Artists are simply folks who have peered behind doors and fashioned keys for us to use. There is no guarantee that everyone will know what to do with the key presented to them, but artists are trying to show something important, and often that thing is beauty. These artists are trying to show that beauty can be found here, in this particular way. They are trying to show us that the world does have these amazing possibilities. They are inventing the language that captures these things for us. They are like chefs preparing meals with unusual ingredients. Yes its edible, but is it food for us?
It turns out there is far greater capacity for the world to reveal beauty than to give forth meals. But the world is not enough. We have to meet it half way. We have to turn the keys, exercise our muscles, and keep our minds open. Curiosity is the first step to even knowing there’s a door to be opened. Humility is the sidekick to curiosity in that we continually need to admit we don’t yet know the full story. The sum total of beauty has yet to be laid before us, and if we quit looking for it or imagine we’ve already skimmed the cream of the crop, our arrogance will only be matched by our ignorance.
Make beauty real!