The spirit of our times seems to no longer value beauty.
Prince Charles was talking to the Royal Institute of British Architects at the occasion of their 150th anniversary about the proposed extension of the National Gallery.
“What is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.” (Prince of Wales)
He had seen much British architecture as sterile and plain ugly.
Is this still true? And do we need to re-discover beauty around us?
When we see something beautiful its beauty is subjectively felt. Yet, the concept of beauty and ugliness is elusive and difficult to put into words and define. Perhaps this is because of individual differences in our appreciation of it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What one person finds beautiful, another merely sentimental. One, attractive, another repulsive.
Beauty has been said to be something to do with appreciating harmony, balance, rhythm. It captures our attention, satisfying and raising the mind.
It is not the objects depicted by art that defines whether something is beautiful or ugly. Instead, it is how the object is dealt with that makes it possibly inspirational.
Spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg suggests that what arouses our feeling that a human face is beautiful is not the face itself, but the affection shining from it. It is the spiritual within the natural that stirs our affections, not the natural on its own.
“The beauty of a woman is not in a facial mode but the true beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It is the caring that she lovingly gives; the passion that she shows. The beauty of a woman grows with the passing years.” (Audrey Hepburn)
Beauty can also occur even in suffering.
“Even in some of the most painful moments I’ve witnessed as a doctor, I find a sense of beauty… That our brains are wired to register another person’s pain, to want to be moved by it, and do something about it, is profoundly heartening.” (Physician-poet Rafael Campo)
Roger Scruton, a philosopher, points out that between 1750 and 1930 the aim of art or music was a beauty. People saw beauty as valuable as truth and goodness. Then in the 20th century, it stopped being important. Then many artists aimed to disturb, shock, and to break moral taboos. The earliest of these was Marcel Duchamp e.g. his installation of a urinal. It was not beauty, but originality and irony and other intellectual ideas that they focused on. This is what won the prizes no matter the moral cost.
The art world now believes that those who look for beauty in art, are just out of touch with modern realities. Since the world is disturbing, art should be disturbing too. Yet I would suggest that what is shocking first time round is uninspiring and hollow when repeated.
“If the world is so ugly, what’s the point of making it even uglier with ugly music?… I have tried to make it sound as beautiful as I can. Otherwise, what’s the point… So if you want to hear how ugly the modern world is,… you can just switch on the television and listen to the news. But I think that most people go to concerts because they want to hear beautiful music. Music is full of melodies that you can hum or sing. Music that speaks to the heart. Music that wants to make you want to smile or cry or dance. (Alma Deutscher, 12-year-old concert violinist/pianist)
If there are still any artists creating beautiful objects of art, I suspect, like any good news in the newspapers, they are not getting the headlines.
Awakening to the spiritual
In addition to much of our contemporary art and built environment, can we also detect grating unattractiveness – not to mention self-centeredness and offensiveness – now coming into the language and manners shown in our mass media? As though beauty has no longer any real place in our lives.
So when we find ourselves in the soup of negativity, do we give ourselves time to be open to beauty?
“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare…
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare. (William Henry Davies)
Effect on us of cultural change
I’m wondering if by losing beauty we are also losing something else. Something I would describe as a deeper perception of what is good and innocent in life.
Scruton suggests that living without this deeper perception is like living in a spiritual desert. He argues that the artists of the past were aware that life was full of chaos and suffering. But they had a remedy for this and the remedy was a beauty. He reckons that the beautiful work of art brings consolation in sorrow and affirmation in joy. It shows human life to be worth-while.
Beauty – A reminder of transcendent reality
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But is beauty only a subjective thing? Is there also an objective reality to it?
Perhaps we need to re-visit the wisdom of the ancients. According to Plato, beauty, like justice, and goodness is an eternally existing entity. He said it eternally exists, regardless of changing social conceptions and circumstances. This would mean that beauty has existed even when there was no one around to notice it.
It takes millions of years for light to travel the vast distance to reach our telescopes. So we now see the beauty of the stars as they were before human beings existed.
I would say beauty is something, that at its heart, has the reality of innocence – the innocence of absolute Love Itself.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” (John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn)
As a clinical psychologist, Stephen Russell-Lacy has specialized in cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, working for many years with adults suffering distress and disturbance.
He edits Spiritual Questions a free eZine that explores links between spiritual philosophy and the comments and questions of spiritual seekers. You can share your views and find out more about making sense of life.
His eBook Heart, Head, and Hands draws links between the psycho-spiritual teachings of the eighteenth-century spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg and current ideas in therapy and psychology.
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