On The Power of Beauty

How do you make a poor man rich? You make him wonder.

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Photo by Xuan Nguyen on Unsplash

I am writing this from my bunker room in the outskirts of London. Bunker room because I hardly ever have to leave it, now that we live in the aftermath of COVID-19, the era of smart remote working. An umpteenth zoom meeting is scheduled for this evening. A facetime call with a friend will happen sometime soon. A decaf oat latte is fuming by my side. I know it will grow cold before the end of this paragraph, as it usually does.

My window displays the same scene every day. Except there’s something different, something new each day. This morning sky offers the full spectrum of blue-violet hues. Yesterday it was grey with clouds. The brown-green leaves of the loquat tree in our garden now blaze in the golden light. The house across the street changes in appearance as the people that live in it change their routines, the curtains now half-open, now fully draped behind the glass doors.

When in fifth grade I told my mother I wanted to be a poet, she smiled, plunged my head into her chest, and said, in typical motherly fashion: “I am happy if you are happy, whatever that means.” Then, fixing a brief curl behind my ear, she added: “Perhaps we can look into journalism schools.”

To be a poet is to be a seeker of beauty, which is to say a seller of nothing. The word for hand-writing is calligraphy, which contains the Greek term for beauty, kallos. To write, then, is to perform an act of beauty. But you can’t measure beauty. You can’t put a price on it. Facts, instead, you can sell facts. If you are a writer, someone who spends his days arranging words on a page, then you might as well write clear reports and you’d better make sure to insert statistics, research, anything to support your facts. That we can measure. That we can make sense of. That we can sell. Stories, poems, beautiful sentences, who’s got time for it? Beauty is not your job. Because beauty alone doesn’t pay. Even worse, it makes people uncomfortable.

There is something deceiving about beauty. We don’t trust it. We don’t believe in it. We don’t comprehend it. An attractive woman, a handsome man: what are they hiding? A breathtaking landscape: good for our Instagram feed, what else? A pair of designer shoes: beautiful or not? Check the price, it will tell you. When purchasing a piece of art, if you are smart the way western society tells you to be smart, you don’t look for harmony, appeal, beauty; you look for worth.

A life devoted to art and beauty is not a comfortable life. If you think you are born an artist, think again. Better yet, be born again. There’s no place for beauty in the modern world, we are told. Functionality. Value. That’s what we are willing to pay for. Pain, suffering. That’s what we believe in. Not beauty. Yet it is needed now more than ever. When everything is broken, when a global crisis threatens the very foundation of our society, when the world is ruled by covetous leaders, beauty is the thing that saves us, the glue that fixes cultures. A song, a poem, a novel: they are the threads that connect us, the moments that remind us of our humanity and invite us to do, be, care more.

Since the Greeks, beauty has been regarded as a central problem in western philosophy. How do we define beauty? How do we measure it? “Beauty alone has this privilege, to be the most clearly visible and the most loved”, Plato writes in the Phaedo. In the Symposium, following the same logic, he formulates a syllogism according to which, since beauty generates love, once a man possesses beautiful things, he achieves love and is happy.

More recent thinkers attribute a social quality to beauty. Beauty, both Hume and Kant argue, is something we share, or something we want to share, and shared experiences of beauty are particularly intense forms of communication. In his book Six Names of Beauty (2004), Crispin Sartwell attributes beauty to the relation between the object (the thing that is beautiful) and the subject (the perceiver), and even more widely to the situation or environment in which they are both embedded. He points out that when we attribute beauty to the night sky, for instance, we do not just experience a personal state of pleasure; we are turned outward toward it; we are, in a sense, celebrating the real world. To seek beauty, then, is to seek truth.

Despite being the wealthiest society ever lived, US life expectancy is now decreasing, a new study finds. Obesity, drug abuse, stress-related illnesses seem to be the main cause. From great wealth come great risks. What I believe, though, is that perhaps what’s killing us is a lack of beauty. In an entrepreneurial culture, there’s little space left for pleasure. When all the attention goes to efficiency, who buys poetry books? When the slogan is get more done more quickly, who goes to museums? Beauty, art, pleasure, I am told, are for people with too much time on their hands. But what is time if not what we decide to make of it?

What I didn’t tell my mother then, and I’d like to tell her now, between these lines she’ll never read — English a language she doesn’t understand, the way she didn’t understand my statement that day in fifth grade — is that no artist is ever foolish enough to think he’ll make any money from his art. But that cannot stop him from creating. Beauty may not feed the mouth but is perhaps the only cure for hunger. When we are left wanting more — more excitement, more fulfillment, more richness — where do we find it? In money? In job titles? In consumerism? No, we find richness, abundance, joy — whatever you want to call it — in wonder. Inside the world that exists both inside and outside of us, in the willingness to look and get lost in it with our eyes wide open.

The thing about beauty is that it’s beautiful only outside of itself and inside the eye of the viewer. It needs to be seen to exist. To look for beauty is to look for life.

Choosing beauty and art in the twenty-first-century ambition-driven era may seem like an act of resistance against a materialistic society. But if anything, it is an act of resistance against death. Because what is life without beauty? And what is beauty if not a smile from a stranger, a line from our favorite author, the song we keep playing in our head, the day dimming around us, and a knowing that we made it this far?

It may not add to our bank account, but without it we become so poor we may indeed find ourselves on the edge of dying.

At least I know I do.

I write to understand what I don’t know. I also send monthly love notes: bit.ly/themorningair

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