On war and beauty
Beauty is a confusing concept. I would love to have the comforting feeling that beauty is some probably naïve mixture of peace, harmony, aesthetically beautiful things, and, not to forget, great music. But sadly it isn’t.
A war started. And it made me wonder — isn´t the kind of beauty I thought was important rather silly and irrelevant in the current context? I dedicated the last 15 years to finding out what we actually mean when we talk about beauty and how our different views on it relate to wellbeing. And somewhere in the back of my mind was an assumption that when we better understand beauty, it might contribute to our wellbeing.
And then someone claims the future of his beautiful country is threatened and is convinced that the only solution is to start a war. So much for beauty and wellbeing. Images of ugliness and suffering are everywhere. Reality is about death and destruction.
An opening question in Project Beauty’s survey is “What is the most beautiful thing you still hope to experience in your life?“ No one has ever answered: ‘war’. Finding true love or a soulmate, getting married, having kids, seeing grandchildren grow, traveling, seeing the aurora borealis, making music: these are the kinds of things most of us would like to see in our futures. (Example of the results of the latest UK responses on this question.) Fleeing to another country because the facade of your kitchen is bombed away is on no one´s bucket list.
At the same time, beauty isn’t only in harmony and peace. Beauty often comes with judgements, for example when a conviction or an idea is deemed beautiful. Some adherents of religious forms of beauty label things which other people hold beautiful as profane and dangerous. E.g. in some fundamentalist Islamic traditions, people are convinced violence is an option to prevent a woman from showing her hair. But in most Western-oriented civilizations, having a great coupe is a real asset, a sign of health and beauty, often perceived as attractive, and even envied. By the way: Buddhist monks resolve this issue by completely departing with any hair at all.
Beauty comes in many varieties, and almost everybody knows a version they find difficult to understand. When confronted with such a manifestation, “It’s all in the eye of the beholder” is often an easy platitude to cover up these painful differences. But these ‘differences’ don’t disappear by invoking the platitude.
On the contrary, different ideas about beauty can ultimately become potential sources of conflicts. In the sphere of the beauty of religious ideas for example, the Crusades waged in the Middle Ages are a sad testimony to this truth. Protecting or recovering the beauty of the Holy Land was a strong drive.
But also on much smaller levels, beauty can create unease and friction. When it comes to the beauty of buildings, architects were sometimes sued, because the shape or the color of a façade wasn’t appreciated by its neighbors. Neighbors with a slight accent, the wrong kind of outfit, or an ’ugly’ car can become ‘not our kind of people’. In many cases ideas about beauty can create division.
So beauty doesn’t always lead to harmony. But — and perhaps more shocking — beauty and violence can sometimes be friends . Vietnam veteran and author Tim O’Brien, who wrote a number of novels about his war experiences, stated, “.. but in truth, war is also beauty.”
“You hate it, but your eyes do not.”
With his statement he aims to lift the lid on an even more troubling line of thought: for him, the struggle with the temptation to surrender to the allure of war is an inseparable part of human nature. In his own words: “You hate it, but your eyes do not.”
Nowadays, in our usually peaceful world, we see this allure manifest in the popularity of violent sports like kickboxing and Mixed Martial Arts. Although controversial, these fighting events are highly popular and even have their own tv channels. Watching someone get KO-ed can also be beautiful for some people.
The Bayreuther Festspiele (the Salzburg music festival dedicated to the German composer Richard Wagner) some years ago asked itself the question, ‘How much Hitler is there in Wagner?’ Drums and fifes used to lead soldiers onto the battlefields. Violence and music can go hand in hand.
Fighting and brutality do not describe everybody’s kind of beauty, but if we want to get a glimpse of what beauty really means, we should — at least for a moment — forget about ourselves. Violence is not the opposite of beauty.
Beauty is more complicated and not always about lotuses and sunshine. It can also be muddy, it can hurt. Some types are connected to harmony and compassion, others to violence and aggression. What might bind them is that every form of beauty has the power to suck someone in, sometimes to the extent that a person becomes ‘blinded by its light’ and, to protect his or her idea of beauty, starts a fight, or worse, a war. My idea, and I am sure those of many others, then dies.
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● So far the core survey of Project Beauty has been used for national representative surveys in six European countries, in the USA and in Peru. Project Beauty now covers data about perceptions of beauty of over half a billion people worldwide.
● A short video about how it all started: A Beautiful Journey
● More info about Project Beauty is available on the website
● The questionnaire that is at the heart of the project can be found here. (US version)
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● Project Beauty was made possible by the generous support of various research agencies such as Dynata, Blauw Research, PanelBase, Datum Internacional, European National Panels and numerous wonderful individuals..
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