Lovely read by David Brooks in Friday’s NYT about the power of beauty. In it he describes a worldview that echoes the fundamental premise of this blog: that beauty’s connection to emotion is what makes it so powerful.
This is the view that beauty is a big, transformational thing, the proper goal of art and maybe civilization itself. This humanistic worldview holds that beauty conquers the deadening aspects of routine; it educates the emotions and connects us to the eternal.
By arousing the senses, beauty arouses thought and spirit. A person who has appreciated physical grace may have a finer sense of how to move with graciousness through the tribulations of life. A person who has appreciated the Pietà has a greater capacity for empathy, a more refined sense of the different forms of sadness and a wider awareness of the repertoire of emotions.
Beauty is so often dismissed as superficial that it’s nice to see a significant acknowledgment of its depth. Aesthetics (a term I prefer to beauty, because something can be aesthetically pleasing by being whimsical, surprising, stunning, etc., without necessarily being “beautiful”), break through in ways that rational appeals do not. It travels from the senses to the emotional brain and stirs both body and mind.
Brooks suggests that we seem to have lost this connection—that beauty is something we appreciate without connecting to it in a deeper way.
These days we all like beautiful things. Everybody approves of art. But the culture does not attach as much emotional, intellectual or spiritual weight to beauty. We live, as Leon Wieseltier wrote in an essay for The Times Book Review, in a post-humanist moment. That which can be measured with data is valorized. Economists are experts on happiness. The world is understood primarily as the product of impersonal forces; the nonmaterial dimensions of life explained by the material ones.
He goes on to suggest that we have perhaps accidentally moved away from the ethos he describes, one where beauty is a conduit to bigger things. We’ve stopped valuing art that is purely visually arresting, believing instead that it must have some political message to be important. I think this may coincide with a larger ambivalence to pleasure in our culture. Pleasure must either be purposeful (justified by science as a route to health or creativity, for example) or guilty. There is no enjoyment that is acceptable simply for the feeling it gives us.
Yet, seeing the outpouring of grief at the recent loss of true artists, of the ilk Brooks describes—this past week David Bowie, and late last year Ellsworth Kelly, whose work is seen above—I do think we still know, deep down, the importance of these kinds of experiences in our lives, both on a cultural and a deeply personal level. Perhaps there is something about this tumultuous, uncertain time that makes us grasp for logical attempts at sense-making: art that is blunt, direct, and clear. But as anyone who has stood in front of an Ellsworth Kelly canvas will know, as they felt the colored forms swell and morph, and felt their own soul swell and morph with it, this kind of beauty penetrates far below the surface. It may not be timely, but it is timeless.