If you haven’t guessed it by now, this blog celebrates beauty. I believe it’s a worthwhile pursuit and I’ve shared many different rationales for this.
Ironically, I catch myself devaluing it in certain contexts. Take my kids’ curriculum. Would I rather my children learn an extra hour of math or draw pictures? No question, I’d prefer they memorize the multiplication tables until the cows come home!
But when my colleague and friend, Marie McNeely, handed me Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, I was inspired. Scarry, a professor of Aesthetics at Harvard (I guess she knows what she’s talking about, eh?) points out that given the importance of so many of other things in modern day life, e.g., health, economics, justice, international affairs, etc., beauty has been relegated to a relatively unimportant “nice to have.” In fact, many assert that time spent on creating, or even just experiencing, beauty is valuable time taken away from bettering mankind.
But, this modern day approach has it all wrong. Beauty will make us pursue social justice that much more!
(A caveat: this book is shelved in the “Literary Essay/Philosophy” section so you can imagine how many times I had to re-read parts to understand it, and I’m sure I only captured 70% of it. Nevertheless, I’ll try to take the argument down to size.)
1. A key trait of beautiful things is symmetry. When we hear a symphony, admire a painting, enter a beautiful structure, we’re experiencing symmetry. Even if such things defy symmetry, its consciousness act of “defiance” references symmetry. Symmetry is another way of expressing, and ultimately, evoking an appreciation for EQUALITY. Equality is at the heart of social justice.
Now you may be saying, huh? Come on, who’s really going to take that mental leap. And I kinda agree. But what she continues to argue really grabbed me.
2. Beautiful things and people, by virtue of how beautiful they are, transport us out of the everyday and cause us to “unself” ourselves from our everyday existence. In essence, beauty captures our imaginations and stops us from thinking about our daily concerns, duties and desires. And at the same time, beauty is very pleasurable to experience. Beauty “says” it’s a pleasurable thing to think about and care about others beyond yourself.
3. Beauty’s spectacle encourages replication and further creativity. When I see a beautiful woman, for example, I’ll check out her look and make it my own. This inclination towards creativity affirms our uniquely human ability, that is, our power to make change and create a better, more just future.
Are you scratching your heads? Maybe the best bet is to get our butts over to the closest art museum and see if any of this starts to make sense. At least I know where I’m taking the kids this Sunday (after their homework, of course).