Certain things we just don’t get. We’ve seen them all our life, yet we still struggle to make sense of them. No, I’m not talking about the Cathy comic strip or worse, For Better or for Worse. Definitely for worse. Actually, I’m thinking more along the lines of beauty. More specifically, I’m thinking of beauty itself. Now I can get started.
Several recent reads (novels no less) have prompted me to evaluate this whole dimension of beauty. Well, evaluate sounds far too technical, like I’m going to develop some sort of formula with which to rate beauty. That’s not my intent. I’m more than just a little bit weary of the objective vs. subjective debate regarding beauty. Quite frankly, if both sides of the debate were completely honest and would acknowledge that we know beauty when we experience it, we could actually get to the point of enjoying it rather than arguing about it. This is not an argument for beauty as it seems beautiful to the beholder. Neither is it an argument for an immovable aesthetic epistemology. Rather, it’s a call (at least I hope so) to knowing beauty instead of just knowing about beauty. Enough said.
At this point I’m more concerned with our response to beauty than I am with a definition of it. In general, we have a problem, and this problem lies directly in our proud, selfish hearts. Actually, the heart is the problem. When it comes to beauty our problem is that we want to possess it. But wasn’t beauty meant for us to enjoy? Believe me, possession is different than experience. In case you wonder about my credentials for making these claims, I have none; I make these statements based on personal struggles and observation of people and cultures in general. Here are a few examples.
Example #1: We find a beautiful river and waterfall system. What do we do? We surround it by layers of concrete, amusement parks, casinos, and hotels then we make people pay to get close. Come enjoy the beautiful Niagara Falls and make us rich!
Example #2: A man sees a beautiful woman and wants her for himself. No matter that she belongs to someone else. The man is willing to destroy a beautiful relationship and degrade the woman’s physical and moral beauty simply for personal possession. This scenario has happened far too often in our history and continues to wreak marital havoc throughout our society. Our sexuality is beautiful, and this beauty is good, but selfish hedonism destroys every fragment of this goodness.
Example #3: Certain musical chords or rhythms chill us with delight. They makes us feel good. They make us want to dance. So we listen only to music with these chord and rhythm structures. Eventually these don’t satisfy us, so we add more with stronger variations. If this doesn’t work we simply up the volume and passively allow the music to turn us into sensational chimpanzees. Congratulations society! We have successfully reduced music to a manipulative, orgiastic drug. Now I’ll be the first to admit that music is first of all a sensory experience, and that’s OK (actually it’s good). But it’s also so very much more. The greatest travesty of our pop-culture is its reduction of art to the strictly sensual level. This applies to our literature, photography, movies, music, dance, paintings, sculptures, etc. If it doesn’t give us our endorphin fix, it doesn’t sell. And who wants to do art that doesn’t sell?
Example #4: We see a majestic leopard on the African plains, so we catch it, haul it across the ocean, and make people pay to see it pace around its cramped enclosure. Are we really seeing a leopard? Don’t leopards have wild gleams in their eyes? This subject always reminds me of a Calvin and Hobbes strip. After hearing Calvin’s excited announcement about a trip to the zoo, Hobbes replies by wondering if they could also tour a prison after the time at the zoo. Point well made.
Many more examples could be listed. Lest I incur the wrath of my sportsmen friends, I will not list hunting as an example, although I do question the perceived need to kill the biggest and wildest animal in order to hang it on our walls (for the record, I do hunt). Just a thought.
This brings me to the greatest question. Why do we carry on like this? I don’t claim to know the answer to this, especially considering my relatively weak background in psychology. All I’ll do is offer a suggestion. Could it be that beauty terrifies us to the point that we don’t know what to do with it? Beauty terrifies us because it is holy. The image of Isaiah’s experience with God comes to mind. Like God, true beauty calls us to reverential worship as we recognize our own debauchery in it’s illuminating glare. But this illumination causes discomfort. It demands a change of perspective, a change in the way we live. So instead of adding to the beauty around us, we seek to own it for ourselves because once we own beauty, it now serves us. We have conquered and domesticated the waterfall, the woman, the music, and the leopard. Thus, we strip beauty of its formative and reformative power. We strip beauty of its holiness and twist it into our image only to find that once we have it tamed, it no longer gives life.
Reject the need to possess beauty; let beauty possess you. Only then can you add to it.