Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Have you seen Beauty today?

The National Trust is aiming to get people talking about values in our modern society. To this end they are holding a series of debates, the first of which is to be held at the Royal Geographical Society on March 19th. The motion for debate is:- "Britain has become indifferent to Beauty". Roger Scruton and David Starkey will propose and Germaine Greer and Stephen Bayley will oppose.
Let me say straight away that I consider this to be an elitist point of view and as such I don't really like it. But it is worth thinking about and I have been doing that for the last couple of days. I would suggest that the first thing we need to do is to define what we mean by Beauty.
"A quality pleasing to the sense", says the Dictionary. We all know the quote "Beauty is altogether in the eye of the beholder" - by Lew Wallace (who he?)
The cultural elite would have us believe that John Ruskin invented beauty, that before that date men were not sensitive enough to appreciate it if it hit them on the head; that no-one before Wordworth was moved by a "host of golden daffodils". I would say - they may not have been able to write about it in such poetic terms but that isn't to say they were not moved by the sight.
It is all too easy to make this a "class" issue and to suggest that in order to appreciate beauty you have to be educated to look for it!
We are all "beholders", we will see beauty in some things and not in others. As any teacher will confirm, for every child who stamps on a snail there will be one who will marvel at its helix shell.
I would defy anyone to sit in the Australian outback by Ayers rock and look at the night sky, so far from civilisation, and not be moved by its beauty. Surely Copernicus, when he looked through his telescope was moved by the beauty as well as working out about the world.
There may be some (lager louts on the Costa del Sol spring to mind) for whom beauty is a foreign word but I'll hazard a guess that every one of them would be blown away by the sheer beauty of their first-born child. And, after all, whoever designed the lager tin - and probably got thousands for the design - designed it as a thing of beauty to attract people !
Now we have to think what is meant by "Britain"? Every whole is made up of the sum of its parts - I am one of those parts, I am British - and I am not indifferent to beauty - nor are the people I know. Perhaps if you could do a head count it would be different - but you can't. Is the motion really saying that the people of Britain have become indifferent to Beauty?
If there is one thing which makes one indifferent to beauty I would say it is extreme poverty. I can't imagine Iron Age man, standing with a spear in his hand and a hungry family waiting for food at home, would waste much time marvelling at the beauty of a deer. And I am pretty sure that if one is born, lives and dies on the streets of Calcutta, with all its filth, noise and pollution (I have just met a friend who has recently come back from there - those are her words) one would not waste much time looking for beauty.
Edward Thomas, the poet, in his poem Beauty says that from within the very depths of despair, even at the nadir of existence (a place he visited many times in intense depression) "Beauty is there."
We don't all have his poetic genius. We don't all have the ability to put into words which aspect of beauty moves us. But that does not mean we are indifferent to it.
Have I missed the point? Are we, as a nation, becoming indifferent to beauty? Discuss.

26 comments:

jinksy said...

I sincerely hope so, or we may as well go jump in the nearest lake!

MarmaladeRose said...

Hmmm! Well I don't think I can speak for the nation, in fact some would say I have trouble speaking for myself most of the time! Tee hee!
But speaking for myself, I NEED to be surrounded by beauty. Not just visual beauty but emotional and moral beauty. You'll have to excuse me I don't have the ability with words that I know you have.
We all live life and that life in my opinion should be as pleasant and as beautiful as we can possibly make it, not just for ourselves but for the people who's lives we touch.
If we can pick up piece of litter, even if we didn't drop it, won't that make our bit of the world more beautiful. If we can hold a door open for a stranger or give them a smile, doesn't that make our part of the world more beautiful. Just think if every one did it - wouldn't you want to live in a place like that. I'm lucky I do live in a place like that, but I haven't always. My husband has to work in the city and only today commented how ugly it was and how much he's looking forward to returning home to the Dales. I often think how lucky I am and that if I had to move back to the city we came from, I would sink into the deepest depression.
Yes, I appreciate beauty, in lots of different ways.

Kyfarmlife said...

Agree with Jinksy and Marmaladerose! Ditto to you both and kudos on your post! I sure wish I was articulate as you are!

Arija said...

Yes beauty is a very personal thing and yet, I beg to differ.
In the direst circumstances when we are starved and continually hungry, have no safe place to be, are bombed and shot at, we still manage to marvel at dust motes in a sunbeam or a tiny harebell flowering in the rubble of a bombed house. I ascribe to the child in Culcutta like everyone else, and our ancestors in the dim dark past an occasional Zen moment where all other senses are suspended in the contemplation of the brilliant colour of a fallen petal.

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I agree with Arija - in writings ancient and modern people have spoken of their appreciation of beauty even in the direst circumstances.

Maybe the debate should be more about the sacrifice and denial of beauty, (moral and aesthetic), in the pursuit of greed.

Woman in a Window said...

I wonder if they are coming at it from a modern position, instead of an elitist one. Lack of beauty (ironically) seems to sell, or someone else's vain attempts at it as well, but the smushed flower in the hand, flour on the cheek, there's not a finer beauty to beseech. And it's all there for free!

I daresay I disagree with your friend though. I think there must be beauty even there in the poverty rows of Calcutta. I'm sure one just has to look a little closer. (Not that we shouldn't join together and help them rise to an easier lot.)

This is simply wonderful to consider. I'm sure I'm not done.

Leilani Lee said...

The Living More With Less book by the Mennonites (which I would be if there was a church in the area) points out that..."the plainest cooking area behind a hut in Somalia boasts an intricately carved stool or a colorful basket...." Everyone, from richest to poorest can appreciate beauty -- perhaps it is poverty of spirit that blinds us... such a thought-provoking post. My my....

Reader Wil said...

Well I am not British, but I found out that my British friends have the same sense of beauty as I have. We loved the same music, loved the same paintings, flowers, scenery, etc. So what is meant by the British are indifferent to Beauty??I always watch "the Antiques Roadshow" and enjoy seeing all those great objects. I also watch songs of praise and feel the beauty of the singing and the composition of the hymnes. There is so much beauty in the UK and people are aware of that.

Derrick said...

Hello Weaver,

I read your post before going to write my own because I thought there might be resonances.

I feel quite sure that the debaters will not be taking a simplistic view of beauty and they may well think themselves to be speaking from a "superior" standpoint! It would be very hard to deny that most individuals appreciate beauty in whatever form that may take.

But, perhaps, closer to Raph's point that in modern life we have become so greedy, so self-centred, so preoccupied that we no longer look, expect or "see" beauty in the widest sense.

Prince Charles' view of architecture, for example, might subscribe to this view - that monstrous carbuncles are replacing graceful style! Or lovers of renaissance music who dislike modern atonal works. But these are personal interpretations and certainly can't be applied across society.

It will be interesting to hear the result of the debate.

Town Mouse said...

Last week Ian, my husband, and myself attended the funeral of a friend's 24 year old daughter. So many thoughts came to my mind, not least that even in the darkest winter days of her lingering death, her father saw beauty in the response of others to their plight, and spoke movingly of it at the service (a secular one). But as we drove through the environs of the once-industrial West Riding to arrive at the spectacular hillside location where it was held, I was appalled at the ugliness that the planners had inflicted on the area over the decades: truly beautiful (to us) mills left to rot, while ugly modern trading estates scarred the landscape. Yes - beauty is subjective, and yes, it will be interesting to hear the outcome of the debate, but my simple, instinctive, reaction is to agree with the proposition.

MarmaladeRose said...

Wow! All these different views are fantastic and all food for thought. You've started something here Weaver.

Bdogs said...

A subject near to my heart, Weaver.

Actually the cultural elite itself has been in full cry against beauty for more than two decades, longer than that in some areas of the arts. Look at the original modernists in rebellion against pre-Raphaelite romanticism. The result, of course, is that the soul feels impoverished or assailed by much of the contemporary art in galleries or museums, a reflection of the world the artists attempt, or believe themselves attempting, to portray. One example: I have a small painting on paper (drawing) by American artist Helen Frankenthaler--a lovely abstract wash of wonderful blues with touches of other colors--that I love. Much of her work is beautiful, and as a result, it has been out of favor for thirty years.

So, as we have since men or women drew on the interior of caves at Lascaux, we embrace the beauties of the natural world for the survival of our spirits.

As the enviroment around us degrades, we travel far in search of this beauty. Americans, inheritors of the sublime landscapes of the American West, so many of which now sprout housing developments, flock to Asia, New Zealand, South America and Africa in search of unspoiled landscapes to stir the heart.

In Texas we have to work hard at times for our beauty. But it is truly everywhere, if you look. Even in cities. As long as we have light, and trees.

Great post! I'll be thinking about it all day.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Well folks, there seems to be a concerted opinion that beauty is here to stay - I am so pleased to hear it. And welcome to two new visitors - Marmalade Rose and Town Mouse - strangely enough they are quite near neighbours of mine. Rose I have added you to my list - Town Mouse - I can't find any entry on your blog but would love to read it.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Rather than being an indictment on the British individual, perhaps the debate is meant to raise the question of the direction being taken by the country as a whole and the value currently being placed on Beauty.

Here in the States, we have just gone through eight years of reduction in funding for the arts. Indeed, at the governmental level, there was a tacit, if not overt, ridicule of those who, like myself, feel Beauty and Art are as important to the health and well-being of a nation as anything else. At present, with the happy inclusion of arts funding in the new Obama budget plan, the debate continues to rage between those who consider this to be "frivilous spending" and those who consider it vital. I do think a nation is remembered for its Art.

I would certainly hope that to be the intention of this British debate and, if so, it is an interesting and important one to have.

Heather said...

I have definitely seen beauty today. I have spent time with one of my daughters, seen the buds on the cherry tree, another hellebore in flower, goldfinches, crocus - it is all around us. Whether everyone sees it is another matter, but I like to think that the majority does see beauty.

Town Mouse said...

You can't find anything on my blog, Weaver, because I've been a very naughty Town Mouse and established a google blog presence just so I could comment on yours. Maybe I'm dim, but I can't find a way of posting on google without doing that. My own blog is still on WordPress. I'm thinking of migrating to google, but it might be too complicated - transferring posts and pictures etc. I wonder if any of your followers have any thoughts on this?

Town Mouse said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Town Mouse said...

Sorry - I made a mistake and posted the same comment twice. Not sure how . . .

Rachel Fox said...

I think there are places in Britain (and I mean 'places' in the very broadest sense of the word) where beauty has been largely stamped out or stifled and then there are other places where there is so much beauty that people could pretty much drown in it. It is such a country (or set of countries!) of extremes - what Britain always needs is a fairer sharing out of spoils. Tricky business though...especially now that speed, convenience, greed etc. are all doing so well (better than beauty perhaps). It's a complicated one.
x

Mistlethrush said...

Today's beauty was walking up to pristine and still-falling snow. The nest beauty was a bright blue sky followed by pine trees and my first ever view of crossbills.

There's beauty everywhere - in my morning dish of porridge, in the way the wind ripples puddles, the sound of a friend's voice, a stranger helping someone...

BT said...

What a great post Weaver. I'd love to be at that debate. I heard a boy in Spain talking about the UK and saying how awful it is and that there's nothing there and it made me sad. We have so much beauty all around and you don't have to look far to find it.

Derrick said...

Hello Weaver,

I thought I would leave this comment for Town Mouse, if you don't mind, in response to her question about migrating her Wordpress blog.

There is a Google tool I believe that will allow migration. But on 27 Feb on the Blogger Buzz tab of the Dashboard it explained how the new Google Friend Connect can be used by people with different accounts, such as Wordpress, to comment on various sites. Town Mouse might like to take a look at that.

Town Mouse said...

Thanks to Derrick for help and advice. Think I've cracked it now. If this post appears, I will have!

Janice Thomson said...

While beauty is in the eye of the beholder there is much in Nature alone, for example, that most do not consider beauty; as in the lion taking down a water buffalo. The beauty is there but we have to see all sides of a situation before giving an opinion. Mother nature keeps everything in strict balance(providing man stays out of the way!) and that is indeed a grand beauty bar none. Can you imagine what would happen if the fox never caught a hare - we'd be over-run with hares but nature in her all-knowing wisdom balances this out. I believe this to be true of most things, even tragedies for in the direst circumstances it is then we learn the beauty of love, of helping one another etc. In short beauty is simply the other side of ugly and both come together as a package deal.

Mary said...

Hi Weaver,
I found you through Kate, at Chronicles of a Country Girl. This is such an interesting debate. I don't know about Britain, but it seems to me that in the US we often let commerce and greed and popular culture define beauty. And of course, what results is a sort of grotesque parody of real beauty. Perhaps the problem is that real beauty speaks to the heart, and comes to us most strongly when we are quiet and still within -- not really our strong point as Americans. :(

I'm sure there are moments in each of our lives when we do find real beauty, but so often we are just too busy, or too blinded by what TV or magazines say is beautiful. And often we let commerce overrule the need for beauty. I'm thinking of a McDonald's, or Disney World here...

But it strikes me that most of your commenters write of finding beauty in nature. Surely that is something that many of us strive to preserve in the face of development. I'm assuming that the National Trust is concerned primarily with buildings. and you, as a nation, have so many beautiful buildings preserved. I would say that Britain is far ahead of the US in that respect.

Thanks for your very thought provoking post.
Mary @ In a Soft Light

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