Seeking Beauty’s Place in Our time
My world is the world of objects, of inner musing made real, a world of things not necessarily coming from ideas. Yet, there are thoughts and ideas that have been extremely important to me through the years. One is Beauty. This word, at least in the art world, has been out of favor for a good part of the past century. I would like to see its reintroduction into the modern world with the understanding that Beauty, like love, has the power to change things. It can also help us make decisions and unite the disparate elements in our lives.
Why has our time turned away from Beauty? Why have we been party to the catastrophic destruction of culture and nature in this century? In our rush to idealize what we thought was the scientific, rational approach — our wish to harness nature — we turned away from those concepts not easily explained in scientific terms, such as spirit, love, and beauty. Albert Einstein has characterized our age as being one of, “Perfection of means, confusion of aims.”
In my late teens, I was doing two kinds of paintings. One kind was, by most standards, grotesque — people contorted, things out of shape. I realized that these works did not give me pleasure to do, so I decided not to do them anymore. I made up my mind, I am not sure why, to follow Beauty. I also decided not to try to define Beauty. I find now that I will often do a work, and in my mind say that it is not beautiful, yet a year or so later realize that it is. I learn from making the art object and my work tells me new things about beauty.
What I call beauty is far from what we call pretty. A plastic rose no matter how well fashioned can never be beautiful; it can only grow dusty. It is the full cycle of life of a real rose that gives it its beauty. Knowing that it wilts and dies is the essence of its wonder. Mozart’s music is beautiful because there is within the wonderful melody, both the pathos and joy of being human.
Beauty must contain within it not just the sunshine but the shadows. And an art that contains only the darkness leads only downward. It is in that precarious balance at the edge of heaven and hell that the power of beauty lies.
Beauty can be a guide in helping us put together a complex world and be a tool to help us make changes for the better. Our particular time in history is marked by indecision and misdirected efforts, not only in the technical fields but also in such diverse worlds as politics, architecture, philosophy and culture. We are unsure about life, why we are here, or even how to make a decision about what we value most. We begin to sense that even those paths laid out by science and technology may not take us where we wish to be. Beauty can be an arbiter of paths. It may not be the “way” but it can help us in choosing the “how.”
At the present time, we have a great many of the tools and technical know-how to make a new world: everything from stainless steel hipbones to sustainable houses and cities. But how do we relate these things to life and each other so that they truly serve life? It is here that a sense of beauty and balance can help us give form and meaning to what otherwise would be scattered possibilities. It is as if we had all the parts of a human being laid out before us. How do we put them together into an elegant and sympathetic whole? Einstein says, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the emotion which stands at the cradle of True Art and True Science.”
There is a connection of Beauty, both inner and outer, to Love. Both can open within us feelings that seem to be outside of fear. Putting aside fear even for a moment begins to change things. Somehow Beauty and Love awaken the part in us that allows us to be ourselves. I have come to call this, “to give light.” It can come through an individual or a work of art. It is very much one human reaching to another and allowing for the wholeness of the other.
I believe we underrate even our traditional concept of Beauty. Why is nature so prolific in endowing its creations with magic of form, color, and diversity? Is it merely for competition and procreation? Or does the beauty of the flower or an Indian maiden dressed in her beaded buckskin change the rules of the game? Is Beauty perhaps the physical manifestation of Love? Does Beauty open the door and allow Love in?
Some years ago, we built a small house for some friends. It is used for counseling. It was designed specifically for inner healing. A great deal of effort was put into how it would be experienced…the entering of it was by falling water and a jewel-like glass door…coming into sculptural space with a surprising light within. One of her first patients arrived and, upon entering said, “This has been one of the worst days of my life. Being here in this space, I can’t even remember why.”
Space and light can transform our understanding of who we are and what life is about.
It is my hope that we are rediscovering Beauty. Not the “pretty” of the 19th century or the ugliness of our century, but a robust kind of beauty that accepts the intertwining of chaos and order, and of darkness and light…one that guides and transforms life because it sees life as a whole. Can we learn to put a sense of beauty to work for us?
James T. Hubbell
Lecture to Friends of Jung Society