Where Has Beauty Gone?

Jul 1, 2012

Several years ago, on one of my first trips by train to Portland, I noticed how shabby and garbage-ridden the backs of buildings along the train tracks were. Part of the trip from Klamath Falls north is through beautiful landscapes — huge fir forests, deep canyons and rocky cliffs — and then the closer we got to civilization and cities the more decayed and neglected the land appeared from the train. At the same time I was considering the ugliness of our disposable lives, I was also thinking how sad it is that the once revered train has been relegated to the wrong side of the tracks. I find the train rather romantic; there is a slow beauty to it, watching the world drift by and sleeping to the rocking of the wheels. A plane ride certainly doesn’t offer this rhythmic relaxation. Then again, you can’t see ugly garbage from a plane either. But the sound of a train is jazz, the distant, long, slow saxophone in the night, and in that lonely melancholy, I find there is a hidden solace of beauty. And it was on this train ride, that I began my search for where beauty has gone.

The concept of beauty is a multi-dimensional and transdisciplinary perception. I use the word perception not because ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ as much as to identify within my realm of inquiry beauty as being the perception, not what is perceived. The disregard for beauty is evident in our culture, creating imbalances within our communities and the world at large. Beauty is intrinsic in human nature, and when placed at the core of human values we can sense and explore the transcendent nature of beauty. Beauty causes us to pause and our heart to quicken. Beauty is life-affirming.

Western culture, like today’s ‘commodified’ beauty, reveals a high regard for money and places a cash value on beauty. Beauty, as a way of life, doesn’t flourish in a society that honors the bottom line above all else. When we as a society value money, our paradigm of quality shifts to a paradigm of quantity and quality tends to become compromised. It can be said that it’s the quality of our attention that influences how we see and how deeply we feel.

I recently met a couple at a wine tasting. I mentioned the store where I was working at the time; it carries beautiful items mostly created and produced in the USA. Both functional and beautiful items are sold there, many one-of-a-kind with price points from low to high. The couple was familiar with the store in Jacksonville, OR and had been in several times but the woman’s comment momentarily silenced me. She said that, “yes, there were beautiful things but it didn’t quite fit with their lifestyle.” After a moment, slightly smiling, I said, “I understand, but I’m so sorry that beauty is not part of your life.”  In the store we often heard comments about the beauty of the store — that it’s like a museum — and I shake my head pondering the concept that beauty is obsolete and now only in museums. 

What excites me is that ‘beauty’ as a new way of living, may be just beginning to come to life. Five years ago when I first started researching and writing about the concept of beauty, there wasn’t much available except material that instructed one on how to be beautiful or volumes of work that focused on beauty in art.

On my bookshelves now are books titled, Beauty Matters, Aching for Beauty (about footbinding), Uncontrollable Beauty, Timeless Beauty, Homo Aestheticus, Divine Proportion, The Earth Has a Soul, The Spell of the Sensuous, Tree, The Sense of Beauty, In Search of Duende, the Conference of the Birds, The Ornament of the World, Biomimicry, The Ages of Gaia, On Beauty and Being Just, Tulipomania, On the Origin of Beauty…to name a few.  These books run the gamut discussing beauty in fashion, art and cosmetics, to religion, nature, philosophy, quantum science, mathematics, music, poetry, cultural studies, illusion, delusion, complexity, ethics, economy. In other words, beauty is present, perhaps hidden, in every facet of life.

Globally, humanity is being forced to re-evaluate what is valuable. As many of us sense in this polarized world, the old normal is nowhere close to the new normal. We need to do things differently if we want to live sustainably and to do so requires a new set of values and an honest re-examination of all of our cultural (and personal) assumptions. As conscientious consumers we must work to change the existing paradigm and initiate the ‘quality over quantity’ posture. It’s not enough to just buy local but locally and USA made as well. Similar to the back-tracking of trains, beauty as an everyday personal expression has been derailed. Beauty is shelved as obsolete — museum quality only. The practice of living beauty as a daily personal expression and way of life reflects a deeper integrity that can make a significant difference in the quality of our lived experiences and ultimately in all of our lives. Let beauty begin.