Train Cars, Rudyard, Mississippi, 2016
Ours is an age that has come to think of beauty and art as luxuries easily done without rather than as necessities required for living well.
Our willingness to dispense with them is written into much modern home construction and neighborhood development, for example, where our fetish for more and cheaper square footage and uniform design eclipses attention to the flow and arrangement of space, the presence or absence of natural light, and the unique, artful character imparted to a living space by careful attention to detail and variety. This impulse to dispense with beauty and art is also present in our educational institutions, where art programs are the first ones cut when budgets must be trimmed. The kids can do without paint, clay, and crayons, but they can't do without math and science, standardized tests, and computer skills, or so says the unimaginative "wisdom" of our age.
And on the few occasions when we finally turn in the direction of beauty, we easily get distracted by the pretty, by ornaments and decorations that lack depth or complexity. We want art that matches the couch rather than touches the soul. We confuse beauty with decor.
What exactly is lost when we slowly drift away from beauty and art?
Answering this question requires that we ask a more basic one, what makes a thing beautiful? Across the western intellectual tradition, the answers to this question has been complex and varied. But there is one aspect of the answers that recurs in nearly every age; and that is form. Form refers to the organizing principle of a thing, the integrative aspect that binds its parts into a harmonious whole. Form imparts orderly arrangement, coherence, and structure to an entity. A natural or artistic entity is beautiful when its various aspects are organized, integrated, and patterned harmoniously. Form expresses itself as the arrangement and order within a thing that make it a unified whole, something greater than the mere sum of its parts. Form sometimes goes by its Christian name, Logos, or by its Jewish name, Wisdom.
Form is what differentiates music from noise. If I drop my kitchen pots and pans on the floor, they will strike many of the same notes as the organist playing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." But why is this noise rather than music? It is noise because the notes are not well ordered and harmoniously arranged. They lack proportion and symmetry, structure and coherence, integration and unity. The difference between "Ode to Joy" and clanging cookware is that the former has superior form while the latter lacks it almost entirely.
When we experience the form revealed in beauty, we feel down deep in our gut that the world in which we live is governed by order rather than chance, purpose rather than accident, pattern rather than chaos. In the presence of beauty, we sense deeply that our lives and the existence of all other things fit together in some coherent way that is ultimately meaningful. The experience of beauty awakens and intensifies that felt sense that the universal power that generates and integrates our lives is greater than the powers that seek to pull them apart. We are assured affectively that the universe is shot through with meaning, that its primal force is an integrative love, and that life is well lived when it consents to the harmony that binds all things together and yokes them to their transcendent purpose. Our native response to perceiving form in beautiful things centers in delight and joy that reorder the heart's deepest desires, drawing us out of ourselves toward the other in exuberant, spontaneous love.
To experience the form present in beauty is to hear a transcendent Witness declare that the world is good; that it is as it ought to be, and that there is room for us in it. The form of beauty awakens in us a sense of wellbeing, an intuitive, sure sense that the universe is not fundamentally hostile to our existence despite the reality of suffering in our lives. Beauty reveals the joyful truth that my life is never wholly my own own, that power and pose cannot ultimately trump goodness and truth. Form revealed in beauty exposes the lie that the only meaning my life has is whatever arbitrary meaning I or society assign it. The form manifested in beauty awakens hope, a sense of possibility, and a sense that life, love, and justice ultimately matter. Beauty thus gives birth to our moral imagination and awakens moral motivation.
In the end, the real danger of a beautyless, artless world is not so much ugliness but nihilism, the loss of that existential meaning that is bedrock to our humanity.