Beauty Will Save the World

In hard times, beauty is among the first things we abandon; in hard times, beauty is among the things we need most.  

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, David Brooks recounts how Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist, used photography to change the nation’s view of slavery. Renowned as a statesman and activist, Douglass was also something of an artist, carefully selecting his posture, dress, and demeanor to communicate his intrinsic humanity. Near the end of the piece, Brooks confesses

I don't understand why artists want to get involved in partisanship and legislation. The real power lies in the ability to recode the mental maps people project into the world.

Brooks may not understand the temptation, but I do.

When the world is falling to pieces around you, beauty can seem trivial. When the world is falling to pieces around you, it’s so much easier to embrace utilitarianism. Why arrange flowers to set on the table underneath the window where the sunbeam falls when all flesh is grass and the grass withers and the flower fades?

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In the span of seven months, this year has brought us terror and death and anger and division and violence.  These may not be the worst of times, but they are, by no measure, the best. And in times like these, it’s tempting to bypass beauty and settle for whatever gets the job done.  Go directly to the punch. Take the shortest route.  Cut to the chase. And then, once your work is done, Cinderella, you can think about going to the ball. Once your work is done, Cinderella, you can sit down to read a novel. Once your work is done, Cinderella, you can write a song.

But what if the work is never done? What if the work can never be done without beauty?

A few weeks ago, I listened to a 2015 interview with Sonia Manzano, best known to millions of children and their parents as "Maria" from Sesame Street. Sonia assumed her alter ego in 1971 and spent the next 44 years showing us a community who lived and loved together, who fought and forgave each other. But that world was not the world Sonia knew as a child. Growing up, Sonia’s world was plagued by domestic violence and poverty.

And in those dark times, beauty became a refuge.

“I found a lot of comfort on television when I was a kid,” Manzano writes. “So I think it's interesting that I ended up on a show that offered a bit of comfort to children who lived in the inner city… Here was a moment, an hour, where there's order, where there's humor, where there's love in a place that looks like your home.”

Award-winning children’s illustrator Jerry Pinkney, echoes a similar thought:

Our work is to create books that act as wide-open doors—books that allow all children to walk through and feel safe enough to stay.

But beauty is not simply about creating an escape from present difficulties. The work of beauty is to create a vision of the world as it was meant to be. It is a way to see past the present darkness to a future beyond. To the tired, beauty promises rest. To the oppressed, it offers freedom. To the fearful, it whispers “Hope.”

“Poets, prophets and reformers are all picture makers,” Frederick Douglass writes, “and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements.”

What poets and prophets and reformers offer us is a vision of the world set right.  This is why beauty is so powerful and why human beings have always made art, in even the most difficult times and most hardscrabble places.  The Appalachian mamaw, fingers bent and eyes straining, thrusts her needle through bits of scrap, quilting together utility and beauty. The island child, malnourished and broken by disease, still gathers bits and bobs to fashion a toy.

This is human heart searching for its home. Searching for safety. Searching for the world as it should be. For in the beginning, it was good; and in the end, it will be good again.

I write this as an act of confession. A confession of what I know to be true; a confession what I fail to do. In the turmoil of 2016, I find myself abandoning beauty in favor of the utilitarian. I find myself focusing on the immediate, preferring argumentation to persuasion. They say talk is cheap and I believe them because talk is easy. It’s easy to pontificate. It’s easy to argue. It’s easy to analyze.

It’s so much harder to hope. It’s so much harder to believe. It’s so much harder to keep faith. It’s so much harder to create.

So hard, in fact, that pursuit of  beauty requires Divine intervention. To live beautifully, to live full of love and joy and peace and longsuffering and gentleness and meekness, means being filled with God himself.

And so, as with every other Divine filling, beauty begins with humility. Beauty begins when we repent of our failure to see the world beyond this present darkness. Beauty begins when repent of our failure to see the Power who is greater than evil.  Beauty begins when we repent of our lack of faith, and yes, even our lack of imagination.

St. Augustine, that confessing saint, once wrote of God: “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new.”

One measure of faith, it seems, is whether we can recognize the Beauty around us. One measure of faith, it seems, is whether we work to create beauty around us. One measure of faith, it seems, is whether we offer hope to those who themselves struggle to believe. Because this is what every artist knows: Show. Don’t tell.

Do not simply tell us what is wrong; show us what is right. Do not simply tell us what we must understand; show us how to understand it at a level deeper than words. Do not simply tell us what the world is; show us what it should be.

Show us beauty Show us kindness Show us courage Show us faith Show us conviction Show us love

In these hard times, we must not abandon the work of beauty. We must take up our cross and discipline ourselves to celebrate it—the quiet moments, the simple pleasures, the secret joys--even as the world falls to pieces around us.  But we must do more than this. In these hard times, we must take up our cross and discipline ourselves to create beauty. We must discipline ourselves to rebuild the world even as it falls to pieces around us.

So go. Set the table with the good dishes. Pick the wildflowers that will tomorrow die. Compose a song you already know by heart. Write that novel and build that better mousetrap. And in so doing, remind us all of what the world can and must and one day will be.