In a recent bout of doubt about my career path, I took a self-assessment in Talane Meider’s Coach Yourself to a New Career that identified “Seeking Beauty” as one of my core values. I was immediately kind of ashamed. What kind of a core value is seeking beauty? Next to others, like “contribute,” “lead,” “communicate,” it seemed so insignificant and superficial. I felt like underlying this assessment was a big fat accusatory finger pointing at my weakness for buying pretty dresses and saying “that is all you will ever be good for!” Oh my.
I also didn’t like that most of the activities listed in association with my core value were almost all costly undertakings of the upper-class: “going to concerts,” “living in a beautiful location,” “eating at the best restaurants,” etc. These things felt too far away from the working-class ethic I was raised with, though I had to admit that I felt excited by most of them, even, to some extent, the most condemning: “surrounding yourself with luxury.”
But after a while I started thinking about my beauty-seeking in a different way. Maybe the old saying about beauty being only skin deep wasn’t quite fair. Isn’t there something more to beauty than simply surface?
Most people that I know would agree that beauty is something luxurious, superfluous, and frivolous. Sure, it’s ok to indulge in enjoying something beautiful from time to time, but it isn’t a serious pursuit. At least not in the 21st century.
But my studies in aesthetic theory taught me that beauty used to be imbued with all kinds of valuable assets, like spiritual unity (Romantics) and vital cognitive play (Kant). Beauty used to offer individuals in society a way to transcend their normal habits of being (seeing, thinking, perceiving) in the world to edifying and salubrious effects. But the destruction and disasters of the First and Second World Wars proved that beauty could potentially be destructive. As Lilliane Weissberg writes in her work Visual Culture and the Holocaust, early twentieth-century scholars like Theodor Adorno in response asked us “to see that beauty can also be dangerous, disengaging the individual with his or her surroundings and allowing him or her to trivialize the atrocities of physical reality” (14).
Since then, beauty has remained deceptive. Blotting out the harsh realities of our unfair, unjust, and uncaring world. (Note that it’s much easier to find beauty in kitsch and pastiche–‘serious’ art must always qualify its presence.) In contrast, I want to believe, with Elaine Scarry, who argues for a revival of beauty in contemporary culture, that aesthetic pleasure can further notions of justice and reciprocity.
But more immediately, I want to suggest that beauty may be a part of what makes life worth living. When we are open to the beautiful objects and scenarios around us we can be nudged out of moments of the deepest grief and moved to action in times of despair. I also don’t think that these experiences are available only to the privileged; rather, they can be found anywhere and by anyone.
Embracing my beauty-seeking self, I’ve started the Chronicles of the Fixed and Fleeting to gather and share the experience of meaningful encounters with aesthetic pleasure. My objects of study often suggest more than servitude to superficial desire but do not renounce the potential joy of experiencing beauty for its own sake. The Chronicles looks for instances in which aesthetic pleasure draws us closer together and expands our horizons of thought. It attempts to rescue beauty from its association with the purely trivial and to reassert its importance in everyday life.