The Desperate Need for Beauty

by Christine Norstrand

So Who Needs Beauty?

Just about all of us. We fantasize about the beautiful. In America, it’s the national pastime.

I live in Santa Barbara, a place that calls itself “Paradise”. When my daughter was young, she thought that the big island in the Santa Barbara Channel, Santa Cruz, was Japan. Standing on the edge of the continent these spring mornings, I look across the Santa Barbara Channel to Santa Cruz, not Japan. For all I know of it, though, it could be Japan. Santa Cruz looms magically on the horizon, part Japan and part Bali Hai. I imagine that I can almost walk across the water to the magical island.

This is pure fantasy and I delight in it. Rarely have I been closer to these channel islands than I am right now, but they define the landscape where I live. Even on days of great inner and outer fog, these islands are landmarks in my personal geography.

Bag Lady in Paradise

Homeless people migrate to the Mediterranean climate of this paradise. Surrounded by seagulls still in awe of the recent storm, a homeless woman evaluated her newfound treasures from the large trash bin behind her near the pier this morning. That’s not a facetious statement, people discard some nice things here in Paradise. Clearly, she was delighted with a fine china teacup, still wrapped in its original paper and fitting nicely in its saucer. Trusting me freely, she invited me to examine the cup. The gold writing was difficult to read, but I could make out a crowned salamander, a creature that, by reputation, walks through fire unscathed. Unlikely, as it might be that this woman would soon entertain guests for tea, her delight was contagious. With basic survival struggles commanding the greatest part of her day, her fascination with the cup exceeded the price it might bring. It was beautiful, and she knew it.

Sometimes I feel that I am just such a bag lady, and just as homeless, carrying around things and ideas for which I have no immediate use, for no other reason than that they please me, that I find them beautiful. Although we have different opinions about what is beautiful, we all know Beauty when we see it. It is a universal value. More than that, it is a need, a desperate need in a world where whether we choose to look or not, our present cannot be in the future.

The Redemptive Power of Beauty

Art (aesthetics) is the emanation that most closely approximates the spirit. Life is an artform; we make it beautiful. We create ourselves and our environment, and we don’t do it merely for the admiration. We do it because it is who we are. A housebound old woman does her make-up each morning. An aged fosseyeur digging in the catacombs laughs as he arranges his tools to cast a shadow image on the wall. We accent the empty space of the glass table with a single freesia. It is who we are. It is how we create ourselves. How is this redemptive?

It is through art that we create realities. In many African languages, there is no separate word for Beauty, although objects and artifacts are highly decorated. Beauty does holds the mirror up to who we are and opens the door to the only true escape, what Paul Tillich calls “the fullness of reality”: the escape to the present that we continually create. This is a deeper reality, a meeting of the essential and existential in the real. The distinction between subject and object blurs.

Without beauty, each day follows the other without meaning, an endless round of satisfying wants and demands of those we love, or feeling that we ought to. We buy ourselves back from this world where, whether kidnapped or seduced, we are enslaved by our own considerations. This is the place of freedom; here we can change our minds.

Revisioning Visioning

I ask again, how is this redemptive? Creating our world in the present in our own image, magic happens! We see the vision, we create the image. The universe cannot help but agree. We deliver ourselves from solving problems for ourselves and others. Our fixed solutions, our working ever harder and harder, fall by the wayside.

A cat crosses our path, a chance meeting with the right person occurs, we step outside the box. You care for the rose and it blooms without your waiting for it. You turn around and the garden becomes a magic forest, alive, and overgrown with new life. Who cares if you don’t mow it?

In Ode to a Grecian Urn, Keats tells us: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty-- that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” The only truth we have is the present, the way we create it now, in this moment in all its infinity. There is no truth in time before time, or places where you are not. Artists know this and bring us, through their art, to the fullness of reality in the present by pointing the way for us to see what is happening behind the scenes. Go ahead, take a peek.