Too Busy for Beauty

I came across an absolutely stunning article a couple of days ago that produced an odd reaction me, a response completely surprising. It’s a long piece, and about 2/3’s of the way into it, I discovered I was choking up. “Pearls Before Breakfast” by Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post actually made me cry. It embarrasses me to confess it now, especially after I’ve read some other blog articles that take some decidedly different points of view than mine as I read it for the first time.

Back in January, The Washington Post decided to put one of the greatest classical musicians in the world, Joshua Bell, in a Metro subway station for nearly an hour, where he played a half-dozen pieces on a 3.5 million dollar Stradivarius violin. It was an experiment “in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

In a stunning revelation, beauty definitely did not transcend. Few, very few of the just over one thousand commuters who hustled by Bell on their way to work that morning even noticed there was anyone playing, and those that did rarely listened to more than a couple of notes. In the end, Bell made around $35 for nearly 45 minutes of playing. He, of course, was surprised that people “ignored” him. No wonder–he’s used to playing for rapt audiences (Presidents, Heads of State, etc.) who can barely breathe because of the beauty he coaxes from the violin.

Or at least, so says the article. Honestly, I’m not a huge classical fan. But the truth is this: whenever I take the time to sit and actually engage a classical piece, fully listening, bringing my whole self and attention into play, I love it. Absolutely love it. Classical music is astonishing in ways that popular music simply cannot be. And granted, vice versa–popular music has its own astonishment that classical music cannot replicate. But for the moment, the subject is not classical music vs. popular, or even whether or not the experiment is anything but an exercise in snobbish elitism, as some bloggers have charged.

In question is our recognition of Beauty in the push and pull of the everyday. One blogger commented that if the Post had wanted to see if anyone would notice beauty, they should have just stuck a beautiful woman in the same spot. Such a comment both misses, and proves, the point. What is Beauty? What is its purpose? Not just in our lives, per se, but in its very presence in the world? What does it mean that we are creatures who have a capacity to register beauty and respond to it? And what does it mean to live in a culture that is rampant with beauty that goes chiefly ignored? And is it possible for a person to consider something beautiful that simply isn’t?

Let’s say for a moment–and I think it’s debatable–that beauty is entirely in the eye of the beholder, that there really is no objective basis for beauty. So what you think is beautiful simply is because you think it. Here’s the question: when was the last time you stopped and engaged what you consider beautiful simply…because? When was the last time you were arrested by beauty, and you had to bring your world to a stop because there was something in front of your senses that simply spoke to your soul? Did you linger with it, turn it over in your mind, question its meaning, have a conversation with it, wonder over its maker and why in this moment, aesthetic experience was something you just couldn’t resist? (It’s easy to drop into a spiritual-ease sort of gobbledy-gook talking about this, but you know what I mean.)

Beauty is common; the experience of it is rare. The idea of “refined taste” is way, way out of fashion these days and smacks of elitism and social construction, but maybe “refined taste” is nothing but the willingness to sit more intentionally with our own experience. Don’t they say that meals are better if eaten slowly? The point of the article in the Post was simply that great art usually requires a context. The sadness for me is that our lives rarely provide such contexts, and we seldom take the time or trouble to create such contexts. We miss so, so much.

Greg Wolfe told me once that there are multiple poverties. I can’t help but believe the poverties of beauty, of art, and of soul are deeply connected to the poverties of hunger and peace. Everyone understands the need for food. The same cannot be said of the need for beauty.

Why don’t I sit with classical music more often? Or why don’t I read more poetry? Here’s why, IMHO: time. Time and a particular kind of energy required to fully engage. An engagement with beauty is not a glance at a pretty brunette. Beauty is the deep conversation you have to discover the person underneath. To appropriate the beauty of the glamor model takes a glance. To discover the beauty of art and soul takes far, far more.

We are a culture of glancers. I include myself in that assessment, and frankly find it both hard to believe and incredibly disappointing that I have given away so much of my life to the impoverishment of spending days merely glancing. We need to look. To see. To engage deeply.

Is it any wonder that mystics teach that the first step in any move toward God is simple awareness?

…trying to wake up…

4 Comments

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  1. So many provocative thoughts, I hardly know where to begin. First, please don’t be ashamed of still having enough feeling left to cry. I watched This Week with George Stephanopolous this morning and burst into tears when they showed the list of military personnel who died in Iraq this week. I’m fairly proud of my stoicism, but I’m also happy that I’m not so numb that I can’t feel anything anymore.

    I enjoyed your whole post, and my three favorite quotes were, “Beauty is common; the experience of it is rare. “, “We are a culture of glancers. “, and “Is it any wonder that mystics teach that the first step in any move toward God is simple awareness?”

    I’m also trying to wake up. Best wishes to everyone who is trying to do the same…

  2. Jeff, great analysis. It got me thinking… What if art and beauty are a way of drawing us closer to God? Using God’s creation as evidence, surely he has a heart and appreciation for such things. It seems possible that stopping and learning to more fully appreciate some of the good things that God has given us will help us to learn more about and draw closer to him.

  3. It may be an odd thought in amongst all the other contexts of beauty, but I find beauty in the language of software, in code well writ, in functions which flow, in the intentional symmetry of logic which creates a story full of character and plot and resounding climax, through which the knowledgeable reader can determine the result of this day’s labors in the final revelation of the One True Result.

    There is never enough time to write well that which orders our lives or our laptops. Given more time, Windows might never crash. But it has a schedule to keep, and the beauty of the engineer’s code is shrouded by the haste-induced bugs which were never given time to reveal themselves before shipment; and now the hobbled beauty-that-might-have-been slobbers and lurches through your processor and brings the Blue Screen of Death to your view.

  4. Denise H. McEwen July 29, 2007 — 1:01 pm

    I just learned about your blog today from a friend. Wonderful thoughts on Beauty. I saw the Joshua Bell piece a few weeks ago and was mesmerized.

    I enjoy street artists. When I lived in Boston I loved listening to good music in the subway and would often wait for the next train if I had time.

    When strolling through Harvard square I would enjoy the unusual musician or artist.

    I have a lot of respect for people who pay and earn their dues at the same time, those with a hat on the sidewalk, fearless in their artistic attempts and all the while making their immediate world happier, kinder, more-thought provoking, and yes, pointing to their Maker whether they believe in Him or not.

    I then take the opportunity to say a prayer of thanksgiving for the free gift I’ve just received and for the artist.

    Be blessed!

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