“Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Rhodora”, 1839
There are three absolute essentials for life: food, clothing, and shelter. I want to put forward another, after those have been met. Without this element, humans actually suffer. I think there is death of the spirit when it is absent.
It is beauty, expressed as art.
Think about cultures and ages past. As soon as those three basic needs were met and there was any time whatsoever left, what did the people do? They made something beautiful. Sometimes they took a utilitarian object, like a pitcher or a bowl, and added the unnecessary. At least we could view it as insignificant, but perhaps the color or the design etched upon it was just as important as the usefulness of the object itself.
Come with me now to another place in time – the “Dark Ages”. Disease, hardship, and poverty made feudal life hard, but the church or cathedral was an escape from the drab and mundane. You couldn’t understand the Latin liturgy, but your soul could be fed by the beauty of the architecture and art through murals, stained glass, or sculpture. Thoughts would soar as high as the arches and windows.
Traveling now to the country or the wilderness, one could argue that viewing nature would be enough; that raw beauty would satisfy the soul. Archeology testifies against this theory. Man and woman felt the compulsion to make their own beauty, even if merely imperfectly translating a design from nature. Jewelry, ornamental furniture, musical instruments – not really needed for life, yet vital for life lived in a satisfying way. The tedious beading or embroidery of clothing and shoes added nothing to their functionality. More than just the doing – the planning and meditating about the design or use of color – the result was to be enjoyed. The purpose was simply pleasure in the seeing.
It is not just the need to create. It is the need to create something lovely. Something that has no purpose or meaning beyond the satisfaction of the need for beauty. Throughout all centuries and cultures this has been the case. It has only been in recent history that beauty has been abandoned by some groups in society, yet more in theory than in practice, because the need never went away.
It is most clearly revealed in the link between spirituality and art. When people abandoned God or their gods, they abandoned their guide, their meaning center. Men became god and realized that now the world didn’t make sense. Paintings broke apart. First in little pieces – Impressionism – then in chunks so large that what had once been recognizable now must be interpreted, as in Cubism and Postmodern art. Eventually only line and color remained. Art became a lovely, incomprehensible Latin liturgy.
So what feeds the spirit now? The human need for beauty must be satisfied or something dies inside. Somehow prefabricated, fast-food beauty like careless decorating doesn’t fully satisfy if done without a real investment of self and thought. Vitamin-infused beauty is the result of labor, effort, and learned skills. Everyone can go to a museum or art gallery, look through a library book on art, or take a fine art class or craft. Or maybe you could seek beauty through dance, theater or music. We are artfully malnutritioned as a culture and our spirits are dying.
What legacy of beauty will you leave behind?