Can Beauty Save the World?

“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at a rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it–but all that had gone before.”– Jacob Riis

I spent this past week in the Himalaya foothills with students from my school on a camping trip. It was an excellent week of hiking, rappelling , creating art using things found in the natural environment, swimming in a mountain stream. I loved experiencing all the things I don’t get to participate in while living in Delhi. Walking up a forest road, I looked up to see a group of yellow butterflies swirl through the sky. Later, I stood at the foot of a waterfall, staring up into the mossy ledges of brilliant green through a rainbow arc. Another day, while hiking I noticed the shining gossamer wings of a dead cicada lying on the path as I walked by. The world is indeed full of wonder and magic, or at least it can be if you are in the right location.

As we drove down the mountain and back toward Delhi, I experienced a different kind of world–one filled with honking horns, a layer of trash covering the roadside for miles, traffic congestion, and road-side fires–a world where where smoke and the resulting haze made visibility increasingly difficult. As the sky grew increasingly dark and the sun went down in a great ball of pollution-orange, I thought to myself, “What has happened to beauty?” People who grew up in this world, who have never been outside of it, are bound to think that this is the whole of the world–the way life is. Three mornings in a row now the sun has risen as an orange ball into a haze-filled sky, the kind of sky I have seen before in California when the hills have caught on fire. We have made a kind of hell for ourselves to live in it seems. We light the fires. We burn the world. How is it that we have come to this state of being?

Yesterday I received this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay in a letter from Monasteries of the Heart.

God’s World
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!
Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart. Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year.
My soul is all but out of me, let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

What a very different world Millay was observing than the one I live in with its pollution filled skies–where the natural world is pushed aside for the demands of roads and buildings, where people live in substandard housing or live on the streets, where there is so much trash that it has become a literal mountain in the city. Given this reality with such pressing social and environmental needs, what is the role of beauty? A prince in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, states that “Beauty will save the world.” How can this really be and what does this mean? Beauty can lift us above the mundane, restore and renew us when we feel worn down, but can it save us?

If we look at the work of the journalist and photographer Jacob Riis, we can see one way in which it’s possible for the artist’s eye can lead to change in the world. Riis is noted for raising social consciousness through his photographs in the late 1800’s of the tenement houses and slum areas of New York City, in particular of Mulberry Street, where many Italian immigrants lived in some of the city’s worst slums. The Italians were willing to live in these areas because many of them found them no worse than what they came from, and in some cases actually better, and they looked on their living situation as somewhat temporary. They had dreams of building a better world for themselves. Riis looked at the plight of those who lived in these conditions, and looked deeply. He used his photographs to not merely document or bear witness to other’s suffering, but to motivate others to make social reform. While some may have questioned his relocation efforts, nonetheless, the effect his photographic work had on others is remarkable. His work led to more diligent police patrol in NYC after President Roosevelt walked with him through areas Riis had been photographing. Riis photographs of sewage falling directly into New York state’s water supply led to the state becoming aware of the connection between these behaviors and the possibility of an outbreak of cholera after Riis spoke with doctors about the connection between this behavior and the disease. His photography work also helped others to see the need for replacing unsafe tenements with parks. Because he looked deeply, and use that sight to create powerful photos that helped convince people of the need for change, Riis made a difference for good in the world. While it was not Riis’s main goal to create works of art, nonetheless, his photos are a kind of work of art. Social reform, however, is not generally the goal of art. Should art be political? Maybe from a certain perspective all art is political, but I wouldn’t argue that art should be political, though artistic efforts can lead to social reform, as did Dickens’ writing.

Though I’ve not yet read Gregory Wolfe’s book, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, the title attracts me, as does Wolfe’s own comments about the book, and I want to put it on my wish list of books to read because since living in Delhi, I’ve been struggling with this question of whether my need for beauty is frivolous or a true need. I long for access to the natural world, a walk in a forest rather than a city park. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a place where I could roam the hills behind my house, climb up granite bolders and look out over the valley and hills beyond. Maybe it is just a part of my spiritual geography that I think I need this access to the natural world. On the other hand, couldn’t it be that we really do need beauty to survive? Humans have made art since the days when we lived in caves and were hunter-gatherers. I have been working on accepting where I am–learning to be happy where I am, even if where I am doesn’t have the beauty I need that feeds my soul. In truth, I have been given much to be utterly grateful for every day of my life. Could it be, however, that I long for beauty because as human beings we truly do need it?

I don’t have to have the kind of beauty every day that Millay talks about in her poem where I feel  stretched apart. It would be too much to actually bear that kind of beauty every day. My first trip to Italy several years ago made me wonder how people could live every day with so much beauty all around them. After a while, one must just accept it as the world as it is, just as here in Delhi with the polluted skies people accept this as the given world. Though they saw it, the children on the bus ride down from the Himalaya weren’t focused on the lack of beauty around them. They simply continued singing as we rolled through the streets lined with trash and burning fires. This is a way to survive–to just keep singing. Which leads me back to the question of what role beauty can play in helping us act in ways that create a better world. Just because art exists around us or because people are producing art doesn’t necessarily make the air pollution go away. Riis took the photos which piqued people’s awareness, but he also had to get out there and motivate the change of policy. We need policy changes to make the world a more livable place, and in order to preserve the beauty.

Is the role of imagination, art and beauty at its base a political action, however? Does political action trump imagination? Dr. Eric Cunningham explains in his review of Wolfe’s book, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age that Wolfe asserts that it is beauty, not ideology, that will save the world. “Throughout this twenty-five year exploration Wolfe has struggled with the most nagging characteristic of the time, i.e., the tendency of modern consciousness to reduce all forms of cultural expression to the status of propaganda, leaving those who would strive for the spiritual redemption of our culture with few strategies other than political action.” I care about preserving that beauty so I can continue to enjoy it, yet my life is wrapped up in work not directly related to preserving the natural world. Our modern world’s love of “stuff” plays a big part in the destruction of natural beauty, and while I make efforts to reduce my needs and to recycle, I struggle with what I should be doing in order to make a difference in the world when I am not a political activist. Cunningham in his review of Wolfe’s book responds to this question and presents Wolfe’s alternative viewpoint, “Where I have long argued that the tendency of modern people to politicize every aspect of their lives, religion included, is the inevitable product of a flawed historical narrative, Wolfe argues, with convincing clarity, that “the problem” is essentially an aesthetic one, and can be remedied through a renewed appreciation, and a re-appropriation of the aesthetic sphere.” So, what is the role of aesthetics in saving the world? What part does the imagination play? Art does, indeed, bring people of divergent perspectives together. To what extent does it or can it change the way we relate to the world at large?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when pondering Dostoyevsky’s statement about beauty said, “It is vain to affirm that which the heart does not confirm.” It is not a matter of one thing over the other he seems to suggest. If the heart isn’t involved, nothing is going to happen. The trajectory of western history has made us rely on reason and remain skeptical of the heart. If the heart is not involved, however, the brain isn’t in full function. The heart and brain work together. (You can attend a conference in Paris about this idea if you are interested!) The heart helps engage the brain, and in fact acts as a second kind of brain. Solzhenitsyn goes on to say in his essay about beauty, that if  “Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light—yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three.” Beauty, he suggests, will serve in the place of Truth and Goodness if they are destroyed. Beauty is somehow stronger. When it comes to matters of basic survival, however, is it enough that a person offer poems, or make music, or take photos when people across the street from me live without water, when people are without adequate clothes, medicine or food? Is it okay that some offer beauty while others assist with the other more basic needs? Can we work together to meet the world’s needs?

Joan Chittister, a follower of the Benedictine tradition, talks about three aspects of what it means to do good works; celebrating beauty, honoring the word, and practicing nonviolence. It has never occurred to me before that celebrating beauty is doing a “good work.” Chittister explains that “The monastic life exists in pursuit of the beauty of the invisible God. Wherever you find the beautiful you discover another incarnation of God. Members of Monasteries of the Heart know that to revive the soul of the world, we ourselves must become beauty, become contemplatives. And to be contemplatives, we must surround ourselves with beauty, and consciously, relentlessly, give it away until the tiny world for which we are responsible begins to reflect the raw beauty that is God.” She lists the following as ideas for celebrating beauty:

•Begin a garden in an inner city neighborhood or your own neighborhood
•Donate art pieces to inner city schools
•Give away flowers or art postcards on street corners
•Take inner city children to hear an orchestra or to the museum or to a play or dance performance
• Join or start a threshold choir. These women choirs visit those who are sick and dying:www.thresholdchoir.org

Chittister suggests that yes, beauty is a basic need. After reading the list she provides, I can begin to see new ways in which beauty can, indeed begin to save the world by helping people to honor the natural world and to see ourselves in relationship to it as well as to each other. I love the idea of sharing beauty with people living on the street, of taking art to the homeless or offering flowers. Maybe I can’t assume that because I need beauty, they, too need it, but who could reject the beauty of a flower?

I remember several years back when our biking group had been out for a ride in the rural areas several hours outside of Delhi. Our van broke down on the way home, and we had to wait four or five hours on the road for a car to be sent from Delhi that could carry the van to a location where it could be repaired. In the mean time, we sat on a charpoy in a roadside farmhouse compound where joint Muslim families were living together. They fed us a dinner of chapati and vegetable curry. While there, I asked one of the children what he thought was the most beautiful thing where he lived. He replied, “The mosque, and the pond.” His response makes sense. In God’s house we are brought in touch with the wonder of life and the world. In nature, we are brought in touch with the wonder of God, and of Life itself–we see how we are part of the bigger wonder of the universe and can stand in awe.

Riis watched the stone cutter hit the stone with the hammer, and it wasn’t until the hundredth time that the blow made a difference. Singing our songs, writing our poems, telling our stories, carving our stones, maybe they don’t make the pollution go away but these acts in the least help to restore the soul and the more we grow toward wholeness, won’t it also help others to know how to create wholeness as well? I am not a politician. Neither am I Jacob Riis. I don’t know how to change the things in this world that are much bigger than what is in my power to change. Suffering, such as living in a world of polluted air, is part of life. We have collectively created our suffering. But inside this place of suffering it is still possible to find a way to share beauty with others. Are the ones who long for beauty those who Jesus was speaking of when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit?”  When we share beauty with others, we are brought into their heart, and perhaps through touching others we can be brought into the heart of seeign our connection to the world and to Life itself.

The threshold choirs sing to the dying, singing to people as an act of healing and beauty in the midst of suffering. Can beauty save the world? Mark Helprin in his novel, Solider of the Great War says, ” To see the beauty of the world is to put your hands on the lines that run uninterrupted through life and through death. Touching them is an act of hope, for perhaps someone on the other side, if there is another side, is touching them, too.” Perhaps if we all offer the beauty we have to those spirits choking in the world’s pollution in its myriad forms, an answer will emerge that we didn’t expect. Perhaps it takes more than a hundred strikes on the stone before we will be able to move into a different way of living and being. As in Poco’s song, we can keep on trying.

5 thoughts on “Can Beauty Save the World?”

  1. Thank you, Anna, for this thoughtful essay on beauty’s potential to enhance our humanity. Having taught a writing class for many years on whether beauty and justice should be in the same conversation, I want to recommend Elaine Scarry’s book On Beauty and Being Just. In the two essays that comprise this little book, she proposes that in the presence of beauty we are de-centered. Beauty awakens our desire to protect it; it makes us aware of our capacity to experience the power of adjacency without alienation. And, most important for me, it leads us to consider the distribution of the good, which is the bridge to our attention to justice. When I am stunned by the beauty of a deer that I encounter on campus, and a stranger comes close and we acknowledge in some way that we are in the presence of beauty…miracle…and our own wonderment, I ask students if the stranger’s arrival diminishes or enhance the experience of beauty. Mostly, they tell me that sharing this experience enhances it. This is where the possible connection between beauty and justice intrigues me. The potential equitable distribution to humanity of what we want to protect, what we value, what puts me in touch with something transcendent while my feet are still on the ground…this gets me to justice.

    In my class, by the way, we also read Jane Kramer’s “Whose Art is It?”, Robert Adams’s “Beauty and Photography”; and many wonderful pieces that are in a reader I compiled, including Plato’s “Greater Hippias”; a scene from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale; Seamus Heaney’s “The Cure from Troy”;…etc. etc. For ten weeks we explored the initial question, and most students reported that beauty and justice do belong in the same conversation!

    Take care,


    1. Don,

      Thank you very much for these thoughts on this topic. How I would love to have been part of the class you describe and to have read and discussed the books you mention.I want to read them all with the question about beauty in mind that I explored in the blog post. Beauty’s connection to justice that you propose in your comments make sense.

      I looked up Scarry’s book, On Beauty. Reading the description of the book, I found myself wanting to slow down and speed up at the same time because the ideas she is writing about open up whole other dimensions of understanding beauty’s importance that are new to me. This is a book I want to read. The reviewer on this web site, http://press.princeton.edu/titles/6675.html, states, “With its direct appeal to the senses, beauty stops us, transfixes us, fills us with a “surfeit of aliveness.” In so doing, it takes the individual away from the center of his or her self-preoccupation and thus prompts a distribution of attention outward toward others and, ultimately, she contends, toward ethical fairness.” You describe such a moment of being stopped in your tracks by something beautiful and unexpected and the way it evokes wonder. How we need these moments of wonder! They wake us up and restore us to ourselves. Not only do we feel during such encounters that we are standing in a magical moment, we are transformed. I say transformed because we see again our connection to the world, how we are a part of a much bigger whole. This is easy to forget when we live mostly between four walls and wrap ourselves up in the plans of our workaday lives. I can see how because beauty opens our hearts and connects us to the world around us it can then lead us to be concerned about issues of justice. Not necessarily, though. People might just turn from such a moment and go on with their normal pattern of living that ignores such a moment as something rare but not enough to change one’s way of being. Strengthening that connection through repeated experiences so that it is becomes part of the way we live, and building its value into our way of thinking about the world could help us as communities and as a culture to move into a different way of living in the world. How can I live in a way that will support that way of being?

  2. Anna,
    I am struck by your first two paragraphs, and I wonder whether the conversation hinges on a particular definition of beauty. After all, our modern world’s “love of stuff” can be interpreted as pursuit of beauty. Do you feel that “beauty” is synonymous with “nature”? Do you find Riis’ photographs beautiful?

    1. Your points and questions are excellent. Thank you for mentioning them.

      Is beauty synonymous with nature? It’s true that not all places in nature resoundingly whisper in the heart, “Beauty!” Neither are all of human made things ugly, however. Nevertheless, I think the definition of beauty does have a close connection with to the natural world. Our first understandings of what beauty is arise out of the natural world. Since the time of the Greeks, people have found things that display balance and symmetry beautiful, though we all can think of things that don’t necessarily demonstrate balance, yet are beautiful. We do have our individual tastes, and this is where you statement about the definition of beauty might come in. People do go out and buy things, items from a handwoven carpet to a bottle of nail polish for example, in a pursuit of beauty. These things we make or buy, even the art we create are ways to make beauty. There is a longing in us for nature’s beauty that I think goes deeper than these human made forms of beauty can touch, though, the interaction with the living world, the stream, the mountains, the sea, and the worlds inside of worlds that are found there. Nature is our first teacher of this beauty. Wordsworth’s poem, “Tables Turned” comes to mind where he said:
      Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
      Our meddling intellect
      Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
      We murder to dissect.

      Enough of Science and of Art;
      Close up those barren leaves;
      Come forth, and bring with you a heart
      That watches and receives.

      Are Jacob Riis’ photos beautiful? (Here is a link to slide show of several of his photos: http://xroads.virginia.edu/%7Ema01/davis/photography/images/riisphotos/slideshow1.html) This is another terrific question. It is not beautiful, actually, to see a man with his grimy mattress and realize that he sleeps in a slot in a stone wall, though the photos do move the viewer to feel compassion for the people living in the situations Riis depicts. Are the photos in themselves beautiful, though? Some of them, depending on how the subjects were photographed. There is a difference between art and journalistic photography in and of itself. That difference can be subtle and more challenging to define, but goes back to the elements of art–use of form, shape, line, patterns, balance, etc., and how masterfully the photo uses these.

      There is a difference between being drawn to one of Riis’ photos and being drawn to something like a stream in a forest. The naturalist, Edward O. Wilson has proposed the idea of biophilia, the idea that humans need to see and hear natural objects and be close to wild nature, and that we are healthier and more balanced when we are. A significant part of my longing for beauty comes from a sense of nature deprivation. Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, talks about nature deficit disorder. I don’t think it’s just children that have it. My guess is many adult urbanites do as well. Living in a big city like many people in the world do, it’s difficult to get out in the wild. I can’t help but wonder if more of were connected to nature and experienced its beauty if they would we care more about protecting it. Would we be more likely at least, to live in a world where having a blue sky would be something precious? Does the awareness of the preciousness of things, open our hearts in gratitude and our eyes to the awareness of beauty? I want to say yes.

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