Lately I have been reading Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. Though the main topic of the book is Christ’s resurrection and the implications that it has for how we live and what we believe about what happens when we die, Wright has some very interesting thoughts about beauty and art, which I thought might be relevant to this blog. He notes that a feature of many of the communities that we live in, typically poorer ones, is ugliness.
This rings true in a real way. The only shadow of beauty that people often have in these communities is the glitz and glamor of whatever new-fangled product the television is trying to sell them–or the shallow, sensualized, one-sided version of beauty that is showcased in our culture’s fascination with celebrities. Just drive through your local impoverished neighborhood and you can just feel an overwhelming grayness, often accentuated by some of the run down homes.
This brings us to Wright’s assertion:
“When people cease to be surrounded by beauty, they cease to hope. They internalize the message of their eyes and ears, the message that whispers that they are not worth very much, that they are in effect less than fully human.” (231)
This insight is worth reflecting on. What is the real, tangible effect on the human person from inhabiting a place that is not beautiful? When effort and care is not put into the space that people inhabit (often through no large fault of the people who live there…survival often occupies much of their time). Ugliness has the power to zap our motivational power and discourage us.
I believe that we are made in God’s image, in his likeness. For many this means that humans have a certain intrinsic worth and are different than other creatures in an important way. I would also like to suggest that one of the capabilities that comes along with being made in God’s image is that humans have the unique ability, distinct from all others in the animal kingdom, to create artifice–art! We are the only creatures who can actually create and add new things to the ontology of the world–other than what God has originally placed in it. When I speak of art in this sense, I speak in a broad, encompassing sense that is meant to include not just works of art–such as paintings and the like–but buildings, cities, parks, technology, institutions, etc.
If we view artifice this way, it seems that along with this unique capacity, comes an important responsibility. We have a responsibility to infuse beauty into the things we create. Human beings are capable of creating wonderful things. But we are also capable of authoring some very twisted and corrupt things as well. When we create one thing that is corrupt, it often spills over into the things adjacent to it.
A good example of this is the aesthetic difference between West Germany and East Germany before the wall fell. Though I was not alive then, my mother has described it to me, and when I visited some of the effects still remained. The Deutsche Demokratische Republik (East German Government) was a corrupt, hideous, and malicious organization–a piece of human artifice that was clearly twisted. The ugliness of this government spilled over into the architecture and other sphere’s of human creation as oppression stifled the human will to create things that are beautiful. Traveling from West Berlin to East Berlin has been described to me as abruptly transitioning from a film richly in color, to a dull black and white film with poor contrast so that everything around you feels gray.
So, I urge you: when you add a new thing to the ontological framework of this universe by creating: take the time to ensure that the thing you are creating has aesthetic value. If you live in a neighborhood that on most accounts looks pretty ugly: do something. Tend a garden, mow your lawn, pick up the trash from the abandoned lot across the street, plant a row of trees. In doing this you will have added to the value of your own community and you are also hopefully sending the message to your fellow human beings through what you have created that they do have intrinsic value. Simultaneously, you are also reflecting the glory of your maker in what you do.
If this sort of thinking is not a part of what we do, it is all to0 easy to let the ugliness of decay, dishevelment , and discord slip into what we create. And when we are surrounded by things that are not beautiful, or that do not in some way attempt to point back to the ultimate creator, our everyday lives become gray and dull and our psyches begin to mirror the hopelessness of the artifice around us.