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Understanding the Value of Chasing Beauty

Understanding the Value of Chasing Beauty

Our culture desperately needs to regain its ability to see again.

Ever bombarded with distraction and numbed by convenience, our eyes fall lazy to myriad photographic images that saturate our days through phone apps, internet browsers and the television.

Distraction and convenience work in tandem.

Everything lives within our phones. I can order dinner, groceries, and download a movie while sitting on a lawn chair. People would rather pay for convenience than do something themselves. Tim Wu recently wrote on the dark side of convenience in the New York Times. He says: 

Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life.

Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us.

We need to get outside and live with the earth beneath our feet and the sky above our heads. We were created to pursue beauty, not spectate from a lawn chair, drunk on the convenience of push-button life.

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Essayist Susan Sontag says our photographic culture teaches us a “new visual code.” We think little of time spent scrolling through images. We don’t realize that we’re training our minds to interpret the world and to make conclusions on what is worth seeing.

"This very insatiability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world. In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe.

They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads — as an anthology of images.

What is worth seeing. Think about that.

The moments spent on our phones indoctrinate us to make value judgements on the worth of certain images over others. What does this “ethics of seeing” do to our ability to appreciate art, or even pursue learning non-photographic arts, like watercolor painting?

Not everyone longs to be a painter. I get that. But the point to this notion of a new “ethic of seeing” rests in the pursuit of beauty. The painter, sketcher, or pianist pursues their craft and in that pursuit, they learn to see or hear in such a way that fosters curiosity, spurs learning, and creates longing.

Curiosity, learning, longing work on us and help us derive meaning from our world.

The pursuit of beauty reminds us that we cannot keep the whole world logged in our heads. Likewise, the values of beauty encountered in the natural world, like wonder and awe and terror, remind us of the inestimable nature of the universe and point to something beyond the created order, namely God.

So, how can we remain beauty chasers?

For starters, we need to go marveling.

A Methodist preacher by the name of Fred Craddock tells the story of how his ancestors used to take walks after church on Sundays.

On the walks they’d “admire nature and collect unusual things” such as rocks or wildflowers. They called it “going marveling.” The intentional observance and gathering of natural things we pass over every day or take for granted strengthens our ability to see the world.

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The English poet Gerard Manly Hopkins believed, “What you look hard at seems to look hard at you.” It’s the idea that the more time we spend observing something, the more knowledge we gain.

Have you ever noticed that when you know little of something you have hard time describing it?

“That seems obvious, but so what?”

Well, have you ever considered how well we even know how to describe a tree or the sky or the ocean? One of favorite examples of this is Victorian British art critic John Ruskin’s explanation of our common misconception about the nature of ocean waves:

Most people think of waves as rising and falling. But if they look at the sea carefully, they will perceive that the waves do not rise and fall.

They change.

Change both place and form, but they do not fall; one waves goes on, and on, and still on; now lower, now higher, now tossing its mane like a horse, now building itself together like a wall, now shaking, now steady, but still the same wave, till at last it seems struck by something, and changes, one knows now how,—becomes another wave.

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When I first read Ruskin’s observation of the nature of an ocean wave, I sat stunned. “Of course,” I thought. I was amazed at my own inability to describe something so common as a wave.

Then I began looking at other natural things we (read: I) take for granted, like the sky and trees.

When I really stopped to consider their makeup, their nature, even their color, I discovered that I’d raced right passed these objects, or even worse, I simply ignored them.

If I valued beauty, if I pursued beauty, would it not show in my understanding and appreciation of the world?

Had I fallen prey to our photographic and convenience-drunk society, failing to look at things that I can’t scroll?

Perhaps we don’t see all that well, because we lack the patience.

The writer David McCullough tacked a plaque above his desk that reads: “Look at your Fish.” It’s a story about the value of seeing.

Take a moment and read McCullough’s response to an interviewer from The Paris Review about the significance of this short statement.

It says, “Look at your fish.” It’s the test that Louis Agassiz, the nineteenth-century Harvard naturalist, gave every new student. He would take an odorous old fish out of a jar, set it in a tin pan in front of the student and say, Look at your fish. Then Agassiz would leave. When he came back, he would ask the student what he’d seen. Not very much, they would most often say, and Agassiz would say it again: Look at your fish.

This could go on for days. The student would be encouraged to draw the fish but could use no tools for the examination, just hands and eyes. Samuel Scudder, who later became a famous entomologist and expert on grasshoppers, left us the best account of the “ordeal with the fish.”

After several days, he still could not see whatever it was Agassiz wanted him to see. But, he said, I see how little I saw before. Then Scudder had a brainstorm and he announced it to Agassiz the next morning: Paired organs, the same on both sides. Of course! Of course! Agassiz said, very pleased.

So Scudder naturally asked what he should do next, and Agassiz said, Look at your fish.

I love that story and have used it often when teaching classes on writing, because seeing is so important in this work.

Insight comes, more often than not, from looking at what’s been on the table all along, in front of everybody, rather than from discovering something new.

Seeing is as much the job of an historian as it is of a poet or a painter, it seems to me. That’s Dickens’s great admonition to all writers, “Make me see.”

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In 1952 Josef Pieper warned that so much visual noise in our world impedes our ability to “see”. He believed man’s inner richness was at stake.

Our culture will continue to progress in the realm of digital technology. But we cannot abandon real life. Real life is served up away from the noise and distractions and involves things we can touch, see, and smell. It involves things that contribute to our inner richness.

Even mountaineer-philosopher John Muir knew the benefits of real life over the machine world. He wrote: “I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.”

I worry about the price we will pay in years to come from generations of individuals weaned on distraction. What will result from our culture of noise and from our own willful impoverishment of the mind and body?

What kind of people will we become? I hope, a people who chase after beauty.


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