Creating Beauty in a Brutal World

Some people desire to create beauty. It’s as simple as that. Not only do they want to have beauty in their lives, they feel that they can create it, edifying both themselves and others. This seems to be something embedded in our human nature, unequally distributed in the population and sometimes emerging in surprising ways. I think we all benefit, but that thought, again, is unequally distributed.

What is beauty? The most famous quotation on this topic is that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Fair enough. Beauty is rarely an objective assessment. Another frequent observation, a variation of a comment about pornography, is that “I don’t know what it is but I recognize it when I see it.” A safe description, to my way of seeing, is that the beautiful is an idealized version of the familiar, whether that be faces or landscapes.

Why do we find sunsets to be beautiful, or colourful patterns? Or certain forms, or motions, or sounds? It must be that there is something buried deep within us that can be awakened, and it brings us joy when this happens. Some of us are more susceptible than others, but we probably don’t mind.

At one time, it was a popular notion that Art was concerned with beauty, and that those that could achieve it were worthy of the title of Artist. That idea lingers on in the compliments that are given to successful chefs, for instance, or even graceful fly-fishers. In fact, those that call themselves artists may not have any interest in doing beautiful things, art now often being preoccupied with other objectives.

It is more likely in the realm of the practical that we will find practitioners who are willing to admit to the pursuit of beauty. Architects, for instance, or those that make smaller things, like furniture, pots, blankets, baskets or many other things in the realm of visual arts. I don’t feel qualified to discuss the performing arts, which can, of course, also be dedicated to beauty.

I mentioned unequal distribution, and this pertains to cultures as well as individuals. Japan, for instance, seems to be a country with a disproportionate attention to beauty, both its creation and its enjoyment. West-coast cultures like the Haida seem to have a similar desire for the beautiful and the well-made. The Shakers, a (mostly) 19th-century religious sect, felt that there was an equivalence between creating beauty and worshipping God, and their work remains striking for its aesthetic presence. Even so, almost all cultures will have their own traditions of beauty and the desire for them to be perpetuated.

But it is ironic that, however much beauty may be appreciated, there is often a reluctance to pay for it. Do many of us think that it should just be common property like an open operating system, without the need to compensate the creators? Perhaps. Or maybe we are just too practical, preferring to use our exchangeable resources for more fundamental requirements?

A senior colleague of mine, some years ago, asked for my help with a project. He described me as a “form-beautiful” kind of designer, in contrast to his more practical approach, and he felt that this project needed that too. I took this as a compliment. But I have also had that turned around on me and had clients dismiss my work as superficial and without real value. I think that there is a small concern that the appreciation of beauty isn’t a manly quality, in contrast to the acquisition of money. Perhaps.
The pursuit of beauty perseveres, regardless. People continue to do it, whether or not they are required to or are reimbursed for it. I remain gratified not only for the production of beautiful things, but for the stubborn insistence on its pursuit. Some people want to leave the world a better place than they found it and by making it more beautiful, they are achieving that. We are lucky to have them.

Paul Epp is an emeritus professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.

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