As I’ve mentioned before, the notion of the importance of Beauty is not new. The Aestheticism movement of the late 1800s in Europe and America caused quite a stir. It posited that beauty was above concepts such as right and wrong. Aestheticism adherents eventually evolved their own brand of elitist hierarchy, however. I say “however” since a hierarchy to me implies a sense of righteousness, of superiority — an assumption of right-er vs. lesser, if you will.
Aestheticism was “art-centric.” Based in the philosopher Emmanuel Kant, following the French “l’art pour l’art,” under the Aestheticism banner the concept of beauty became too synonymous with art. True Beauty is not confined to or articulated by “art” alone. Further, in Aestheticism there is an assumption that nature’s own beauty (think composition, colors, material combinations) itself is in need of improvement through man’s orchestration. I find this arrogant at worst, and at its best simply a developmental phase in humankind. Or so I might like to think.
One of Aestheticism’s better known spokesmen was Oscar Wilde. Born in 1854, Wilde lectured often and
vociferously on the importance of art and beauty in people’s everyday lives. He is quoted as saying “We spend our days looking for the secret of life. Well, the secret of life is art.” (Once again inferring that art and beauty are synonymous). He also said “Even a color-sense is more important in the development of the individual than a sense of right and wrong.” Hmmm.
This movement emerged in response, in part, to the ugly influences of utilitarianism and the then newly flourishing industrial revolution. But I see such a prominent paradox. While proclaiming that all should have beauty/art in their everyday lives, this crowd perceived themselves as superior to the group that would come to be classified as the “working class.” An artist, a creator of beauty was considered superior. Yet so many of those who had previously been the “crafters” or makers of furniture, paints, metal work, woodwork, fine art glass, etc. — many of them were now in the factories. But , oh!, were no longer considered to have enough “taste” to appreciate “The Arts” as conceived by Aestheticism’s aesthetes. While lauding art for art’s sake, Aestheticism’s adherents did not appear capable of recognizing the ubiquitous eternal nature of Beauty or the diversity of its makers and fans.
Hence, while eschewing the notions of right and wrong in favor of beauty and art on one hand, they were busily creating an elitist group and attitude that shut out entire populations based on their “everyday living” rather than on their sensibilities, talents, or (dare I say?) appreciation of art.
Aestheticism as a movement of the 19th century seems an good example of blinkered arrogance raising its nasty head in relation to the promulgation of the concept of beauty. It started with a noble intent, yet refused the broader and spiritual component that could provide the far-reaching healing for humankind. It had the idea correct — Beauty is transcendent — but the execution wrong. It’s not just about “art,” and certainly not about the sculpting and supposed improvement of the wild. It is not only about refuting the current cultural trends in morality. It is not just “l’artiste” who can sense or create beauty.
The sheer universality of Beauty’s truth appears to have been missed by Wilde and his cohorts. But they may have been on the right track. Now we must make some corrections and move forward.
There is a principle in organizational development circles, “Just because an idea (or product, or process) didn’t work earlier, doesn’t mean it won’t work now. Review and re-evaluate.” Beauty and its transcendent nature is an idea whose time has always been, and now hopefully we are mature enough as beings, able enough and conscious enough to review, re-evaluate and go forward anew — recognizing the inherent importance of True Beauty for all: human, planet, universe.
Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing
There is a field
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
The world is too full to talk about.