Raising the Standard.

RE: Permanent Things

The Girl With the Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer

Elizabeth’s post has started me thinking about beauty. She is of course right that too much emphasis on physical beauty is wrong: Beauty is, like the summer, capricious and fleeting, and those who try to defy biology (and how they try) are wasting their time.

But if we’re thinking about permanent things, beauty should make the cut. Elizabeth intimates as much when she writes that “[t]he beauty of honor, honesty and compassion does not weaken with passing years.” Alongside these three virtues she mentions wisdom and friendship.

The tie that binds the items on her list is beauty. Beauty, like other qualities, can be ascribed to any number of things, but is thought to be an end in itself. About how many other qualities can we say that?

A little explanation on this point will be helpful.

Beauty is the aim of great art, music and literature.* For instance, when I first came across the paintings of Caravaggio, I was transported by beauty — it was a Damascene conversion worthy of the masterpiece. And millions more have shared the experience. Beauty’s transcendence is present in the commonplace. It is there in a fleeting, electrifying gaze, in a laborer’s sweat, in a back room swindle and in unspeakable despair.

We are capable of experiencing beauty at the bus stop from a sudden opening in the clouds, and expert depictions of the world help attune us to beauty. They teach us why a life of exams, deadlines and unexpected deaths in the family is ultimately worthwhile.

If beauty is so important, why are we put off by the Photoshop culture that seems to worship it? By beauty that has been calibrated, so scientists and advertisers say, to a series of golden ratios** and Listerine rinse cycles?

That’s easy. We’re put off by this culture because it is pursuing a false beauty. Those who seek beauty to attract mates or satisfy their ego are not seeking beauty for its own sake, after all.

The human form is both beautiful and mysterious. And our forms are the more mysterious for their imperfections — the nose that crooks just so (mine), the unruly hair and so on. To Photoshop away imperfection is not only to repudiate uniqueness, but also to forgo humility, an especially beautiful quality in a world driven by ambition.

So I can only end by reiterating Elizabeth’s message: Obsess less; reflect more about those things that make life beautiful.

That’s more than enough grandiloquence from me for one day. My defense is that I was transported by the subject matter.

—M. Blake Seitz is Editor-in-Chief of The Arch Conservative

*This is sadly protested by much of the established art community, which sees art’s aim as equal parts unchecked imagination, transgression and political propaganda. Exhibits A and B, courtesy the Georgia Museum of Art.

**Tell that to Rubens.