“Beauty has been rejected as a standard to live by and as a map to guide us. Yet without the map of beauty…, ‘we risk falling into a world of addictive pleasures and routine desecration, a world in which human life is no longer clearly perceivable.'”
The above quote comes from a chapter about the life of Vincent van Gogh in Jim Belcher‘s book, In Search of Deep Faith (he’s quoting Roger Scruton here).* Belcher describes Vincent’s messed up life: rejected by family, blaming himself for his father’s death, fighting with those who tried to love him, depressed, poor, and selling not a single painting in his entire life. That brokenness nurtured in Vincent a sense of not just the trite fads of the day, but a deep, broken beauty acquainted with failure and suffering.
I’d like to be a person who recognizes and values that kind of beauty.
Finding that kind of beauty happens in little everyday choices. Lately I’ve been researching what kind of waffle maker to buy. My readings of many product reviews have taught me that the options for waffle makers are much like the options for most things you buy these days:
- Pay a cheap price, and get a cheap quality thing that’s made to give you a momentary thrill of purchase and then fall apart.
- Or, pay a significantly higher price and, if you’re lucky, get something that works, maybe even something crafted. For waffle makers, for me that looks like a locally made cast iron waffle maker you can use on a stove top. Reveiwers glowed over this thing. It even inspired a utube video. People call it a keepsake for future generations.
I’d like to be a person who buys the cast iron kind of waffle maker.
But let’s get real. More often I’m the kind of penny-thrift who follows the flow and takes the easy way out and gets the kind of waffle maker that costs twenty bucks and then peels non-stick toxins into my family’s waffles.
Are we really willing to pay what it takes to give people meaningful jobs, to reward craftsmanship and creativity over mechanical precision and speed?
It’s so easy to fall into “routine desecration,” as Belcher and Scruton write. In choice after choice we exchange beauty for its cheap knock-offs and kitchy fakes. We grow addicted to stimulus and we forget what real beauty even looks like, much less what it’s worth.
My friend Marcia and I talked about beauty and my waffle maker dilemma, and she told me about a quote from a book called Kingfishers Catch Fire by Rumor Godden. In the story, an American woman goes shopping at markets in India. She complains that “most of the merchants sold sham papier-mâché, cheap walnut carvings, machine-spun shawls, and Persian carpets made in Kidderminster.” In response, a trader puts the blame back on her and her tourist kind: “By your own greed you tourists have debased the very things you want.” He tells her, though, that he sees something different in her: “You at least, lady sahib, are prepared to pay genuine prices for genuine things.”
My friend and I want to be people prepared to pay genuine prices for genuine things.
On my drive home from my last day of classes this past semester, I listened to a guest on public radio talk about what he called “the real humanities crisis” (Gary Gutting, The Kathleen Dunn Show). He said our society pretends that we don’t need or value beauty. We pretend beauty is not utilitarian, and therefore not worthy of spending money on, not worth setting up social structures to create jobs for. And yet, he said, our actions and choices every day show we do value beauty. Every product we buy has something about it that appeals to us because it’s beautiful, it feels good in our hands, it looks right. We don’t think of beauty as needing a price tag, but deep down we know its inestimable value; we need beauty.
My son and I have started shopping for a ukelele. He wanted to play banjo, but given his size, we decided to settle for a smaller ukelele. He can’t wait to pick one out. I’m as excited as he is. We’re ready to dish out some cash for this. I’m a deep believer in music, not just as a useful thing, but as a thing that gives us (like this poem says), “more love compassion, gentleness, good—in short more life.”
I have never regretted majoring in music as an undergrad. I say that not because piano playing earned me more money than any other job in my first year after graduating (which it did), but because it taught me to recognize beauty.
Music – on ukeleles, penny whistles, cello, french horn, flute, guitar, and piano in our house – is one way our family practices recognizing and living in the depths of real beauty.
What about you? How do you practice real beauty?
* By the way, there’s plenty more beauty and good challenges in Jim Belcher’s book, too. The book follows the journey he and his family of six made across Europe visiting sites that he hopes will remind himself, his kids, and us as readers, what it means to live in deep faith. His visits are full of great stories of both famous and obscure Christian heroes ranging from C.S. Lewis’s failing a debate to a village in the Alps successfully sheltering over 3,000 Jews through the Holocaust. It’s totally inspiring. And he didn’t even tell me to write this.