Can Beauty Save The World? I Hope So, But I Have My Doubts.

In response to my post Something Has Got To Be Better Than Nothing, Deb Nies, a writer I met through the Live Like Julia Project, said she tries to live by the phrase:

bloom where you are planted: beautifying “my own little corner of the world. I figure if everyone just tried to do that, we’d all be just a bit better off.”

Just as I decided I liked this constructive idea, I heard more horrific news that made my individual efforts seem futile.

So, I went for a walk. When I got to the poetry pole we always pass, I stopped to read it to my kiddo. It was “I, Too” by Langston Hughes, and two things happened. First, the poem helped me understand what it is I’m feeling about negative world events: shame. I feel the shame he describes in the second-to-last stanza:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,"

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

I want to apologize, on behalf of humanity, for all of it– for not inviting people to the table, for hateful acts, for greed, for violence, for not seeing everyone’s beauty. I want everyone at the table, and I want everyone to see everyone else’s beauty.

The second thing that happened is the owner of the house stepped out to water some plants, and I had a chance to tell her how much we like her poetry pole. Some of the poems she’s posted have hit home for me, changed my mood, given me more resolve or hope or cheer. There’s one person blooming where she’s planted, making her part of the universe beautiful and that beauty has altered the world, if only a little, which proves that beauty works.

This is the perfect example of something I read in Street Roots in an interview with Buffy Sainte-Marie, whom I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of, even though she’s apparently shaped American culture quite significantly.

The writer, Zalokar, asked Sainte-Marie about our duty to ourselves, to others, and to the planet to right wrongs and fix all the messes. Sainte-Marie replied that this “duty” is:

“…not something to be afraid of. It’s something just to step up to. You know, it’s like doing the dishes; you’ve got to do it all the time or it piles up on you.”

I can relate to this, it’s back to daily practice. The article then quotes a line from one of Sainte-Marie’s songs, and it’s just what Deb Nies said:

“…so take heart and take care of your link with life and / carry it on …”

Okay, so none of this fixes the problems I hear on the news that shock me to the core. Today it was about Sudan. I can’t even repeat the story, so you can look it up if you’ve not already heard it. But after feeling helpless and hopeless for a brief while, I came back to an ever more firm resolve to do what I can each day — back to daily practice, but this time in life as well as art.

Which is what another friend said in response to my earlier post. Simon Tam (you might know him from The Slants), reminded me that “change occurs on many different levels. Just as no one person created the severe environmental issues we’re facing today, no single person can solve them,” and that solutions come in many forms and at many levels.

He’s an engaged activist doing as much direct action as he can, so I was cheered when he noted some small things that can make a difference:  “It’s easy to get overwhelmed but there’s so much good that we can do, even if the effects are [not] directly/immediately visible – just look at the effects of a good teacher, dentist, or customer service rep. Sometimes, that good can be multiplied and magnified! ”

Which is how I am feeling about the woman with the artful house and the poetry pole. Her corner of beauty is altering my state of mind and making me go forward more cheerfully and productively for the rest of the day, and probably doing so for others passing by.

Which brings me back to Street Roots and an article about a woman who paints icons. I didn’t even know we had modern icons; I just assumed they were all from ancient times, and now I’m fascinated by what it would be like to be an artist creating powerful spiritual imagery. For Mary Katsilometes, interviewed by Jane Salisbury, it’s about beauty:

“All artists, writers, painters, theater people are doing this; engagement with beauty truly does save the world.”

I’ve heard this before, and I want to believe it, but I’m always left asking, “How? How does beauty save the world?”

Luckily, Salisbury followed up and asked just that–what does it really mean that beauty will save the world? The icon artist replied:

“Beauty will save the world because it appeals and comforts and stands against the profane. If we don’t have images of beauty to stand against the profane, we are lost. All the world is entitled to the beautiful. It causes us to reflect on a world full of goodness. When I was a child, the nuns told us to be careful what we let in; I think that’s part of what they were saying.”

So, maybe Deb is right, bloom where you are planted, make your speck of sand as beautiful as you can. Whether that’s enough or not, I don’t know, but it seems a great place to start, and something to work on each day.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”   –John Keats

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4 Responses to Can Beauty Save The World? I Hope So, But I Have My Doubts.

  1. Rose L. says:

    I think this is where my appreciation of photography comes it. First of all, gathering the beauty I see and photograph makes me feel so wonderful and thankful. Second, when I share my photography with people it enlightens their lives and they “see” something they may have passed right by. People will say how beautiful they are, how it makes them think of things, how it brightens their day. I have had people buy them and say how each time they look at what they bought they smile and feel good.
    When I share a poem and someone feels something from it I feel good.
    I guess these are ways I share beauty to enhance or touch lives of others. When that happens, my life is also touched.

    • TRISTA says:

      That’s a great point, Rose. Making art shapes our vision of the world, and then there’s the second part of sharing it with others.

  2. Alex Hurst says:

    I love those reflections from the icon artist. It’s so true. Of course, I think in some areas of life, it has been misconstrued as a shield or buffer against what must not be ignored (makeup as “war paint”, idealizing instead of facing reality, etc)… and in some case, maybe even what beauty *is* has been lost to some. The poetry pole sounds like such a nice thing. A little respite for the heart to be reminded against all the white noise. 🙂

    • TRISTA says:

      That’s exactly what the poetry poles are like, Alex! At least for me. And yes, I have been avoiding defining “beauty” in this and other posts. Maybe it’s just that art “stands against the profane.” That kind of covers it; even the art designed to shock or wake us up is defending us against complacency, not too different than being profane. Hmmm… your comments always get me thinking deeply. Thank you!!

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