Why bother with aesthetics?

Why plate your meal just so, or put glitter on your eyelids? Why paint when you can photograph, or why find a word that sounds a certain way, when you can convey the basic meaning easily? It’s more than the dopamine hit from the instagram likes:

beauty does something to us, as humans.

Humans tend to experience some things, like landscapes, as beautiful— “the experience of the large,” as poet Jane Hirshfield described at an event I went to recently. That night, poets read, and artists and organizers spoke, about conservation, the natural environment, and activism. Why art, in the face of political and environmental crisis, asked the moderator. Is there a real justification for pouring time, energy, and resources into making things that are just beautiful, when we’re faced with crisis? The participants gave a resounding yes, for many reasons. One mentioned the experience of awe. It’s moving, and hard to explain. Art can both inspire awe, and attempt to describe it. Both are impressive.

In the describing, also, we can give a permanent life to something. I think if Edward Abbey, Barry Lopez, or even Kerouac, describing landscapes. They are burned in my memory through their words. In this way, art can change the way we relate to things, people, places. Art can render beauty manifest, indelible, memorable. One panelist, a spokesman for the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, joked that at a recent political hearing, he lost the audience before he even began sharing his figures, and he should have stood up and read a poem instead. That would’ve woken them up, he mused. He’s right.

Then, profound beauty is just plain affecting. There are psychological theories about this, including the compelling idea that beauty emerges from patterns in the interactions among people and objects. But I don’t think we need  to know this to experience it. Considering experiences of beauty freed from the intellect makes me think of descriptions I’ve read recently (Michael Pollan’s, for one) about psychedelic experiences, where attempts to translate a profound felt experience into words fall flat, sounding mundane or puzzling. Is there something happening in our brains that is separate from our conscious awareness and our intellect? Maybe we don’t all have the structures needed to comprehend beauty. Maybe it resists structure.

Speaking of the mundane: Beauty can be quotidien, tiny, insignificant— and still important. Tiny moments of joy are an easy kindness to the self or to another person. These gifts are even more valuable in trying times. When we are discouraged, run-down, or afraid, something pleasing can feel like a relief. And, as Jane Hirshfield said the other night:

we don’t know what will change another human being.

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