Beauty must come back to the useful arts, and the distinction between the fine and the useful arts be forgotten. —Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Art”
Shortly after the above quote, Emerson goes on to explain that “if life were nobly spent, it would be no longer easy or possible to distinguish one from the other.”
In his essay “Art,” Emerson at first seems to be attacking formal art completely, but his goal is actually to show how necessary art appreciation is to all aspects of life. He points out that if beauty is only pursued like entertainment, it is not beauty that will be found, but her sickly half-formed sister: pleasure.
This quote surprises me every time I read it. I, too, think beauty has been wrongfully separated from the practical, everyday world, and it’s time the two were reconciled.
Many people in our modern, utilitarian world have pushed beauty and art into museums and concert halls. Beauty is (and ought to be) prevalent in everyday life, but we’ve made it accessible only in small, pleasurable doses. And in the end, we’ve divorced it from real life.
The result is more devastating than you might think.
It’s easy to believe that, by separating and enshrining beauty from the world, we’re elevating it and reserving it for the arts without losing any of our wonder. We save up all our longings for the trip to the museum, imagining that we’ll be more moved through the glass or from across the rope. But it’s a strange, detached idolatry, and over time, our idols become less and less meaningful. They lose touch with humanity. Few people have access to museums filled with beautiful art, and even fewer truly enjoy the experience. When they do appreciate this art, they’re seen as elitist and aloof, sometimes with good reason. Art appreciation becomes a status symbol, rather than a method for experiencing beauty in all its fullness.
Emerson warns that “the hand can never execute anything higher than the character can inspire.” And when beauty and art are separated from the everyday, they are no longer constant forces in our lives. We lose our ability to appreciate the arts, and before long, we’re not able to enjoy art even in the special places we’ve set aside for it.
Just as beauty devoid of real life is not truly beautiful, real life devoid of beauty is not real.
So we must take off the limiting lenses of utility, and see the beauty that dwells in noble practicality.
Take a moment to watch your creamer billow down in coffee like thick smoke. Smile at a mismatched set of dishes, unique like the souls that will dine with you. Eavesdrop at a restaurant and discover that everyone has a story.
When we live with purpose and appreciation, every aspect of life will display a beauty worth all our attention.
Image by Alexandria via Pixabay