Beauty is very important to me. Seeking beauty makes a lot of sense as a human calling, and I believe it to be thoroughly intertwined with spiritual hunger. We need beauty as much as we need food. But just like we’ve often needed several words to clarify types of love, I think we need a few different words to describe beauty. Forgive the visual bias of the language (it’s quite definitely unintended but hard to avoid.), but here’s my shot at it:
Plastic Beauty. This is the surface kind of beauty that is usually “put on.” At best it is superficial – at worst artificial. Think photoshopped models, interior designs purchased to match a magazine, hyper-manicured landscapes, and virtual worlds prettier than nature. Plastic beauty is good for capturing attention but only impresses for long those few (I hope) who have been caught up in and oriented toward plastic beauty. Can I risk thinking that it is relatively intuitive when properly caring for and attending to appearance (of people and things) is awesome and when it becomes plastic?
Stimulant (Marketed) Beauty. This is a subtype of the above, specially created by the conjunction of psychology and capitalism. Some types of plastic beauty are specially designed to appeal to human weakness. This is the “beauty” of a greasy cheeseburger, an all-inclusive Caribbean resort or a “secure” personal retirement fund – marketed perversions of good food, good leisure and community-oriented prosperity. Since it is intentionally designed to play to our lusts and fears, this marketed beauty is potent.
Aesthetic Beauty. Though this usually has a depth and complexity well beyond the above, this beauty is still apparent to the senses. Sometimes one may have to look (listen? taste?) longer and more intentionally to see it. Unlike plastic beauty, aesthetic beauty matches essence (see below) and thus is free from the sense of falseness or shallowness that characterizes plastic. Aesthetic beauty becomes more beautiful the more you see it from different angles and under different conditions. Aesthetically beautiful objects, people, and ideas reflect the beautiful contexts and ecologies they are integrated with.
Essential Beauty. Everything natural (and thus everyone) is essentially beautiful. Call me crazy, but I’m stuck on the concept of a creation that is all good. (If I wanted to write forever, I might even try to justify that much of what we call evil and death is also beautiful in a way – but that’s a heresy for another day.) The more we practice seeking essential beauty, the more universally we will start to see it.
In a perfect world, the essentially beautiful would probably all be aesthetically beautiful (partly because of the freedom from things that get in the way and partly because of the way we would be able to see). But as it is, there are distortions and distractions and many other things that often prevent essential beauty from being readily apparent. One of the main distortions, of course, is plastic beauty. Since plastic beauty tends to become ugly the deeper or longer you look, people often hide their essential beauty by forcing a plastic beauty. Or the insecurities that arise from comparisons with plastic beauty make one shrink from displaying one’s essential beauty. When I have trouble seeing one’s beauty after really trying to look and listen, I assume that I am seeing a mask and having trouble finding the real person.
Of course, humanly constructed things can also be beautiful, but this is not a given. I probably should already apologize to the philosophers of aesthetics, of whom I know next to nothing, and I’ll leave the nuances of such distinctions to them. But I suspect a short version is to say that synthetic creations are beautiful when they reflect the integrity, authenticity and ecological connectedness of the natural world.
Thoughts? Corrections? Additions?