Environmental aesthetics and the meaning of value

Mountain view with small houses or huts at sunset on Patagonia

We need to reassess our aesthetic sensibilities and mourn not so much our culture’s loss of beauty itself, but our culture’s loss for the appreciation of beauty.

As David Brooks of The New York Times explains in “When Beauty Strikes”, it is beauty — particularly of the unexpected kind — that has the ability to expose the limitations of the normal, banal environments we take for granted every day. “The proper goal of art and maybe civilization itself.” Furthermore, “this humanistic worldview holds that beauty conquers the deadening aspects of routine; it educates the emotions and connects us to the eternal.”

We do like art and beautiful things; however, we only seem to on a superficial level, not in any way that connects with it emotionally, intellectually or philosophically. As demonstrated in one of the recent GOP debates, even the very idea of philosophy is something that is to be mocked and denigrated, certainly not celebrated.

Instead, what our culture offers is the opposite:

“That which can be measured with data is valorized. Economists are experts on happiness. The world is understood primarily as the product of impersonal forces; the nonmaterial dimensions of life explained by the material ones.”

This flippant attitude towards the world of ideas extends into the material world as well, which is why it’s so strange that our culture is often called “materialistic”. In reality, the opposite is true: little appreciation or respect is attached to anything that has little or no economic value. Or, as the English philosopher Alan Watts said:

“In this culture we call materialistic, today we are of course bent on the total destruction of material and its conversion into junk and poisonous gases. This is of course not a materialistic culture because it has no respect for material. And respect is in turn based on wonder.”

The totality of life essentially becomes reduced to an eternal conveyor belt that whisks around an endless array of cheaply-made junk that’s environmentally destructive and intended to provide enjoyment for only a fleeting moment before being tossed in the landfill. The worst part is not merely that hardly anyone seems to notice this, but that it is noticed–and elevated as a lofty goal in itself. Economic development, in other words, becomes the goal, in and of itself, rather than the means to some other loftier ideal.

Turning to the creators of art for solutions doesn’t always provide the answer. As Brooks recognizes, artists themselves have also succumbed to this neoliberal reductionist worldview:

“Abandoning their natural turf, the depths of emotion, symbol, myth and the inner life, they decided that relevance meant naked partisan stance-taking in the outer world (often in ignorance of the complexity of the evidence). Meanwhile, how many times have you heard advocates lobby for arts funding on the grounds that it’s good for economic development?” [emphasis mine]

The answer, of course, “too often.”

So where does this leave us? Brooks explains that it’s all about the stories we tell ourselves, and each other, about the meaning of “value” itself; it’s about worldview:

“The shift to post-humanism has left the world beauty-poor and meaning-deprived. It’s not so much that we need more artists and bigger audiences, though that would be nice. It’s that we accidentally abandoned a worldview that showed how art can be used to cultivate the fullest inner life. We left behind an ethos that reminded people of the links between the beautiful, the true and the good — the way pleasure and love can lead to nobility.” [emphasis mine]

What’s needed, then, is the encouragement, the reassurance that it’s OK to value something purely for its intrinsic worth. Encouragement of this kind can go a long way in overcoming our culture’s aesthetic malaise. Only then could our culture become worthy of being called “materialistic”.


Photo credit: Alejandro Moreno de Carlos