Independent Adjunct, MassArt and Boston Architectural College
Scraping and cleaning the inside of a petrol tank, Primo Levi toiled away the hours, trapped as a prisoner in Auschwitz. One day, through a kind of fortunate situation, he was chosen to accompany a fellow prisoner to lug back the daily ration of food for themselves and the other prisoners in their group. While walking across the camp—they took the scenic route—Levi began to recite Dante to this younger man, who had no experience with Dante. The Canto of Ulysses, Levi quoted a stanza, but then got stuck at a certain connecting line. He couldn’t remember the connecting lines. In his frustration, he proclaims that he would have given up his daily ration of food, just to remember. “For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.” (Levi, If This is a Man, 119). This story comes from Levi’s experience in a very dark place at a very dark time in recent history.
When discussing the most important things for human life, people may often turn to food, water, health, and shelter. Rarely, if ever, will someone quickly turn to beauty. As it stands, people frequently list beauty more as something to be added onto a life, once things are going well. It’s a luxury to be able to consider beauty. This assumption contradicts a lot of recounted experience from people in dire circumstances, as demonstrated by the Levi story as well as art therapy after natural disasters and art-making in prisons. Emerson, in his journals, wrote with poignant eloquence: “We fly to beauty as an asylum from the terrors of finite nature.”
Beauty and aesthetic experience, through art and nature, play an important role in helping us overcome or survive dark times. People disagree about which things are beautiful or the degree of their beauty, but they don’t disagree that beauty exists and is worth seeking. Why we seek beauty is a question many struggle to answer. I think the beginning of an answer is suggested in the natural law tradition that has its roots in Aristotle. Aristotle connects beauty with order, among others things, because the mind delights in order. During chaotic times, we turn to beauty in part because of its order. More recent natural law theory complements this point by lifting aesthetic experience to the role of a basic human good.
Unfortunately, natural law is not particularly popular outside of conservative (especially Catholic) political and ethical thought; however, they highlight something important in their starting point. John Finnis and Mark Murphy begin their respective theories with the claim that people have basic reasons for action, and they both name aesthetic experience as one of those reasons. One only needs to consider, for present purposes, that people positive aesthetic experiences (of beauty, elegance, order, etc.) over negative aesthetic experiences (ugliness, chaos, etc.). The specifics will vary among different people and different cultures, but the general principle that people seek out aesthetic experiences seems almost trivially true.
If pursuing aesthetic experience, to varying degrees, is a basic motivation for people that enhances their life for the better, then beauty (and other aesthetic properties) is necessary (possibly more so) in dark times. It helps us transcend, even momentarily, from the darkness and chaos, and gives us a glimmer of hope. And those that may not currently be in dark times may gain some empathy from exposure to art work produced from those who are. I think this discussion would revolve around some neglected positive ideas from natural law theory, and that art and beauty, rather than being frivolous, are powerful tools to help us overcome or survive dark times.