Learning to See Beauty

By: Jake
February 16, 2012

The philosopher Goethe once said that we should every day see something beautiful when he said that:

“Every day look at a beautiful picture, read a beautiful poem, listen to some beautiful music, and if possible, say some reasonable thing.”

This year I have taken up that challenge and I am attempting every day to listen to a beautiful song, read something inspiring, see a beautiful piece of art, read a piece of poetry and finally to come up with some reasonable thought behind it all. I have been attempting to document this on my personal blog where I try my best to keep track of all the wonderful things that I encounter each day in this quest. Having done it now for more then a month already I have noticed a few changes that I have occurred as a result.

How I see the world

I see beauty more around me. Because I am actively searching for something inspiring around me each day I see it more. What we focus on and actively seek, is invariably what we learn to see. The poet Ted Hughes in his Birthday Letters (a series of poems he wrote each year to Sylvia Plath’s death and published to break the 30 year silence on her suicide) wrote a wonderful poem called The Owl that describes his relationship with Sylvia Plath in which he describes the effect of her being with him changing his eyes, and how he saw the world; As Hughes says:

I saw my world again through your eyes
As I would see it again through your children’s eyes.
Through your eyes it was foreign.
Plain hedge hawthorns were peculiar aliens,
A mystery of peculiar lore and doings.

William Blake - The Ancient of Days

A similiar sentiment about our ability to see the world through different eyes was articulated by William Blake:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

Both of these passages show the way in which how we look at the world alters what we see. This seems so obvious but so often we forget that our perception and our ideological framework really does project itself into the world. Looking at the world through the lens of negativity erodes the ability to see beauty and highlights the negative, cyncical and pessimistic.  In contrast over a short period of time by simply choosing to look for beauty it has revealed so much to me about the never ending beauty in the world and in turn has made the negative and ugly bits fade into the background.

How I describe the world

My language is evolving as I try and articulate the beauty that I see. Wittgenstein famously said: ‘the limits of our language is the limits of our world.’ The idea he was attempting to convey is that our world is only as large as our language and our ability to describe it in language. If we do not have the words to describe something then our understanding and comprehension of it is limited. As we refine and increase our vocabulary our ability to articulate the world in finer nuances it increases our understanding of the world is.

To demonstrate this, if we only had the three words:  red, blue and yellow, then our ability to comprehend colour and to describe the world would be limited as we could only use those words to describe the world. However as we increased the boundaries of our lexicon and as we learn that blue has many words that describe its various shades and tones, and give them names such as Azure, Ultramarine, Sapphire, Cobolt, Royal blue, and Navy Blue, our ability to understand and describe the world is increased. This principle is true for all of our world not just for colours. As we refine our emotional language, we are able to experience a greater array of emotion and feeling, as we gain new ways to describe and understand them.

As I have been looking for beautiful things this year it has brought home to me just how impoverished my language of beauty is. It is easy to simply say that something looks good, nice, or beautiful, yet, in doing so we reduce our ability to understand it. There are far more ways to describe what makes something aesthetically pleasing or enjoyable then simply calling it beautiful. The English language has such a rich and evocative range of words to describe beauty, with words such as elegant, resplendent, exquisite, splendid, delightful, pulchritudinous, ineffable and many other scrumptious words that we could use. With so many words it is almost tragic that we repeat the same few words to describe such a vast array of things in the world.

How I exist in the world

Looking for beauty has meant that I take things for granted less and caused me to stop and slow down. The poem Leasure says ‘what poor life this, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare’ and this is certainly true. It is a tragedy if we get so caught up in being busy, and the hustle and bustle of life that we don’t take the time to stop and stare, and see the beauty that lies around us but gets missed as we rush past it. As this beautiful time-delay film shows, if we just stop in the same place for a while it can reveal incredible sweeping panoramas.

As the Lord said to Joseph Smith regarding Zion’s Camp, and Moses at the Red Sea, ‘Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD.’ To see beauty sometimes involves standing still so that beauty can be revealed.

It is not enough to stop occasionally, I have realised that to see beauty also involves slowing down. You can’t see, let alone appreciate beauty if you are running through life at warp speed. The artist John Ruskin lamented this when he spoke of the evils of modern travel (which for him was traveling by train) when he said “Modern travelling is not travelling at all; it is merely being sent to a place, and very little different from becoming a parcel.” Ruskin saw travelling at speed as disastrous, as it meant one missed out on seeing the world as you slowly travelled by horse, or often just by walking. As he further said:

“No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace.”

Looking for beauty has made me slow down, and take the time to look for and see the really precious things in the world that get eclipsed as we speed from place to place. It has made me stop for a moment and just take in where I am and let the world reveal its beauty as I stand still.

How I understand beauty

When I started this projected I had a prefabricated notion of what I considered beautiful. I knew the poetry that I liked, the art that I liked and the music I was drawn to. However, as I have been looking for beauty more, I am learning to see beauty in everything and that beauty is not a uniform product. There are many, many, forms of beauty not one universal standard beauty. As a society we condition ourselves into forming ideas of what is considered socially attractive and aesthetically pleasing and sometimes we shun that which does not conform to our standards of beauty. Duchamp challenged the socially accepted notions of art when he submitted his infamous piece ‘Fountain’ in an arts competition. Duchamp wanted to show that art can be found in everything, and likewise beauty can be found in that which is often neglected. We should not always conform to social dictated norms as Charles Bukowski laments this lack of acceptance by society of different forms of beauty in his poem The Man with the Beautiful eyes which has been wonderfully depicted in the following animation.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9WI9Zn0lRs

When we start looking for beauty in everything it deconstructs the socially constructed concept of beauty and reveals a polymorphous diversity of beauties all around us. In the film American Beauty one of the most powerful and memorable scenes is the scene in which Ricky Fitts shows a video of what he considers the most beautiful thing he’s captured on film. The video is a plastic bag dancing in the wind. How could a plastic bag be beautiful?

As I watched the bag dance in the breeze it revealed a majesty to the bag as it floats, that so often I have overlooked, and it was in some way beautiful (not least because of Thomas Newman’s wonderful music that accompanied it).

Why am I telling you about this?

There are two reasons. First, the world is full of wonder and beauty, but so much of it gets overlooked and neglected, and I hope that my experience will inspire you to try and see more beauty in the world. Looking for beauty and following the advice of Goethe has opened up incredible vistas and enchanting perspectives on the world for me and it has been for me a poignant reminder that beauty is all around us, and so often it lies unappreciated.

Second, the real reason is that I want to know what you find beautiful. We can all be enriched by what others see as being beautiful. It helps us to become united in kindred feeling as we appreciate the same piece of art, and try to see it how others see it. Further, as we look for beauty the world becomes a more positive place, as we seek out the good in the world. Beauty is found in inspiring books, poems, and can be found even in the everyday parts of our world. It can be easy to be cynical about the church, and focus on the negative, but as I have looked for beauty the negatives get eclipsed by the perception of beauty.

After Ricky Fitts, in American Beauty, described his encounter with the plastic bag he concludes that:

‘there is so much beauty in the world… I feel like… I can’t take it… and my heart is just going to cave in.’

I am only just at the start of my voyage to capture and understand beauty, but already I can feel that at the end of the year my heart is going to feel like it’s going to cave in. There really is so much beauty in the world.

Thoughts

  • What is beautiful to you?
  • How can we see more beauty in the world?
  • What helps you to see beauty in the world?
  • What are some things that you find beautiful?

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6 Responses to Learning to See Beauty

  1. Howard on February 16, 2012 at 6:41 AM

    Jake,
    Thank you for this is a wonderful post! I began this journey a few years ago and it is so worth while. I taught myself to hear beauty in music and I became an audiophile it brings daily peace meditation and beauty into my life. I began to visualize beauty through photography and to look for it in common places by cropping until you find it. I’m single I recently met a woman who celebrates life and she is teaching me to do the same. Beauty, ambiance, art, healthy gourmet food, manners and class surround her and she carries these traits and concepts with her as she tutors and mentors intercity girls and young women teaching them to do the same.

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  2. Jake on February 16, 2012 at 7:27 AM

    Howard,

    Thats an interesting way of looking for beauty, to take a photo and then crop it until you discover the beauty in it. I like that idea. It is certainly true that by filtering out the clutter in a photo it allows you to focus on that one element that displays beauty, and applicable to most things, de-cluttering as a means to see beauty. A overgrown garden when weeded and trimmed gains a new attractiveness.

    I also think photography is a great way of learning to see beauty. Looking at the world through a photographic lens almost forces you to look at the world differently.

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  3. Childe Jake on February 16, 2012 at 10:53 AM

    Nice post, Jake. This is by no means an incredible example. But sometimes I will intentionally drive with the radio off (and of course with the cell phone off as well). It’s partially to try and recommit to defensive driving habits. However, I also find myself growing more aware of everything around me. Not getting enveloped in the hustle and bustle is a struggle. But like you indicate, it has great rewards.

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  4. Stephen M (Ethesis) on February 16, 2012 at 12:30 PM

    Joseph Smith stressed that gratitude and joy were the essential entry mindset to prayer. I think more writing like this would make for better prayers.

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  5. FireTag on February 18, 2012 at 3:05 PM

    I see beauty most easily in mathematics and physics. This post reminds me I need to take time to read more of those topics, probably with some good CDs playing in the background.

    I remember once being intrigued to try painting because of a series of instruction I saw on public television. It took me a year — and multiple layers of acrylic paint (I could never work with oils!) to complete a painting of a landscape I’d imagined from a composite of several locations. And I’ve never been able to do anything remotely competent with painting again. But during the time I was painting, my brain actually saw the world as 2-D pixels, appreciating the colors of light and shadows in ways I’d never consciously noted before.

    You’re right. Looking for more beauty does change you.

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  6. Rachel on March 5, 2012 at 6:32 PM

    This was inspiring to read, and as one who has personally benefited from your project thus far, I thank you.

    I see beauty in walking/taking a train to school, rather than driving on Los Angeles’ busy freeways. I see beauty in Kierkegaard. I see beauty in looking more closely at gender from an LDS frame point. I see beauty in sharing food with friends that was made with love. I hear beauty in quiet music. And I am trying to hear beauty in silence and calm thoughts.

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