Beauty is Useless
Now before you close this page and question if I’ve gone off the deep end, allow me to explain — this is a blog after all. Oscar Wilde famously stated, “All art is quite useless.” I think he would agree with my previous statement that I have derived from his words. The heart of his quote is to say that art, like beauty, is meant to create something within us, not to be used for gain. Another image Wilde uses is that of a flower:
“A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse.”
But in a world obsessed with functionality and use, who has time for beauty anymore? There’s no doubt that our society prides functionality above most things. Just take a quick survey of the buildings, foods, and music around you and it is easy to see that an appreciation of beauty is fading. Now, it’s hard to talk about this topic without giving everyone an image of two elderly people sitting on their front porch saying, “Can you believe kids these days and their music/low pants/iPods? What garbage!” But it’s absolutely true that we have decided, as a society, that beauty is not the most important part of our lives – because it’s useless. But that’s the point!
By its nature, art is a participation in the divine. John Paul II recognized this in his 1999 letter to artists. He mentions that those who are called to act as artists have a special opportunity to understand the creative God. Whether it be through music, photography, theater, food, architecture, dance, or writing, each artist participates in the creative act of bringing beauty into the world. What is the purpose of this beauty? To bring joy, to draw us closer to God, and to incite feeling. None of these things have real “use” or “functionality” which is why instead of art drawing us closer to God we see exactly the opposite happening around us every day. When we try to force beauty into something useful we negate it and turn it into something else entirely. Music, which used to take true production and knowledge, has become rapidly produced with little skill. Photography, which required timing and meticulous tweaking, has become pornography. The once desired and appreciated theater has been slowly dwindling away. Food, which once gathered people together to share in the labors and care of creation is mass produced and eaten in your car. Buildings are square and ugly opposed to the beautiful ornate styles which once decorated cities. Dance has been over-sexualized and made a completely mindless activity. We’ve lost the art of storytelling because nobody has to remember anything anymore when information can be immediately pulled up on a phone. When we try to use beauty for our own gain we take God out of the picture. We attempt to become the masters of what is beautiful and we try to make it in our own image rather than pointing it towards Heaven. Our role is to reflect and appreciate beauty, but instead we try to hold it hostage for our own gain.
A few years ago I was taking a road trip across the country with some friends. Nearing the end of a full day’s drive, we were cruising down the wide open roads of Kansas. As the sun was setting in the cloudy sky, I saw what I have deemed in my life the most beautiful sunset of all time. The clouds covered most of the sky, but the sunset was breaking through in purple, orange, and red beams over the endless fields. While driving I looked down to my phone sitting on the dash and my co-pilot asked, “Do you want your phone to take a picture?” It was one of those moments of intense decision that I didn’t expect. Of course I wanted to remember this! Of Course I wanted to be able to look at it whenever I wanted! Of course I wanted to be able to control this situation… wait. In those 5 seconds that felt like an entire presidential debate happening within my heart, I rejected the temptation to whip out my phone and record that moment. I just knew it would end up sitting amongst other photos in my phone lost and tucked away, and I couldn’t do that to such a beautiful image. We all vowed in that moment that none of us would take a picture of it, but we would take it in as much as we could. I’m not saying taking pictures of things you find enjoyable is always a bad thing. But sometimes I truly think it’s better to show true appreciation for God in the moment and allow him to be the only thing you focus on. All beauty reflects God. Within all of us there is an innate attraction to beauty because, as stated in the Catechism, “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. “ While trying to decide to grab my phone or not, I couldn’t describe why it was even a question, but looking back, I know it’s because God was drawing me closer to him in that sunset, through that moment of beauty.
God is beautiful whether we see him or not. Just like the flower, God blossoms for his own pure joy. We are invited into that joy when we allow ourselves to be open to true beauty. “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” (One of my favorite lines from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.) We have a duty to participate in the seeking out of beauty in the world, whether it be by creating something or finding it somewhere or in someone. As it was stated in another blog by Jenna, we have a duty of seeking out the beauty of God in other people as well. Just like a work of art, Ephesians says that we are a masterpiece created by God himself. When we seek out the beauty in other people it’s like two works of art interacting with each other, because we are called to reflect beauty to others and find those reflections in others. If I were to offer one word of advice to sum all of this up, it would be: Never miss an opportunity to seek, find, or bring beauty into the world and truly allow yourself to be immersed in its incredible presence. Because the only way to combat this culture of usage is to seek beauty for what it was meant to be. Beauty is completely useless, but extremely valuable. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)
Lord, thank you for the beauty you have placed in my life: The wonderful foods that I’ve tasted, the beautiful art and music that draws me to you, your creation and all of its natural beauty, the rich personalities that bring joy. And for the people, every last beautiful one of them. I pray that the world learn the worth of humans and the life each is given. And thank you for using me as an instrument to bring beauty to others. Help me to use my gifts well to be the instrument of beauty to those around me. Mary, most beautiful of created things, help me on this path. Help me to show your son’s glory. I entrust myself to you like never before. May ALL that I do be that which brings beauty, joy, and Christ’s love to others. And give me the humility to always point those I affect back to God.
Made to reflect Beauty.