Saturday, March 29, 2014


Last night, our friends hosted an evening discussion about the topic of beauty and aesthetics.  Each person of the six couples was invited to watch some TED videos and to consider a list of questions on the topic.  Our homework was to bring something beautiful, an item for show-and-tell.

Several of us expressed the difficulty of deciding what represented beauty or struck us aesthetically.  At first, I found myself not knowing at all what I owned that I considered truly beautiful.  After a couple days thinking about what to share, the ideas started flowing and I ended up needing to narrow my selections three.  In my attempt to truncate my show-and-tell time, I looked deeper at the reasons that I was drawn to each item and discovered there were layers of meaning for each.  I liked each object for its own accord, but the meaning behind each item made them more beautiful to me.  Because there was interesting meaning behind each, and because they all differed in their beauty to me, I just shared all three.

Before I share them here, I will say that I was surprised by some of the items that my peers chose.  Most of the items I could also agree were beautiful, such as my friend's yellow African flowers.  A few people chose drawings made by their children, or other items that held sentimental value.  I can see why those items were chosen; but I found that sentimentality wasn't enough to raise an object to "beautiful" in my choices.  Others chose charming items that represented care and hard work on the part of the creator, such as needlepoint work on pillowcases.  In contrast, the items I chose represented skilled work from the creator, but unless the object itself rose above charming to fulfill a sense of the beautiful to my taste, I couldn't select it.  One of my friends brought a picture of hands and said she has always found hands to be beautiful and interesting as they often represent the owner's life.  I never would have considered a body part as one of my items.  I certainly think the human body is an amazing creation, but for me, no one part stands out as an indication of beauty across our species.

So what did I choose?

The first item I shared via email before our meeting, so I'll link it here too: 33 Unbelievable Places to Visit Before You Die.  This is a collection of photographs from some truly stunning places on this planet.  My sister, Christy, happened to share it on Facebook a day or two before our discussion group, and when one of the photos elicited an unbidden and whispered, "That's so beautiful!" as I scrolled through, I knew I had to share.

Reflective salt flat in Bolivia

Here is the one that surprised me with its beauty:

Colorful highlighting in the Reed Flute Caves, China

And one two more, for good measure.  (See?!!  Once I find beauty, I can't not share it!  You really should follow the link to see them all.)

Phytoplankton outdoing the starry sky on Vaadhoo Island, Maldives

Aerial view of rice fields on Ailao Mountain, China.  Christy and I are encouraging our youngest sister, Jenny, to craft a stained glass piece of this photograph.
I don't like these photographs just because of their composition or subject matter.  Their beauty lies in the unedited snapshot of places that really exist.  They represent the glory of our Creator in the work that He did to form this world for us, His children whom He loves so dearly.  I love that man's influence, though often touted as deleterious, can also make things more beautiful, as with the rice fields.  In LDS teaching, we learn that Adam, who was known as Michael in his premortal life, helped to create the earth.  Scripture teaches that when the creative work was finished, God recognized the good in His works and was pleased to give it to His children.  To me, these photos represent the glorious beauty of the earth and Heavenly Father's love for all of us.

One of the items I shared at the discussion group drew looks of surprise from my friends and a chuckle from Kent, who said, "This is so Mary."  I pulled out a folder holding a copy of the 2012 tax filing for A Child's Hope Foundation.  I'll admit that this item doesn't hold a lot aesthetically on its own, but I do find organization quite pleasing to look at, and this cleanly presented stack of papers does that for me.  More importantly, I explained that I've always been attracted to numbers.  In receiving my finance degree, I came to appreciate how numerical digits represent living organizations.  Numbers organized into financial statements and tax filings tell the story of an organization's work.  I spend hours every year ensuring that donations, expenses, payroll hours, etc. are recorded accurately and reflect what we did as a group to change people's lives for the better.  I am proud of that work and the processes I've created to connect with co-workers and volunteers to sustain my area of the foundation's work.  I love that all the work of a year can be summarized by numbers organized on lines on a tax report.  Beautiful!

The other item I brought to share was #4's violin.

The instrument itself is a thing of delicate beauty, a demonstration of form fulfilling function. It's craftsmanship is lovely, from the scroll to the bow.  I love its lines and curve, its rich wood color, and the way light gleams off its smooth surface.

As I said, though, the items I chose are beautiful for several reasons.  Certainly, I love the sweet notes that a violin can make, whether it's being used as a fiddle or a classical instrument.  Beyond that, I've always loved classical music because it reaches into my soul and speaks images to my mind even in the absence of lyrics.  Additionally, I love how good music can bring people together.  I invited my fellow discussants to watch this six-min. video, which communicates better than my writing the beauty that I experience through classical instruments.  (You may want to grab a tissue before watching the video.  My tears are always brimming by the end of the first minute, and they are streaming by the third.)  Watch the expressions of the onlookers as well as the musicians.

It's not just the effect of the flash mob that I love.  I love this Ode to Joy from Beethoven.  This piece has become a piece of world history as it has been played at most Olympic game closing ceremonies, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and as the European Union's anthem.  Even Everybody Loves Raymond and The Beatles have used its theme.  There is something about this piece, composed by Ludwig when he was almost completely deaf, that unites people around the world in a very beautiful way.

At our discussion, I was surprised at other reactions to our assignment.  One friend didn't bring an object, but shared a moment on a hike that reached him deeply.  Three others chose music.  The first shared a sampling, the second brought unopened records, and the third, Kent, didn't even share his because he thought no one else would connect with Flamenco the way he does.  I found it very interesting how people shared--or didn't share--their music, and I wondered if it was so personal to them that they feared being rebuffed for their tastes.  I don't know Kent's favorite Flamenco, but here is a sampling of the music and dance he finds beautiful:

I enjoyed our discussion of beauty as we weaved through everyone's show-and-tell.  I had written notes about my thoughts leading up to the discussion.  Somehow, in three hours' time, we never got around to talking about the TED videos or all my thoughts, so I'll share them here.
Richard Seymour, “How Beauty Feels” 
Dennis Dutton, “A Darwinian Theory of Beauty” 
Another source I looked to was Dr. Sebiha Al Khemir, who was the project director for the "Beauty and Belief" exhibit of Islamic pieces that came to BYU a while ago.  I agree with her statement that "Humanity needs to learn about each other, and crossing bridges with art is a very easy way to cross."  Another friend in the group showed one of her favorite paintings, which I happen to like, too.
Brian Kershisnik's "She Will Find What is Lost"
As Dr. Khemir suggests, I feel like I know my friend a little better knowing that she finds this piece beautiful.  We connect through aesthetics because beauty is a way of seeing and a way of being.
I realized through this assignment that not always, but often, I find beauty in the unexpected.  Something that may have once taken my breath away can become customary, as with these rock formations just outside of Utah:
Antelope Canyon, Arizona, USA
Because I live in the West, I've seen photographs from Antelope Canyon many times.  I do always agree that these are beautiful, but they are no longer stunningly so because I have become somewhat accustomed to them.  There has to be an element of surprise for something to take my breath away with its beauty.

The very basic question posed by our hosts was "What is beauty?"  In pondering this, I wrote a list of words that defined beauty for me: glory, order, meaning, light, and truth.  Beauty serves to lift our spirits, give us a taste of the divine, and communicate God's love for us and our love for each other.  When beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it helps similar beholders connect on a spiritual level.

Another quote from Dr. Khemir: "The shaping of beauty, the making of beauty, is directly connected to the divine, is directly connected to faith... Belief played a very important role in the shaping of beauty."  I was satisfied that our Friday-night discussion came to God a few times and to the way we feel His love through beauty.  My mind was drawn repeatedly to my experiences in LDS temples, and I found myself thinking of the Manti Temple.  Though all temples teach through the same symbols and ordinances, I am drawn to loving the Manti Temple because of it's sweet, humble people.  Beauty reaches beyond our physical senses to our sensibilities.  

As I discovered through the process of defining for myself the different layers of a beautiful object, beauty invites us to look closely and unravel what is there.  Sight leads to insight.  In the words of the Talmud: "We see things not as they are, but as we are."
What is it that you find beautiful?  Must beauty hold layers for you?  What does it have to represent: skill, love, light?  What words define beauty for you?
I'll leave you with this thought-provoking poem that our hosts shared: "One More Day" by Czeslaw Milosz.
And though the good is weak, beauty is very strong.
[Evil] sprawls, everywhere it turns into ash whole expanses of being,
It masquerades in shapes and colors that imitate existence 
And no one would know it, if they did not know that it was ugly. 
And when people cease to believe there is good and evil 
Only beauty will call them and save them 
So that they still know how to say: this is true and that is false.


VickieG said...

Love, love, love this blog. My favorite pix is the first one. I was a little miffed that the artist color enhanced the swirly canyon picture; it is beautiful all by itself. This is exactly what I would have brought to a discussion group. Over the years I have saved nature (landscape) type calendar pictures and then used them in Sharing Time when we talk about the beautiful creations our Heavenly Father made. I have seen many spectacular buildings but nothing has ever matched what our creator has made. Thanks for sharing.

Jenni said...

Great points. Made me think about what I truly call beautiful. Not sure I've figured out how I define it yet. And that flash mob brought tears to my eyes. Especially to see the emotions it brought the crowd. Thanks for sharing!