Seeking Beauty's Place in our Time

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by James Hubbell

My world is the world of objects, of inner musing made real, a world of things not necessarily coming from ideas. Yet, there are thoughts and ideas that have been extremely important to me through the years. One is Beauty. This word, at least in the art world, has been out of favor for a good part of this century. I would like to see its reintroduction into the modern world with the understanding that Beauty, like love, has the power to change things. It can also help us make decisions and unite the disparate elements in our lives.

Why has our time turned away from Beauty? Why have we been party to the catastrophic destruction of culture and nature in this century? In our rush to idealize what we thought was the scientific, rational approach—our wish to harness nature—we turned away from those concepts not easily explained in scientific terms, such as spirit, love and beauty. Albert Einstein has characterized our age as being one of "perfection of means, confusion of aims."
    In my late teens, I was doing two kinds of paintings. One kind was by most standards, grotesque—people contorted, things out of shape. I realized that these works did not give me pleasure to do, so I decided not to do them anymore. I made up my mind, I am not sure why, to follow Beauty. I also decided not to try and define Beauty. I find now that I will often do a work, and in my mind say that it is not beautiful, yet a year or so later realize that it is. I learn from making the art object and my work tells me new things about beauty.


What I call Beauty is far from what we call pretty. A plastic rose no matter how well fashioned can never be beautiful; it can only grow dusty. It is the full cycle of life of a real rose that gives it its beauty. Knowing that it wilts and dies is the essence of its wonder. Mozart's music is beautiful because there is within the wonderful melody both the pathos and the joy of being human.


Beauty must contain within it not just the sunshine but the shadows. And an art that contains only the darkness leads only downward. It is in that precarious balance at the edge of heaven and hell that the power of Beauty lies.
Beauty can be a guide in helping us put together a complex world and be a tool to help us make changes for the better. Our particular time in history is marked by indecision and misdirected efforts, not only in the technical fields but also in such diverse worlds as politics, architecture, philosophy, and culture. We are unsure about life, why we are here, or even how to make a decision about what we value most. We begin to sense that even those paths laid out by science and technology may not take us where we wish to be. Beauty can be the arbiter of paths.
It may not be the "way" but it can help us in choosing the "how." At the present time, we have a great many tools and technical know-how to make a new world: everything from stainless steel hip bones to sustainable houses and cities. But how do we relate these things to life and each other so that they truly serve life? It is here that a sense of Beauty and balance can help us give form and meaning to what otherwise would be scattered possibilities. Einstein says, "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. it is the emotion which stands at the cradle of the True Art and True Science."

There is a connection of beauty, both inner and outer, to love. Both can open up within us feelings that seem to be outside of fear. Putting aside fear even for a moment begins to change things. Somehow beauty and love awaken that part in us that allows us to be ourselves. I have come to call this, "to give light." It can come through an individual or a work of art. It is very much one human reaching to another and allowing for the wholeness of the other.
I believe we underrate even our traditional concept of beauty. Why is nature so prolific in endowing its creations with magic of form, color, and diversity? Is it merely for competition and procreation? Or does the beauty of the flower or an Indian maiden dressed in her beaded buckskin change the rules of the game? Is beauty perhaps the physical manifestation of love? Does Beauty open the door and allow Love in?
Some years ago, we built a small house for some friends. It is used for counseling. It was designed specifically for inner healing. A great deal of effort was put into how it would be experienced...the entering of it was by a falling sculptural space with a surprising light within. All because we believe that space and light can transform our understanding of who we are and what life is about.

It is my hope that we are rediscovering Beauty. Not the "pretty" of the 19th century or the ugliness of this century, but a robust kind of Beauty that accepts the intertwining of chaos and order, and of darkness and that guides and transforms life because it sees life as a whole. Can we learn to put a sense of Beauty to work for us?


James Hubbell is an internationally recognized artist and architect. Visit his web site to view examples of his artistic vision and his public projects designed to feed the soul.

Article reprinted by permission of Vision Magazine, a San Diego, California-based monthly. For more information, call 619/294-2393 or log on at


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