Public and Private Beauty

Graceful SimplicityThere is a distinct abuse of bulleted lists in Segal’s book. Nonetheless, many of the concepts buried in these bullets deserve close attention and comparison with other variations on the general ideas.  The “graceful” aspect of Segal’s formulation of graceful simplicity is steeped in aesthetic values which converge and diverge with earlier deployments of the concept.

It amazes me just how frequently these basic concepts can be traced directly to William Morris, Ruskin, and the intrusions of industrial capitalism. William Morris lamented the shoddy products of his time and the lack of aesthetic beauty in the lives of the many.

Segal implicitly agrees with Morris, though he never cites him. There are however many   divergences on a path to a quite socialist conception of the problems. Segal places the lack of the beauty into the public sphere, rather than the private though he does bulletize the household first:

  • Beauty must not be thought of as residing solely or even primarily within things. There is a beauty that is the architecture of time; it requires slowing down and doing things right, and it may call for less income and more time, rather than the reverse.
  • A life of graceful simplicity does not require that our homes be museums; it does not require that every artifact of daily use be striking. At the same time, from the point of view of gracefulness, a life that is aesthetically impoverished is abhorrent.
  • One dimension of graceful living is the awakening of aesthetic appreciation, and with that will come a selectivity that often, without any additional cost, results in attainment of things of beauty. Anyone who has wandered through flea markets and garage sales and thrift shops knows that there are great things to be found—beautiful objects, not noticed or not valued by others.
  • Things of beauty exercise a special power—they radiate within their spaceand as they draw us into their orbit they close our consciousness to that which is outside. Thus, it is not necessary that all our possessions be beautiful, only that some things are. (68)

The first point, about an “architecture of time” seems more unique, or at least reactive to the “slow” movements that were emerging around the time that he composed his book. The second, third, and fourth points are eerily similar to Yanagi Sōetsu’s concepts of mingei and the intimate nature of craft beauty, which probably had Morris as their original source. Ultimately, it seems as these concepts flow through many mouthpieces who differ largely only in emphasis rather than substance. Where Segal really breaks ground, in my opinion, is in next few bullets

  • One of the inexpensive sources of beauty is in our own creative ability. In part, this is a matter of tapping into our own latent abilities to take a beautiful photograph, to sculpt, to draw, or to play an instrument. These to some extent involve mastery of technique. But within the household, we are constantly engaged with the issue of design and arrangementwhether it be the utensils, the tools, the furniture, the towelswhat we find in every space is that beauty resides not just in the objects, but in how they are arranged with one another. Perhaps this is better understood by thinking about marketplaces. If one has traveled in the Third World countries and gone into marketplaces, sometimes one is stopped short by an exceedingly beautiful display, formed with fifty loves of bread or with a few dozen shirts. (68-9)

I’ve got some serious issues with this section. First, it seems really horrible to suggest that photography, playing music, sculpting, etc., are somehow latent in people and only need to be summoned by practice and technique. Photography, for example, is largely (in my opinion) a matter of disabusing oneself of the notion that you actually know anything about it simply because you’ve seen a lot of it. It’s not latent, in fact, it is perhaps the most opposite of a latent skill I can possibly think of.

Photography is a recording technology that you might think you understand by simply being exposed to it: it only takes a few stabs at imitation before you figure out that maybe you don’t know so much about it after all. It’s hard, at least if you’re doing it right. Skill isn’t an internal matter of getting in touch with yourself and your hidden talents; it’s about understanding a variety of technologies from the pencil to the chisel, including perhaps also the piano and the camera. Practice and education are far more constituent of “talent” than any innate quality, at least in my opinion. In design and arrangement however, things might well be different.

 

I remember stopping at Buc-ee’s in Lulling, Texas a while ago and being struck by this wall of products. It struck me then that it didn’t represent real choice, but rather the illusion of choice. Though there are a multitude of flavors listed, they’re pretty much the same product (salt, sugar, soy, etc.) with just a touch of different in the chemical/spice treatments added. As I’ve learned to do more with basic food products like rice (which comes in a myriad of varieties with completely different properties) it occurs to me that the knowledge of how to transform raw materials into meals presents a more impressive array of choices than the wall of flavor powders. But I digress: the display was beautiful in a bizarre way.

Though I find the reference to the beauty of Third World markets a bit condescending and imperialist (ah, those simple peasants and their displays), Segal is onto something with the beauty of arrangement. Of all that he’s mentioned, arrangement is as close to a “latent” talent that most people can be said to have. While it can be developed through education and practice, we all “know what looks right” if we give ourselves half a chance. The fact that he chooses an economic locus (the market) as an example of commonplace beauty is a bit like a Freudian slip; lusting after products in a shop window is a beautiful thing.

I recall my mother, being a woman used to living on very little, would just revel in moving her furniture around from time to time to “improve” her surroundings. Furniture arrangement was probably the only “artistic” pursuit she ever attempted. Crafts, like needlepoint or knitting, though popular with most of her sisters, always reminded my mother how much better they were at it. She didn’t find it relaxing in the slightest. But furniture arrangement, well, that was just her way of getting in touch with beauty. So, I think Segal’s point is a good one even if it is clumsy in its expression.

But the real breakthrough, I think, is in the final bullet of his list:

  • The beauty in our private spaces, inside our homes, is accessible only to us and our friends. But perhaps of more significance is the aesthetic quality of public space, be it the architecture of houses, yards, gardens; the pavement of the streets; the shops; the trees; the skyline; or access to the sunset. In economist’s terms, these are public goods, in the sense that the enjoyment of them by one person does not diminish their availability to others. They are not, in the ordinary sense, consumed.

It is this point that really merits discussion at greater length. It’s not really something that can be addressed by individual action. It’s a question of social beauty, not of individual or consumer beauty. I hadn’t really thought of beauty as a social concept before.

I must admit that I felt “happier” living in the Twin Cities*, though I was of lower economic means then.  With the highest per capita arts spending of any major metro area and a park system pretty much second to none, Upstate New York suffers by comparison. Natural beauty is widely available here, and wonderful— but the lack of civic beauty is hurtful to the spirit. I live in a beautiful enclave, accessible only to those with means. And my heart sinks when I step outside of it.

*There is a rebuttal to the linked article, but I stand by my opinion– it’s the best place I have ever lived.

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