“Beauty will save the world,” declared Prince Myshkin more than 150 years ago. And they called him an idiot! *
Is it really so?
Beauty – is that the answer to all the barbarities that surround us? These days beauty, the one that takes our breath away, seems to have been swept away and in great danger of oblivion. The lack of beauty in political discourses, in media programs, on the streets, in the latest fashion and in children’s toys – why is it so?
Intellectual poverty, forgotten history, the loss of common sense, reductionism, excessive consumption and competition, seem to be our daily bread. Every day requires of a new effort to find the delicate amidst words and attitudes.
Vile behaviour and violence that assail us from the time we get up in the morning, from the plight of the Rohingyas to mass shootings to plastic in the entrails of deep sea creatures; all reduced to cold and ugly statistics, and yet with the uncanny ability to create fear and hate, despite ourselves. I find no beauty here.
What is beauty?
Beauty is commonly defined as “something” that conforms to the ideal version of aesthetics. Well maybe for the ones too busy to imagine, but for me, beauty is more subtle than this rather arid definition.
Beauty is a feeling that goes beyond objects. It is a gentle smile and the clouds moving along the sky. It is a tender kiss on a cheek wet from tears. It is a silent gesture of compassion amidst the harshest environment. It is the giving of love without asking for anything in return.
And above all else, beauty means respect and dignity. Without these two, there is no beauty no matter what the object may be.
And here I am referring to what prompted me to write these words in the first place: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvador Mundi,” just sold in auction for an indecent 450 million US Dollars.
Do you think it beautiful?
How can a painting be sold at this price for the pure pleasure of one viewer, when the essence of beauty is precisely the fact that it is shared? (I still have hope that it shall be donated to a museum…)
How respectful is it to pay such a sum of money when 705 million people live in extreme poverty (meaning that their household income is less than 1.90 US Dollars a day), and when an unbelievable 65.6 million people are refugees?
You tell me now if the painting still looks beautiful.
And I will not even delve into the fact that it represents Christ as “Salvador Mundi” (the world’s saviour). Ha! How ironic when I started this text by quoting Myshkin! Rather representative of the absurdity of our times, don’t you think?
Taking care of the hurt
So, to restore some sense and dignity to it all, I will turn to François Cheng, a sage of our times, who wisely wrote:
“In these times of permanent misery, of blind violence, of natural or ecological catastrophes, to talk about beauty could seem incongruous, inconvenient and even provocateur. Almost a scandal. […] Beauty includes the taking care of the hurt of the world, the extreme demand of dignity, of compassion, of a sense of justice, as well as the total opening to universal resonance.” **
So, Prince Myshkin may have been right after all. He may have lost his “common sense” according to his friends, but in my view he did not. Prince Myshkin was smart enough to recognize in beauty the inspiration and the very essence of our intrinsically beautiful, yes, beautiful nature.
Maybe I like to think of myself as a humble version of Prince Myshkin … with, I should insist, absolutely no qualms in being called an idiot. Maybe we should all be, so that we may answer to hate, fear and violence with compassion, and maybe just maybe … save the world one beautiful gesture at a time.
Thank you for reading.
* From “The Idiot” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, published in 1864.
** From “Cinq méditations sur la beauté” by François Cheng, published in 2006 – my translation.
Japanese print: “Fukaku Shino Koi” by Kitagawa Utamaro, dated 1793-94 – via The Japan Times.
Oil painting: “Salvador Mundi” attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) – via Christie’s.