Stillness of air and clarity of light: the house is almost empty, save for yourself. The only sound beyond your own body’s internal metronome is the teapot ticking quietly as it heats on the stove. There's a moment just before it whistles when the faint rumble of trembling water hints at what's about to come. At the spout a wisp of vapor rises, a sinewy tendril of an impermanent vine, reaching into space. In that fleeting moment before the full chaos of the boil, before complete transformation distracts you from the quiet expanse of a moment ago and the shrieking charge about to erupt, something beautiful peeks out, like a glint of something indistinct catching your eye on the horizon. That wisp of vapor rises into void, curling in turns beyond the scope of mathematics, expressive beyond the reach of any photographer’s model. It rises and twists and in the stillness before the noise it connects us to stories of deep time, pain, romance, memory, and implication. When the whistle sounds, you feel your own heart beat. You look again and that rising wisp is gone, replaced by thick gouts of steam puffing out the spout.
Beauty is the thing least easy to describe. It's a trait often found during moments of transformation, full of implication and promise. Beauty resides in the levitating silence filling camera crew headsets five seconds before a live broadcast begins. It's the perfectly timed bare-handed pickup of a baseball between second and third base. It's a successful parallel parking maneuver on the first try.
Beauty shares traits with that other intangible, coquettish muse called truth. They are siblings in the creation of art, equally elusive and hard to describe, both of them radiant and profoundly desirable. But where truth reflects reality, beauty allows for abstractions slightly outside space and time. Beauty facilitates artistic creation without bias toward any particular discipline. Artists naturally gravitate towards it, but not all beautiful things are sensually appealing. Beauty describes precisely perceived moments of insight, but only if those perceptions impart influence. Without influence, beauty cannot exist. That’s why an idea can be beautiful, even without physical mass. Ideas, perhaps more than anything else, can move whole civilizations.
A friend of mine was recently building an outdoor oven behind his rural home. Little by little, brick by brick his imagined al fresco kitchen started to take shape. An artistic, passionate fellow, the project had grown beyond its initial conception to vastly more ambitious proportions. But he’s also a disciplined guy and the project never risked turning into an incomplete pile of rubble. One day as he was showing me around the construction site, I asked how he had managed to make the concrete mesa upon which the actual dome-shaped baking chamber rested. The mesa had to be hundreds of pounds, built on brick walls that housed a storage area underneath. He explained how he and a friend had worked out a frame for the architecture using plywood walls that were essentially unattached to the rest of the structure. When the concrete had set to the proper shape, they simply knocked the plywood guides away, leaving a hardened concrete frame behind. “I’d never done this before,” he said. Pointing to his friend standing with us, “He showed me how it works and wouldn’t you know it, but it worked just like it was supposed to! It’s beautiful, it’s it?”
Yes. It is.
Pleasure does not equal beauty, but beauty is almost always pleasurable. Perhaps the proper way to consider beauty has to do with regarding something as satisfying. It has merit and mass; it has meaning and value.
Creative work does not need to be beautiful to be meaningful and valuable, at least not in a traditional sense. For most people (myself included) the photographs of Diane Arbus would immediately qualify as the opposite of beautiful. But there in the challenge that Arbus’s work represents we still find our muse serene and confident and unruffled by those disturbing images. If those photographs had not been made with exacting standards, without acute emotional insight and precise technical intention, they would not have the power for which they’re famous. They disturb us because they reflect something honest and real in ourselves, even as we wish we could avert our eyes. But beauty is the essence that draws us closer, that makes us wonder, that makes us feel. We look because they communicate something that makes sense.
Beyond being simply descriptive, beauty is honest. While it’s certainly possible to create deep, essential work that does not appeal to the senses, such expressions inevitably make us aware of what isn’t present in the work. For something to endure that isn’t beautiful, we cannot help but be aware of beauty's absence, thus amplifying its value. To live surrounded by beauty is to risk diluting its power, just as creature comforts are often least appreciated by those surrounded in luxury. But in a world with seemingly endless challenges to body and soul, the pursuit of beauty in all its many forms becomes a compass for aesthetic decisions in all aspects of life. It is not the wisp of vapor from the teapot that’s ultimately beautiful, but our awareness of it’s elusive intangibility that makes us sigh.