I had the pleasure recently of listening to this exposition on the importance of beauty by Roger Scruton.
I found him a much better source of commentary on the subject than the woman I linked to previously, although I give credit due because she was the one who re-ignited my interest in the subject of beauty on a macro scale.
Nevertheless it was this statement by Scruton, coupled with a stimulating conversation with a thoughtful young woman which shaped the ideas for what follows. First, Scruton’s statement. I highly recommend that at your leisure you watch his video in its entirety:
Then in the 20th century beauty stopped being important. Art increasingly aimed to disturb and to break moral taboos. It was not beauty but originality however achieved and at whatever moral cost that won the prizes. Not only has art made a cult of ugliness. Architecture too has become soul-less and sterile. And it is not just our physical surroundings that have become ugly. Our language, our music and our manners are increasingly raucous, self-centered and offensive as though beauty and good taste have no real place in our lives. One word is written large on all these ugly things and that word is “Me.” My profits, my desires, my pleasures. And art has nothing to say in response to this except “Yeah, go for it!” [emphasis added].
It takes strong character to avoid building an altar to worship the self in this post modern technological age. Everything about the way we live, work, play, and process the world around us almost coerces us into constantly thinking about ourselves and the way others see us. The worst part is that as people have all learned to brand themselves (you don’t even need advertising experience), it’s entirely possible to create a product which is nothing like the picture advertised on the Internet.
In another era it would have been nigh impossible for any person to pull off a charade about who they really were for any length of time short of packing up, moving away from their place of origin, and starting over. It was only even possible then because technology was not advanced enough to follow them to their new life. Most people understood that if they wanted to redeem any kind of a reputation for themselves, they needed to be better. To be more ethical, honest, and moral as they rebuilt their life in a new place. In other words, treat people better.
Now that self-exaltation and personal branding is right at our fingertips, anyone can build a reputation for themselves that is wholly divorced from the reality of who they truly are. After receiving enough *likes*, *friends*, and positive comments, it’s almost impossible to kindle any desire to do the hard work required to be a better person, to instill some beauty into the world. After all, there is the “proof” that you are beautiful just the way you are! You see it every time you look into the mirror of Instagram, Facebook, Snap-chat, or YouTube. The affirmation drives away any justified nagging doubts about the direction your life is heading. Unless you have some people.
The problem is that none of it is real. The mirrors we are all looking into today are tantamount to circus fun house mirrors. Our view of ourselves is distorted, and nothing short of a serious jolt can snap us back to reality because it’s a vicious loop. You post a picture taken at just the right angle, or post some nonsense you think is profound and 20 people show up to like it almost instantly.
You weren’t even sure at first if it was even that good, but it must be, else they wouldn’t have liked it. Now, you’re starting to believe you’re beautiful and profound even though you spend most of your days eating Chips Ahoy in your pajama pants while watching Rhett and Link videos. Now your image is distorted so you don’t really feel the need to go ahead and get it together. You already have it together.
As people get used to looking at themselves through the fun house mirror, they become masters at figuring out which mirrors to stop at and which ones to avoid, choosing the mirrors that project the image they want to see and convey and skipping the ones which reflect an undesired image. We’ve gotten the message that mirrors which reflect back to us anything other than our desire to be beautiful are lies, designed to keep us from embracing our authentic selves. It couldn’t possibly be that the undesirable reflection might the most real of all the images we encounter in the fun house.
Even those who are trying to live more *authentic* lives can fall prey to it, if in different ways. People build lives “off-grid”, virtually document every step of the journey online, and build virtual “communities” of like-minded people. Just as we have lost the truth of what beauty is, and what art is, we have lost the truth of what a community is. Skip to 11:07 for a good definition of what a community used to be before we decided it was based on affinity rather than accountability and shared faith.
One of the things that our girls have avoided to date is this circus of virtual fun house mirrors. Having a large family is a great defense against this kind of thing, but it doesn’t guarantee anything as I even found myself in the fun house for a bit. Just a bit though, as it actually feels good to be real with and about yourself as you strive to be better.
For my girls, the mission at this point is to stay on the path of true authenticity, and never enter the fun house, even for kicks.
Don’t join the circus.
This post had a co-contributor. If she ever gets around to it, you’ll find her thoughts on food and cooking at Flour and Parchment.