Monday, May 5, 2008

beauty and utility

There is an important, practical relationship between beauty and utility: to be beautiful, life must be useful, and vice-versa. The combination of beauty and utility is our common, human art. It seems to me that natural building, and particularly earthen building, restores that relationship.

Being human requires an understanding for and appreciation of fundamental harmonies. All the parts must fit together well. Thus art is essentially about harmonious integration, and beauty is essentially how we qualify harmony; our knowledge of beauty is what allows us to determine the goodness or “rightness” of fit. (Art, harmony, and a remarkable string of other words (including “reason” and “hatred”), all share a common indo-european root, “ar,” meaning “to fit together.” The root of “beauty” is a latin word meaning “good.”)

But our knowledge of beauty is limited when we lose touch, literally, with the world around us. If we don’t know the first thing about where we live, if we don’t know the soil, the plants, the animals, the stars, then how can we know harmony, or beauty? How can we make the right decisions? It’s difficult for many to even take the time to look — and I think knowledge of beauty requires time. One only knows beauty by direct contact; the more contact, the greater the knowledge — and vice-versa.

In Western society, however, artists are often deemed “unusual” or “different” in part because they may spend days or years in contemplation that produces nothing except, perhaps, a painting, sculpture, poem, or dance. “What good is that,” they say, “if it won’t even put food on the table?” So the “practical man” imagines that art, and it’s pre-requisite, contemplation, are solitary and useless activities.

Yet contemplation is, in fact, a fundamentally social activity in which we work with memory, imagination, emotion and reason to work out the harmonies of life. It is considered a solitary pursuit, because no more than one human is needed — but contemplation is born out of our relatedness to each other and the life we share. It is the critical tool with which we forge our relationships with every one of innumerable members of creation! And it is typically the result of some kind of encounter with reality, whether the encounter is a non-verbal experience of the world, a conversation, a book, or chatting to someone while your hands are busy making art out of muddy earth. So those “useless” actions of dreaming humans, in solitary or social contemplation, are central to our shared life. Contemplation is the conscious practice of the butterfly effect.

The social status of “artists” aside, as living bodies that fit together well and work, individually and in groups, each of us has tremendous innate knowledge of our own beauty, our own relatedness to the beauties of the world. Even if we aren’t in direct contact with them through our hands and eyes, we’re all constantly in our own beautiful, useful bodies — and whether or not we’re mentally conscious of that, we are physically in contact with it.

What a surprise, then, to find that such a simple thing as shaping the mud under our feet can restore that contact and that confidence, that we are indeed beautiful, and that we can integrate beauty into our lives and our relationships. Here you’ll see photos of people “jumping in the mud,” a “solitary” experience that is easily and directly shared, that produces smiles and laughter, and that easily progresses to become shared, practical labor that produces a building or a sculpture (or both in one) that is larger than our combined selves.

It is by such experience that we come to know the manifestation of our shared goodness, our common beauty. And it is by such knowledge that we acquire real authority — and it is authority that inspires hope — for every individual, as well as for the community — especially in a context where our institutions are failing, our individual confidence is under siege, and the world seems to be falling in on us.

1 comment:

swathi said...

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