“Beauty,” philosopher Roger Scruton once wrote in a book with that title, “is vanishing from our world because we live as if it did not matter.”
One can easily make a case for Scruton’s assertion. If, for example, we look at so many of the public buildings erected in the last hundred years, we find that the philosophy of function over form predominates, giving us the glass and metal structures ranging from the ubiquitous McDonald’s golden arches to the high rises in our major cities, all built with an eye toward purpose but too often lacking any iota of charm.
Even in restoration, the influence of modernism sometimes holds sway. Those charged with resurrecting the fire-damaged Notre Dame, including the archbishop of Paris, are intent on ridding the interior of the cathedral of some of its confessionals and altars, making the church into an “experimental showroom,” and transforming a once sacred space into what some critics have condemned as a “politically correct Disneyland.”
In the other arts as well—painting, music, literature—beauty along with its two boon companions, truth and goodness, frequently seem to have taken a leave of absence. Some observers find in this evanescence the collapse of Western civilization itself, the disappearance from public consciousness of the arts that once distinguished our civilization: the sublime music of Mozart, the powerful paintings and sculptures of Michelangelo, the poetry of Shakespeare. They fade because we live as if they did not matter—or worse, because some despise their very existence as symbols of Western culture.
To breathe life back into these arts may appear impossible, but only if we allow it to be so.
We’re coming up on New Year’s Day, when many of us will make resolutions—to lose weight, to exercise more, to quit some bad habit or to adopt a good one.
But here’s a thought: As we enter 2022, what if we resolve to acquaint ourselves and our young people with the arts? What if we took it upon ourselves to resuscitate the past and so bring new life to our present-day arts as well?
Making Time for the Sublime
In Peter Pouncey’s beautifully written novel “Rules for Old Men Waiting,” his protagonist, Robert MacIver, is an old man who is dying alone in his cabin. As death creeps ever closer, he writes a novel, thinks of his deceased wife’s paintings, and remembers his dead son. He also makes a list of rules to live by in his final days, one of which includes listening to classical music, truly paying attention to the works of composers like Mozart and Mahler by sitting in his chair rather than busying himself with chores.
Suppose we did likewise.
Our knowledge of classical music—and I include myself in this category—is minuscule. We may know the words to half a dozen of Johnny Cash’s hits, which is all well and good, but we can’t identify a single piece by Bach or Handel.
What if we resolve to follow the example of MacIver? What if we determine to spend 10 to 15 minutes every evening sitting on the sofa with our spouse and children, or a friend, or alone for that matter, and truly listening to such music?
Perhaps we start with Joseph Haydn, whose Symphonies No. 49, No. 52, and No. 58 combined run just over an hour, a figure I know because I recently purchased the disc at a public library sale. In just a few such sessions, we’ll have heard all three symphonies. To make these pieces truly a part of us, perhaps we decide to listen to each of them two or three more times. In the matter of a month, or less, we have begun constructing our treasure house of classical music.
Other Excursions Into Beauty
And if we know nothing of painting and sculpture? We can either search out artists and their work online or head off to the public library to ramble through the collection of art books, pulling out those volumes that speak to us. Two years ago, I spent a week with Caravaggio this way, looking almost every day at the reproductions of his dramatic and sometimes violent work in these oversized tomes. Looking back, I regret only that I discontinued this practice of exploring artists.
This same ease of introduction holds for poetry. The works of John Donne, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Robert Frost—these and many more poets are just a tap of the keyboard away. To get started, we might begin with an anthology of poetry, find a poet who particularly pleases us, and pursue his or her other verse. Again, we might spend just a few minutes during the evening reading these poems with others in our household or aloud even if we are alone—poetry was meant to be read with the eye and the tongue—and so again taste the beauty of the past.
In addition, subscribers to The Epoch Times receive an ongoing education in the arts, both in the hard copy of the paper and online. In my latest edition of the paper, for example, are articles like “What’s the Point of Painting Directly From Life?”; a fine essay on Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” and devilish greed; and an interview with Yuchien Yuan, a virtuoso on the cello who has performed more than 1,400 times with Shen Yun, the “world famous dance and music company that has made its mission to revive 5,000 years of China’s divinely inspired culture.”
When we read these stories from The Epoch Times for our own edification and pass them along to our children, we are giving life to the fine arts.
To support these arts, we can also leave our living rooms and witness performances and displays in person. Here in particular, we can treat our children to valuable experiences they may remember for the rest of their lives.
These days, even smaller cities and towns feature live ballet, orchestras, and plays. If there is a university nearby, we may avail ourselves of performances there as well as lectures. Here in Front Royal, Virginia, a speaker in our public library lectured on Caravaggio, which is what sparked my interest in that painter.
And in this magical age we inhabit, when we can explore the world through a screen and a keyboard, we can tour galleries from around the world without ever leaving the sofa. Google “digital tours art museums,” and an extravaganza of sites will pop up. For instance, “The 75 Best Virtual Museum Tours—Art, History, Science” takes us into these establishments, shows us the artwork, and usually includes lectures and comments to enlighten our tour.
Taking part in the great works of the West is another grand way to celebrate our culture. Gaining some mastery on the piano or the violin, joining a chorale, or appearing onstage with a school drama club or community theater can add to appreciation of the classics by our young people. Learning to draw or paint also connects them, and us, to the traditions of the past.
We can even perform in our homes. We can read aloud, along with our family, such plays as Shakespeare’s “King Lear” or Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” For the younger set, we can bring to life poetry, fairy tales, and stories by dramatically throwing ourselves into the words and rhythms of speech, however silly we may appear.
Not so long ago, our ancestors made a practice of such read-alouds and parlor performances, adding to the cultural bounties of their children. In “Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution,” author Natalie Bober sketches out a picture of that sort of entertainment, which was undoubtedly common in thousands of colonial households: “Abby loved best the times that she sat with her father in the warmth of the crackling fire, his large, warm, dark eyes, so much like her own, shining down at her as he read to her from the works of Shakespeare, Dryden, or Pope.”
Preserving Beauty Will Rescue Us
In his novel “The Idiot,” Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” That enigmatic phrase may leave us puzzled, but if we recast it as “Beauty will save each of us,” the meaning becomes clearer. An appreciation of beauty in art and nature can restore our souls. It can lead us to goodness and truth. It can help make us more fully human.
And here’s more good news: We need not depend on any government, civic organizations, or even our schools to bring us to this spring of goodness and truth. We have at our fingertips all the implements we need to taste these waters.
On New Year’s Eve, some of us will sing these words, which are one more small part of our culture:
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And days of auld lang syne?”
As we sing, perhaps we’ll think of friends and loved ones, and times gone by. This year, let’s add art and beauty to that litany of recollection.
After all, if we resolve to make beauty a part of our daily lives, the dark winter so many have predicted for us in 2022 may well shine with starlight and moonglow.
Now, let me hit the Play button on Haydn.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.