Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#19) — On the case for beauty

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St David’s Peninsula — “A colourful coastline with heaps of history, this pretty peninsula’s been a cultural hotspot for thousands of years.” (Photograph courtesy of National Trust)

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, Book 6:21 (Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

On the case for beauty

“We all want beauty for the refreshment of our souls.” — Octavia Hill (1838–1912)

In this polemical call to arms, Reynolds shows what people can achieve when they fight for a cause in which they believe — passionately, persuasively and bravely, and often against the relentless drive for economic growth which is suffocating the ‘money-can’t-buy things’ our future depends upon. The Fight for Beauty holds important lessons not only for other social movements but also businesses, as she explained in an interview with Director (2016):

“Beauty is the framework about how you can do things really well. We cannot survive as humans by material benefits alone. We are using resources as if we have three planets, not one … And at some point, we are going to hit some crunch issues about our fundamental survival. Any business needs to have spiritual wellbeing as well as the material practicalities … there are jobs to be done, things to be produced, but beauty creates this unique value which makes something succeed.”

More recently, Alan Moore, who helps businesses discover their own unique beauty, met Fiona Reynolds at ‘her’ Emmanuel College in Cambridge. “If we mean ‘beauty,’” she tells, “we talk in words that are very ‘jargonistic.’ So, for example, we talk about ecosystem services or natural capital or biodiversity, instead of nature, beauty, wildlife. I think … we are hiding almost behind a frame of economics, but losing the spiritual value that beauty … brings into the debate. We have written [beauty] out of the script.”

She also feels there is a tension between the things people value in their lives and the system we are operating in and which excludes some of these values, such as compassion, beauty, love or care. It’s not people themselves that have a problem with seeking or engaging with beauty but “it is the system that has become too ‘economistic’ and narrowly conceived,” she tells Moore. “Beauty isn’t just an aesthetic thing. It is about a total perspective on the quality of life and the things that matter to us.”

You can watch the 10-minute conversation on Vimeo.

Here are some contemplations from final two chapters, Urbanisation and why good planning matters and The case for beauty.

“Beauty is not a luxury we can have only when we are rich; it is a way of shaping the changes we need and want so that they make a positive contribution to everyone’s lives, as well as protecting the things and places we most value. To succeed we need to be clear about our objectives: and beauty, sustainability and genuine public engagement must be at the heart.

In less than two centuries Britain has been transformed from a rural to an urban nation. Many countries elsewhere in the world are on the same journey, but travelling faster. With more than eighty per cent of the world’s population now living in urban areas, we have to devote more energy and commitment to making them beautiful, satisfying and human places to live in as well as efficient, prosperous and thriving engines of a new sustainable economy.” (page 302)

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“Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress.” — John Muir (1838–1914) — The Needles’ coastline on the Isle of Wight, which was acquired by the National Trust in 1975. (Photograph courtesy of National Trust)

“The unashamed championship of beauty in its own terms and for its own sake has become muted. Indeed beauty has so little traction in official discourse that it has become invisible.

The state described as ‘economism’ — the belief that only the economy really matters — is not the preserve of government and decision-makers. We are all prey for it. We have become consumers, not citizens, ready to be swayed by marketing messages and with an unrealizable desire for instant gratification. We have become used to mediocrity in the places where we live and the products we use. We have become somewhat embarrassed by the word ‘beauty,’ believing it to be either elitist or so indefinable that it is not useful.” (page 308)

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“Beauty, which is what is meant by art, using the word in its widest sense, is, I contend, no mere accident to human life, which people can take or leave as they choose, but a positive necessity of life.” — William Morris (1834–1896) — Wembury on the Devon coast, acquired by the National Trust in 2005, has spectacular clifftop views. (Photograph courtesy of National Trust)

“But beauty is more than a service to us. It fulfils something in us that other things cannot, and it enriches our lives in all kinds of unexpected and vital ways. Because beauty is a perspective, not a transactional experience. As Keats said: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ It is a way of looking at the world. Of valuing the things that are priceless: the inspiration of a work of art, a beautiful view, a swallow in flight, breaths of fresh, clean air. In a world where most of us are realistic enough to know that we are unlikely to get much richer, beauty drives the experiences we seek out: the places we go to, the things we surround ourselves with, and the values that make our lives worth living. We live in an era where fewer of us are driven by religious imperatives, but we are not lacking in spirituality, nor the capacity to be moved to strive for better things. Beauty can give shape to that yearning, and as Ruskin intimated, ultimately a search for beauty also helps us to respect the needs of other people and other inhabitants of the Earth, today and in the future.” (page 311)

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“Who hath not felt the influence that so calms / The weary mind in summer’s sultry hours / When wandering thickest woods beneath the arms / Of ancient oaks … ?” — John Clare (1793–1864), Wood Rides — The steep sided dales of the White Peak are host to some of the most atmospheric and important woods in the UK, known as ‘ravine woodland.’ (Photograph courtesy of National Trust / John Millar)

“So what would those who want to continue the fight for beauty do? As we have seen, protecting beauty id about whether we do things, how we do things and the quality of what we do. So we should talk about beauty, and the value what it offers us. And above all we should act as if beauty matters, and draw on it to improve the quality of our lives. We should seek things that make us happy rather than always consuming more. And we should look after the natural beauty — land, nature and natural resources — on which our future depends. In the process we will find that restoring confidence in the word ‘beauty’ will help us. If people believe we are striving for beauty it will help reduce fears of the unknown, seek solutions that people find appealing, and relieve tensions by seeking a future in which everyone has a stake.” (page 312–313)

“But to achieve a better future depends on beauty mattering enough to shape both the debate and our decisions. Because we have choices about whether and how we respond to new imperatives, and whether we accept the responsibility of changing our lives to protect the interests of those who will follow us. As Muir said, our choice must be ‘Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress.’” (page 313)

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The cover of The Fight for Beauty, by Fiona Reynolds, Oneworld Publications, 2016.

“The human spirit needs beauty and can’t live without it; we will all strive for more beauty in our lives given half the chance.” — Fiona Reynolds

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