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Essay of the Month: Beauty


Mice on Sauk Mt., acrylic on panel, 36" X 24", 2010, Mark W. McGinnis


The old saying the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is, of course, quite literally true. Each individual is going to gauge what they believe to be beautiful by their own experiences, culture, education, environment, social standing, mental capacities, and the subtle or not so subtle individual qualities of their eyes or other senses with which they are experiencing the beauty.

The term aesthetics often comes into play to when discussing the qualities of beauty and volume after volume has been written on the subject from the ancients onward. Among the many and varied definitions of an aesthetic experience my favorite is that which transports the individual from their everyday experience of life into the world of art, object, or experience. This definition fits well with what most consider a traditional sense of beauty. Standing before a Rembrandt painting I can easily become completely absorbed into the world of the painting, to the point where I may temporarily forget to breathe. The same may happen for me in a transcendent moment with nature, be it a single blossom, a panoramic view, or an image of a distant galaxy. These aesthetic experiences will and must vary with each individual due to reasons given above. In popular culture most aesthetic experiences have taken the form of entertainment. Television, movies, computer games, and seemingly countless and ever-evolving Internet activities play the role of taking the individual from their immediate experience of life and transporting them into world of the entertainment. There are instances in all these forms of entertainment that would fit within many people’s sense of traditional beauty, but there are also many that would not. The violence and brutality that is found in much popular media is not a contemporary phenomenon, it has been found in cultures as far back as we have documentation. Its rise of popularity in a time when some hope that human beings are becoming more “humane” seems a contradiction, but a more objective look at the 20th and early 21st centuries seems to refute the assumption of an increase in compassion or empathy for others

The visual arts have often been an aesthetic experience for primarily a privileged class. The primary exception to his has been the use of visual art by religions that have most skillfully used art to create the many forms of “other-worldliness” in associations with the belief systems they evolved. There have also been many “primitive” cultures that have used art to enhance their everyday lives rather than to transport one to another world. Utilitarian objects were designed and decorated to not only fulfill their function but also to tie the user to their environments and beliefs. This has carried through to some extent in the craft world of contemporary life and in high craft with amazing artistry, but for the common person our everyday environment seems focused on function, comfort and status rather than any true aesthetic connection partially due to the lack of emphasis on artistry and craftsmanship in all areas of our lives.

The environmental movement is a bright point when discussing beauty in our times. They have brought many people back to a deep appreciation of the beauty of our natural world and true aesthetic experience. While this is certainly not the only reason to preserve what is left of the incredible beauty of this world, it is a very important one, as this beauty is diminished, we are truly diminished in a proportionate degree.

copyright 2011 Mark W. McGinnis

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