Beauty is a Verb

Originally printed in the March-April 2000 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Booth, Eric. "Beauty is a Verb." Quest  89.2  MARCH-APRIL 2000): 50-53

By Eric Booth

Eric BoothArt and spirit meet in many places. Perhaps the most delicious, perhaps the most important, is in the experience of beauty. Shinto, an ancient spiritual tradition, worships at sites of beauty like waterfalls and rock formations. I believe that all people worship in the experience of beauty. However, in our secularized and hyperkinetic times, we usually overlook the significance of the occasion, and we rarely celebrate it with rituals and respect. Let me share my sense of beauty with you.

Over many years in practicing, teaching, and writing about the arts, I have become more dedicated to the verbs of art than to the nouns. Of course, those nouns—the paintings, music, dance, and theater performances, and later in human history the novels and poems—are as powerful and wonderful as they have been for the last ten thousand years or so. However, in our times we have come to overemphasize the "thing" aspect of art, to the point that our very definition of art now lies in those things.

The nounness of art explains why an overwhelming majority of Americans feel they have no place in the arts; the arts are about those fancy "things" that require experts and education to appreciate. So many feel art is irrelevant except for an annual pilgrimage to The Nutcracker or a haul through the Metropolitan Museum to view multi-million-dollar paintings on a trip to New York. We have noun-ified art just as we have commodified so many aspects of modern life.

I am fascinated by the verbs of art. It is what artists do as they create their nouns; it is what perceivers do when they respond by making connections to those nouns. We all participate in these verbs of creating and perceiving in bits and pieces throughout our lives. Indeed, pursuing this truth is the way to revive the arts in America, as I have argued in my book The Everyday Work of Art. I see beauty as a verb. Yes, there are beautiful things—they abound; but spirit and art really meet on the playground, in the action of beauty.

Beauty can't be a noun, except as an abstract idea like goodness, because it doesn't exist unless you participate in the present tense. Beauty is neither only in the eye of the beholder nor only in a beautiful "thing" itself, no matter how good-looking that thing may be. It resides in both beholder and beheld at the moment of their interaction. Beauty is a skill of experiencing, a kind of dialogue. Like any live-performance work of art, it exists only in the moments when it is happening. Beauty is a seeing or discovery of a satisfying whole that is completed by our participation.

For example, you might scrape together ten or twenty million dollars to buy yourself a nice van Gogh painting of sunflowers. (Don't forget the extra million for a proper security system and insurance.) You hang it on the living room wall, and sit down to visit with it. You might get a transporting sense of its beauty. On the other hand, you might also miss the experience, worrying about the humidity in the room. There will be other times when you sit with it, vaguely enjoying its presence, without really attending to it. Your thoughts are drifting; you are tired; something is bothering you—nothing beautiful is there.

Conversely, the neighbor’s six-year-old may have sold you a drawing she made at school: price, a nickel. Mechanically, you stick it on the wall by the phone. And then you notice it; you start to see what the child has done, you see some clever ideas and accomplishments—beauty is there.

Although there are relatively few ultimate human masterworks (thank heavens for museums and performance halls), there is no shortage of beautiful objects, well-made things that require no ticket and will reward your attending with experiences of beauty. There is no dearth of natural beauty if you can see a single tree. Nouns are abundant. What is in short supply is the attending side of the beauty equation—the skills, the habits, the priority of engaging with worthwhile objects to discover beauty.

Beauty is more than nice, more than pretty, more than the opposite of ugly. You are making beauty every time you engage in a process that makes something more satisfying, more efficient, more effective, more elegant, more communicative, more complex, more compelling—more of whatever you see the project might become. In whatever work you invest yourself in—be it writing torts or touting warts, Total Quality Management or massage—beautifying pleases the senses and brings new order to the world.

It just plain feels great to make something beautiful; this is the main reason artists become and remain artists in spite of horrendous career difficulties—it feels good to make beautiful things. This reward alone provides enough joy to sustain many artists’ lives. And when artists clog their direct pipeline to beauty with career concerns or emotional sludge, their joy diminishes, their spiritual connection dries out. The philosopher John Dewey made the point elegantly when he said that he couldn’t quite define the word aesthetic, but he knew its opposite was anesthetic. Art is about being awake, alive, able to feel, and beauty is its quintessential moment.

You also make beauty every time you attend and connect to the beauty in something well made. Notice the word "connect." This too is a verb of creation. It is not that there are artists and audiences; there are only participators in the creation of beauty, and different people actively participate in different ways.

The power of beauty derives from four inherent truths.

  1. Etymologically, "beauty" evolves from a word meaning "the good," "the ideal," "the whole." Beauty is yearning’s superhighway, the most direct way to drive toward an individual’s ultimate truths—which Paul Tillich described as spirit. We become part of a whole in beauty, which is why the heart opens and we feel connected to others. In beauty, we enter the whole, loving, cohesive world we dream about.

  2. Beauty lives only in active collaboration between the thing and the perceiver. It requires that we come out and engage. (We may get that pleasant "nice feeling" of something that is beautiful as we let a symphony wash over us, for example, but we are not tapping what it holds, what it was made to give.) We often mistake the recollection of beauty for beauty—but don’t ever forget the difference between a kiss and the remembrance of a kiss.

  3. At the heart of that live encounter that we call beauty lies wonder. To experience beauty, we tap into and revive our capacity for wonder; and experiencing wonder reorders the world for a while. In wonder we are not alone; the world has a new pattern; joy and love are the law of the land.

  4. In experiencing beauty, we create beauty and we become beautiful. If we experience the beauty of a dancer, we construct the experience by tapping into things we already knew about dance, about body movement, about life; we bring these understandings together in the serious play of perceiving, and make some beauty of our own. In engaging those artistic understandings that we hold inside ourselves in overlooked abundance, we become beautiful and add to the world’s storehouse.

My terse grandmother used to warn her misbehaving, adolescent grandchildren with a stern look and the peculiar admonition: "Pretty is as pretty does." Elliptical as her approach was (especially to roughhousing boys), it stopped us in our tracks. We didn’t care that much about being "bad," but being ugly . . . . She implicitly suggested that the actions of beauty formed the basics of a character; she gave me my first sense of behavior as a metaphor. It took me decades to appreciate her points, which she made beautifully.

The importance of beauty rises with our awareness of it. To a large degree beauty begets beauty. That doesn’t mean we must buy new designer duds; it means that beauty assumes a more central, active place in daily life. With practice, beauty-making becomes a habit of mind. This mindset becomes an ordinary way to experience life, a celebration of the aesthetics of everyday things, which include the way light falls across a sidewalk, the ironic graffiti on an advertisement, and the pattern of wrinkles in a weathered face. The habit of beauty is expressed in a thousand tiny adjustments and thoughts within each day, all aiming toward the highest quality.

Look at the key moment of beauty, the instant when beauty grabs you, all of you, takes your breath away. Everything else stops, and there is only the experience of beauty. The mind ceases whirring. The reactive mechanisms shut off. The ego takes a hike. You are simply there, aware and alive. This is an important event, a mini-nirvana. In this occasion, you are meeting your naturally enlightened self, you are spiritually infused, you are . . . add your own preferred spiritual metaphors.

The moment of beauty is not a passive moment, even though it feels like the beauty reached out and grabbed you. You are doing important things. You are actively attending, you are responding with your heart and mind, with everything you have got. You are applying awareness of a high order. And perhaps most importantly, you are reminding yourself of what you are capable of the rest of the time.

In that moment of beauty, you expand what you know. As you allow yourself to experience the world of a beautiful thing, you change your understandings in response. That is, incidentally, how I distinguish between art and entertainment. Though these can only be determined by the individual involved, entertainment happens within what you already know, while art requires you to expand in order to experience a new world. And beauty woos you into expansion.

Beauty develops the mind and heart; but its power extends even further. Studying the writings of modern physicists, particularly those of Richard Feynmann, I have come to view beauty as one of the great forces in the universe. Feynmann first glimpsed the possibility of beauty as an elemental force when he was in high school. The story goes that he looked bored in science class one day as his classmates typically took three times longer than he did to solve a problem. His perceptive teacher, Mr. Bader, saw the impatient look on his brilliant student’s face and came over and whispered a provocative thought to young Feynmann. In scientific terms, he challenged his student with the notion that light, like all things, follows the path of the beautiful. That thought shaped the scientific yearning of one of the creative geniuses of our time.

Feynmann spent a lifetime discovering the truths of beauty in science, as the actual ways the universe works. It might be said beauty is the organizing principle of nature, the structure of the universe. So many of the greatest human minds throughout history have all reported the same experience at the peak moment of finest accomplishment—seeing beauty.

When we intensely experience a clear awareness—whether through spiritual practice, meditation, alternative-consciousness disciplines, love-making, or the athlete’s "zone"—in that state everything looks beautiful. The perception of beauty is inherent in enlightenment; and I think the reverse is also true. That is why those small occasions when beauty takes you are so terribly important. We are not offered sips of divine nectar very often, so we must taste whenever we can.

Seek out beauty. Seek it in the museum. Find it in the hardware store and in your mate’s turn of phrase. Find it in the work you are doing today and in a dream image tonight. So simple, yet so profound. How can anything so delicious be so good for you?

Be prepared to find beauty, because if you are prepared, you will find it everywhere, even including the garbage dump. Ah, and how do you prepare to be awake to beauty? The answer to that is the spiritual practice you create. Many traditions and approaches provide excellent tools, but you prepare for beauty as an artist, working with the raw materials of spirit you have inside.

An actor with many shows on Broadway and around the country, Eric Booth has become a writer and teacher of the Art and Education program at the Juilliard School and at Lincoln Center Institute. He is a frequent keynote speaker about the arts and leads workshops around the country. This article is adapted from his book The Everyday Work of Art, published by Sourcebooks in 1997.

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