Column: What is beauty, anyway?


For the Valley News

Published: 03-20-2023 8:41 AM

Folks living anywhere near the town borders of Strafford have long been aware that Coburn’s General Store is our social hub. When the virus stopped cultural gatherings in the Upper Valley, we got by, having Melvin and the gang at our neighborhood store. A teenager’s hangout for adults, Coburns is the center for information, hugs, jokes, food, hardware, and often the idea for a column.

As Patti checked me out on Saturday, she mentioned a little painting hidden back in a corner at a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition (she tries to never miss them). “It was a tiny still life of heartbreaking beauty—a pink I will always remember.” I told her she was half of the painting’s value. Without her, the viewer, it was just a collection of charcoal, and pigments. She was defining its beauty.

That got me thinking about what is beauty, anyway? Can it be defined or is it just another ephemeral word like love? The old Roman expression: de gustavus non es disbutantum, says of taste, there is no dispute. I only know this because Carl was our Latin scholar around the house. He regretted having taught it to the grandkids when Bella argued with her 7th grade teacher that she was entitled to her own opinions about the answers on an exam. “De gustavus non es disbutantum,” she insisted.

I once read that humans have defined beauty as places where they were safest. Rivers with good drinking water, mountains with a good view to the distance, and park-like savannas where we could see predators and climb trees for safety are beautiful because we felt less stress there.

Philosophers Hume and Kant debated the concept of beauty, as did Aristotle and Plato. It seems philosophers have been asking this question a long time. Is beauty a defined thing, like Euclid’s Golden Mean of pleasing proportions or, as Hume says, “It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”

I recently heard a friend declare that beauty only comes from the natural world and that man-made alterations are the source of ugliness. We may be a flawed species that is a little too successful at reproducing, but we do make paintings that can live on in a person’s memory—that pink — for a lifetime.

Volcanoes are natural. They erupt often on our little planet and have been doing so for our 4.5 billion years, covering the ground with ash and lava, smothering everything. The Siberian Traps and the Great Dying; Little Omayra Sánchez Garzón trapped in the lahar of Colombia’s Nevado del Ruiz; The Deccan Traps and the K–T mass extinction. All natural and ugly. Ugly, until time passes and the rich volcanic soils host life again.

Today’s heavy snows are beautiful in my mind, an opportunity to stay home and write, to shovel the drive, and go for a ski with the little dogs. The grey birch is again bent over like an arch, like one of Robert Frost’s little boys had climbed up it and ridden it down. But this snow may be ugly as sin (an expression my mom used) to the guy with a sore back and fluttery heart who must shovel the roof.

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Perhaps, after shoveling out the drive, I’ll go down to Coburns for some humanity and beautiful companionship. Maybe Patti and I will talk about the color pink.