Opinion

Gail Thomas: Why we still need beauty in our lives

Dallas Morning News, Published: 04 November 2011 06:58 PM | DMN Post

Is beauty important? Do we need it in our lives? Why should we care if something is beautiful as long as it is functional?

We have lived through a time when beauty is measured by function and efficiency; truth and beauty have been out of fashion for centuries. But that is changing. We are longing for beauty in our lives at every level.

As 21st-century city dwellers, we want to live differently. The 20th-century city, efficient in moving us rapidly through our daily tasks, has been deficient in educating us about our need for beauty. Easy-in-and-out strip malls, big-box retail that denies the joy of artful display and of humane relationships, homogenized curricula in our schools geared toward getting a job, one-way streets for speed — all contribute to an anesthetized experience of the city.

We want beautiful cities! We must have beauty to be fully human. We long for beautiful architecture that inspires, like Louis Kahn looking at the buildings of a great city as a boy and knowing what he wanted to do with his life; sculpture and public art; great literature and music in our schools; the surprise of handsome store windows; a street filled with people having a good time, including buskers on the sidewalks with their violin cases open to receive our coins. And, we need each other, desperately. We need diversity, and we thrive in festivals and marketplaces; we crave the richness of other cultures and traditions.

And we long for nature in all its forms — gardens in the city with flowers, grass and trees, trails in the forest — all reminding us of our own divine nature. Beauty resides in nature because beauty is the active, living, divine spirit within all things.

Ancient Greek philosopher Plotinus tells us that everything that comes into being does so according to its own cause. It has a potential for which it aspires. Plotinus credits the soul of the thing or the individual for this power. We could say everything knows in its soul what it is supposed to be, and the consciousness within it moves toward its fullest manifestation.

What does our city want to be? It wants to be beautiful. How can it achieve this desire?

We need each other; we want places that allow us to be together — people selling wares, cooking food, telling stories, playing music — all kinds of people and cultures, rich with differing traditions. What city planners are rediscovering is that the more spontaneity on the street, the healthier and safer the street becomes. What previously has been considered loss of control of the street now is being seen as lively street life.

I am suggesting we cultivate a discipline of desiring beauty — beauty instead of efficiency or productivity. What if Dallas City Council issued an RFP (Request for Proposal) for Beauty in every development project in the city — proportion and balance, according to the inner sense of being just right? We as humans require our cities — their roadways, parks, trails, retail spaces, sidewalks, offices — to have a quality that offers us a sense of well-being.

Plotinus says: “We ourselves possess beauty when we are true to our own being.” And poet Kathleen Raine of London says, “Beauty causes the soul to swell, while ugliness causes the soul to shrink.” If this be so, then beauty is the cause, the maker, the generator of good design and thus of good cities.

Gail Thomas, CEO of the Trinity Trust Foundation, will be a featured participant in The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s “Longing for Beauty” conference, this Thursday through Saturday, to celebrate its 30 years of programming designed to deepen and enrich the life of the city. Email Thomas at gail@thetrinitytrust.org. For information on the conference, visit dallasinstitute.org/longing.html.

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