Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The eye of the beholder

We live in a society dominated by efficiency, rationality and functionality. Beauty takes a back seat to our drive to make most of every inch of land, euro, dollar or minute we have. It is called life in the fast lane, addressing the needs we create for ourselves in our society. But what if we don’t take time to look at the things we see as beautiful, that can help us to enrich our lives?

Years ago I visited Vienna. Austria’s capital is one of the most boring and certainly geriatric cities I have ever visited. If you like pompous and baroque architecture, this is the town for you. But not for me. Still, there was one place in Vienna where I just sat down and stared at a building that stands out from the rest. Friedrich Hundertwasser is an Austrian artist and architect, famous for his colourful buildings. And I don’t think I have seen an apartment building as colourful as the Hundertwasser Haus, located on the corner of the Kegelgasse and Löwengasse. A building where Jugendstil and Gaudi merge in a cheerful and imaginative structure, where not one single line seems to be repeat itself. It is a feast for the eye, where you keep seeing new perspectives. I just loved to look at it in a way I never did when it comes to buildings. If people can live in a creation like this, why do other apartment buildings have to look like square concrete boxes?

A different occasion where beauty really struck me was during a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Between all the masterpieces the tormented master left to the world, the “Almond Blossoms” painting touched me right in my heart. The white blossoms set against a cyan background hypnotized me, and is for me one of the greatest paintings I know. And once I got lost in reading a novel. “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt caught me, challenged my imagination and set new standards for me by which to value literature.
Beauty however, does not necessarily have to come to us shaped like physical objects. It can also be an experience that inspires and stimulates you. Being a fan of Sarah Brightman’s voice and music, I googled if she would be performing in my country after I enjoyed watching a concert dvd. Much to my surprise Ms. Brightman was on her Harem world tour and would be doing a show in Amsterdam six weeks later. Her concert was an experience I will never forget. The voice, the songs, the music – orchestred by 20 musicians – and the show all came together in a performance that will be difficult to match by a future tour – or by any other artist for me. Some people prefer singers, that sit on a stool with a guitar an mumble songs of lost loves and lives – I however do appreciate music showing effort and the hand of a great producer.

Beauty is our only safeguard against a completely generic society. During my recent trip to Switzerland I was disappointed by the way how the efficient Swiss replace old public buildings full with character by generic concrete structures, that seem out of place in this wonderful country. And the Swiss are not alone in that, no doubt. Granted, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’m genuinely interested if you, reading this blog, have experiences like I described above, and what you regard as valuable beauty that disconnects from mere convenient consumerism. What inspired you?

I sincerely think it is important to cherish moments like I talked about. We must stimulate young people to open their eyes for treasures in our world. There is a challenge here for both schools and parents. When people grow up in a world dominated by computers, we must get them out of their rooms and show them the world around us and teach them where to find beauty. The emotion brought to us by Van Gogh, Caravaggio, Vivaldi, Hopper, Mozart and Gershwin and whoever you can come up with, can’t be matched by the rational bytes from Windows, Linux or Apple. Nothing can better the beauty of nature and the love of the people around us, but in the society we create, a better effort to add more quality to life is badly needed. Otherwise we will settle for a life in a world that has no room left for inspiration and where mediocrity is the benchmark.


  1. It took until 1999 before I read "The Secret History". I don't read much literature anymore - but this one will always be on top of my list, and send Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" back to the second spot.

  2. I agree with you, Martin that innovation, beauty, and individualism has to be fostered in our societies. The building above screams Gaudi, doesn't it?

    In an age when we still ban books by Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury, and Ernest Hemingway, it is time for parents and school administrators to coalesce and form a protest against anti-intellectualism and fundamentalist thinking. I'm specifically thinking about Richard Hofstadter's, "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life" which was written in the mid 60's as a scathing expose on America's ideal of a utopian culture where sameness and mediocrity prevail. If only Hofstadter could have envisioned fundamentalist America as it is now! It's hard to imagine that in industrialized countries, censorship and the fear of change is commonplace.

    Early in my life, I read Ayn Rand's, "The Fountainhead", and that stand against collective consciousness made a profound impact on me. Not that grass roots support and a collective Populist ideal is a negative thing, but the creative soul has to forge ahead unafraid of the sheep that cling to technocracy.

    When I was in college, I read a book by Robert Venturi, "Learning from Las Vegas", and it took a postmodern look into architecture and fought the notion of stagnant architecture, genericism, and mediocrity. Think of how Frank Lloyd shook up complacency when he was deviating from the norm!

    I enjoyed reading your commentary, Martin!

    Warm regards.

  3. A very profound comment, Jan. Thanks! In architecture, design and arts it is better to be creative in a way that triggers strong opinions, positive and negative, instead of going for a beige compromise. What bothers me is that so many people look at others to see what their framework by which to make judgements should be, because they are afraid to fall outside the bounderies of their social network. Something I can understand, but would not stimulate, with younger people, but surely grownups should not be afraid to show selfconsciousness.
    I need to check out the titles you present here.