The Hidden Beauty of the World

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This "Household Words" column appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Macalester Today.

By Brian Rosenberg

I have come to believe that there are few truths about the world we inhabit that were not spoken in some form by the great writers of the 19th century. (Full disclosure: I am hopelessly biased by the fact that I devoted a good portion of my life to reading, studying, and teaching precisely those writers.) Take, as an example, the question of the centrality of the fine arts—music, visual art, theater, and dance—to a liberal arts education of the highest quality. I can write with some clarity and much conviction about the value of appreciating beauty and about the ability of the nonverbal arts in particular to transcend cultural boundaries and bring disparate parts of the globe closer together. But in reality I can do no better than to point to the insights of my much more articulate Romantic and Victorian predecessors.

In his dramatic monologue “Fra Lippo Lippi,” Robert Browning assumes the voice of a Renaissance painter and writes that “we’re made so that we love/ First when we see them painted, things we have passed/ Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;/ and so they are better, painted—better to us,/ Which is the same thing. Art was given for that.” Browning is writing about the process of what critics later came to call defamiliarization or estrangement: the ability of art to make the world around us appear unfamiliar and fresh and thereby to renew and intensify sensation. In effect, some would argue, without great art we would lose the ability to perceive and appreciate the world in all its fullness. The repetition and overstimulation of daily life cloud our perception; art acts as a restorative antidote.

Stated more concretely, we are being reminded that a great painted landscape or portrait has the power to make us see (or re-see) the contours of the physical world or the human form; that an aria movingly sung or a ballet gracefully performed reminds us of the human capacity for beauteous action; that King Lear or Angels in America reawakens us to the limits of our endurance and our ability to draw strength from suffering. To paraphrase Percy Shelly, great art “lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”

Still more important, perhaps, is the ability of the arts to create and strengthen an empathic response to the people and events around us: to allow us, even for an instant, to see the world through the eyes of others. The concept of empathy was first defined by German theorists in the 19th century, though it is captured most precisely, in my view, by the English poet John Keats, who wrote that “if a sparrow comes before my window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.” It is Keats who coined the famous term “negative capability,” by which, I believe, he meant the ability of the great artist to temporarily negate the self and understand the world from an alternative perspective—and, by extension, to allow the reader or viewer or listener to do the same. Even instrumental music, which is not mimetic and tells no literal story, generates at its best what researchers have described as an empathetic connection to a “mood [or] an emotional quality” that may be even more powerful than language.1

Any list of the abilities that should be inculcated by a first-rate liberal arts education would surely include both the capacity to see the world clearly, honestly, and with appreciation for its beauty, and the desire and capacity to empathize with the worldview of those who are unlike ourselves. Indeed, it would not be difficult to argue that a good number of the troubles we currently face are the result of the widespread absence of these abilities. We have suffered collectively from an absence of clear vision and an even more profound absence of empathic understanding. To the extent that the fine arts develop and enhance these critical dimensions of our humanity, they are essential to the education that colleges such as Macalester should provide: as essential as our commitment to bringing a diverse group of students to our community and to inspiring in them an abiding sense of social responsibility.

I suppose there is a rather straightforward syllogism that captures all of this. Vision and empathy—each of which is strengthened by exposure to and participation in the arts— are essential qualities for our leaders of the future. It is the responsibility of Macalester to educate those leaders. Therefore we at Macalester should keep the arts at the center of our work.

Simple.