God's Politics

God's Politics

Rose Marie Berger: Beauty and the Ugly American

If a world famous violinist plays his 1713 Stradivarius at the entrance of a subway in downtown Washington, D.C., will anyone listen? Watch the video clips as Joshua Bell busks at L’Enfant Plaza metro stop while 1,097 people pass by. Bell’s social experiment or “art attack” chronicled in The Washington Post begs the question of the place of beauty and art in American life.


Elaine Scarry, a Harvard University professor of aesthetic, has written eloquently on the role of beauty in shaping the moral and spiritual life of human beings. “What precisely does one hope to bring about in oneself when one opens oneself to, or even actively pursues, beauty?” she asks in On Beauty and Being Just:

When the same question is asked about other enduring objects of aspiration—goodness, truth, justice—the answer seems straightforward. If one pursues goodness, one hopes in doing so to make oneself good. If one pursues justice, one surely hopes to be able one day to count oneself among the just. If one pursues truth, one wishes to make oneself knowledgeable. There is, in other words, a continuity between the thing pursued and the pursuer’s own attributes. Although in each case there has been an enhancement of the self, the undertaking and the outcome are in a very deep sense unself-interested since in each case the benefits to others are folded into the nature of my being good, bearing knowledge, or acting fairly. In this sense it may have been misleading to phrase the question in terms of a person’s hopes for herself. It would be more accurate to say that one cannot further the aims of justice without (whether one means to or not) placing oneself in the company of the just. What this phrasing and the earlier phrasing have in common, the key matter, is the continuity between the external object and the person who is dedicated to it.


In order to usher in a reign of God where humans are at least as lovely as the lilies of the field we must cultivate a discipline of beauty in our daily lives, churches, and workplaces. In order to move from being the “ugly American” to an “American beauty” we have to embrace what is beautiful. War, for example, is ugly. As is poverty. So today, practice the art of gazing upon something beautiful. Spend time listening to Joshua Bell’s violin amid the morning rush. Read a poem.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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posted April 12, 2007 at 5:31 pm

Washington DC is full of people who think their agenda is tantamount to everything else that is going on in the world or even just the world around them. This self importance gives them the ability to obliviously function without noticing the homeless, the rallies, poverty, so-called freaks and even Joshua Bell an incognito violin virtuoso. They get to miss the ugly, but at the cost the beautiful.

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posted April 12, 2007 at 5:52 pm

Undeniable Truths for Pondering War is bad. Puppies are nice. Music can be very beautiful. A Washington DC Metro Station is not a good place to hold a concert. Wolverine

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posted April 12, 2007 at 8:21 pm

When I living near and working in Washington DC a body (alive/dead???) was thrown from a car in the HOV lane. According to the news, it was in the lane for quite sometime before anyone stopped to help. The Good Samaritan was honked and yelled at for holding up traffic. How could no one else offer to help? BTW I don’t think this is a DC-unique problem.

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posted April 12, 2007 at 8:56 pm

Talk about a reach (to say the least!)! Just because people might have somewhere to be, or have a busy day, they are akin to “ugly Americans”? Who knows what the many reasons are for them passing by… It is just as likely that many of them are used to such low quality racket being “played” in public areas…that they simply have learned to tune it out… I know that I have! But I do go regularly to see Joshua Bell when he performs numerous times each year with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at a beautiful St. Paul, MN venue. His concerts nearly always sell out (as do MN Orchestra concerts, MN Opera concerts…and this is true in most other major cities)…so I think it is more than a huge reach to say that Americans don’t appreciate beauty! But I guess if I pass by a street performer I must be pro-poverty, pro-ugliness, etc. Surely you can come up with something less speculative and made up than this article!

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posted April 12, 2007 at 10:41 pm

What is it with St Paul, MN and great classical musicians? Doesn’t Christopher Parkening live there as well?

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posted April 13, 2007 at 1:25 am

liz We didn t know her name. We didn’t know what was bothering this woman so much that she stopped her car on Interstate 5 yesterday morning, climbed onto the Ship Canal Bridge railing, listened to police for three hours and then flung herself toward death. Apparently, we didn’t care about any of that. We knew only this: Police closed the highway. People were late for work or school. Late for a latte. This was a major inconvenience. Dozens of those stalled in traffic, cloaked in the anonymity that comes with commuting, yelled at the woman: “Jump!” She listened. Hatcher, C. (Aug. 29, 2001). Woman’s plight brought out the worst in some. Seattle Post-Intelligencer. When I moved to Seattle in 1980 I was completely surprised by how friendly and polite people were, but it’s not that way anymore.

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posted April 13, 2007 at 5:26 pm

This is a nonsensical article and conclusion. To state we don’t appreciate beauty because we won’t stop and listen to a sidewalk performer is absurd. To tie it to not helping others in need is even more absurd.

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posted April 13, 2007 at 6:31 pm

Sojo finds so many different things to feel guilty about. Enough about this though. I’m off in my SUV to emit some emissions to hopefully end this “global cooling” we’re now experiencing.

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posted April 13, 2007 at 6:59 pm

[Who knows what the many reasons are for them passing by… It is just as likely that many of them are used to such low quality racket being “played” in public areas…that they simply have learned to tune it out… I know that I have!]We’ve learned to tune out the inconvenient. Insightful, and the point ofthe post. “There is none so blind; as he who will not see.”

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posted April 13, 2007 at 10:33 pm

Jesus told the story of the ‘good samaritan’ not, to point out that samaritans were automatically good. Rather he told it to point out that what makes one a neighbor is in his/her own actions. Two lessons in the story. 1) Be a neighbor to the one who needs a neighbor. 2) Prioritize neighborness over convenience.

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Anonymous Anglophile

posted April 14, 2007 at 12:36 am


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posted April 14, 2007 at 6:06 am

These kinds of articles are wasted on Americans.Ms. Berger, you would serve the world far better if you wrote in Arabic to Muslims readers.Same subject. But to a group of people that truly need to develope an ear for peace and beauty.

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posted April 14, 2007 at 8:32 pm

When you say war is ugly do you believe there is never a place for war? Yes the taking of life whether innocent or not is always ugly however if force should not be used to keep evil in check then what alternative is there? War then is a tool the greed, hate, and often bloodthirty desires behind war are ugly but not the actual purpose of war.

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Joseph T

posted April 15, 2007 at 5:52 am

I played a dirge for you and you did not weep. I played a dance tune for you and you did not dance. Jesus Ben AdamOne of Kurt Vonnegut’s many proposed epitaphs was “Music was the only proof he needed for the existence of God.” I think it was Arthur Miller who said “When the bombs fall, the arts die.”America is giving almost half its budget to the machinery of death as though this will protect us from reaping what we sow, or get us the wealth and power we think we need.Consider the lilies of the field. Neither do they sow nor reap nor gather into barns, yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these. Rose Marie is not condemning anyone here, but asking us to open our hearts to treasure and preserve the mystery of beauty and the messages it carries. To be able to find it even where we don’t expect it. I have spent much of my life working in a medium which was given birth by the church, and I think sometimes of those days when was up 3 stories installing a stained glass window and unconscious of my presence the church organist fills the space with Bach. Sometimes I cheer and watch as the organist scans the heights to find out what crazy angel has broken the silence.Sometimes I will have an Irish tin whistle in my bucket and I will try to join in with some harmonies.There is little silence in Iraq these days and what breaks it is not music. Wouldn’t it be better if we were sending Paul Simon, Neil Young, Norah Jones, Joshua Bell and Emmy Lou Harris instead of the Marines.Today George Bush spent the day teaching Mr Ahmadinejad to golf and learning a traditional Iranian Wedding dance. Last week as tensions mounted in Southern Africa, Europe and America joined with Several African Nations to send in the artists. One could almost hear an international sigh of relief.Anybody else ready for plan B?

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Paul Martin

posted April 15, 2007 at 7:05 pm

We’ve come to look decisively and seriously uglier around the world. One doesn’t like to be pessimistic, but I’m afraid it’s frankly realistic to believe that it will literally take at least a couple generations to undo the damage to our reputation over the last six years.

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Ms. Cynthia

posted April 16, 2007 at 5:47 am

When the Suzuki students in my studio go out to busk for a local charity they have all the same problems that Joshua had that day. You feel lucky on the days the kids don’t get asked to leave even if you have a city permit in hand. Busines owns the side walk in America. We are so conditioned to repect the media spin and promotion that we don’t trust our own sensibilities for an artist. I tell our kids that it is not about them. Its their courage to use their musical leadership, to go out and make the world a better place.Like Joshua , our best fans are the Preschoolers. Their senses are not corrupted by the glop we have collected in our brains. They still have great taste and an appreciation for intimate experiences with others. I challange Joshua to do the same thing in Irvine, CA.

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posted April 16, 2007 at 10:01 pm

Thoughtful, inspiring, observations, Rose Marie! Thank you for calling me to wake-up! We so much need to see the beautiful and if it’s lacking, put it wherever we can, in whatever way we can.

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posted April 17, 2007 at 4:59 pm

why can’t everyone just get along and be more peaceful, and appreciative. like ms. berger. but isn’t beauty in the eyes of the beholder? and justice in the hands of the judges? the muslim extremists don’t seem to think war is ugly. joshua bell’s experiment was interesting but irrelevant as ms. bergers observations.

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