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.