In the eye of the beholder

Apr 17th, 2008 | By | Category: Spirituality

What is beauty?

The Financial Times last Saturday carried the picture of a nude in the front page, Lucien Freud’s Sleeping Benefits Supervisor.

It would not be a sight most people would welcome, turning to the newspaper at the start of the day. It is not even a fair representation of the model whose day job was in a social welfare office in Britain. The real import of the story, for the FT anyway, was that the painting is expected to make $25-$35 million when it comes to auction next month. Whatever I might think, there are people who think the painting is worth a price that will be a world record for a living artist.

Are beauty and value things that can only be attributed? And how much do they depend on association with other things? Would Sleeping Benefits Supervisor be considered a great work of art worth a huge price if it had been painted by an arts student from an unfashionable college? Does the use of light and colour and all the other techniques have more significance in the name of someone famous than the use of identical techniques by someone unknown?

I wondered about beauty last night.

There is a big wooden cross from Good Friday standing in the corner beside the Communion table in our church. It is draped in white linen, a reminder of the grave linen being left empty on Easter morning. Fastened to the middle of the cross there is a little bouquet of flowers. Traditionally, there would have been a big spray of Easter flowers, but this little bouquet is made of tissue paper. It was brought by a little girl in our junior choir on Easter Eve to decorate the cross.

The church will be decorated today for a wedding tomorrow and I wonder what the flower arranger will make of it? The bouquet may look ugly to most of the wedding guests – paper flowers in the midst of an abundance of natural whites and golds. It may look amateurish and silly and trivial amongst the suave professional arrangements that will fill the church. But what is beauty?

Because of the associations it has, the faith of the person who made it, it being brought forward at the Easter Vigil, there is more beauty, for me, in that little paper bunch, made by a ten year old, than in the most fantastic floral arrangement.

Perhaps beauty comes only by association and all our associations are different and if some people believe Sleeping Benefits Supervisor to be a work of beauty through the associations they make, then I am happy with that.

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  1. Ian I have a work of art in my kitchen.

    I met the artist while staying with my aunt in Dublin. The young lady loves to produce pictures she spends all day working on them. When each piece is completed she signs it, well that is what great artists do. She adds her phone number in case you would like to order another one.

    The young lady chooses the theme and the colours. It takes great effort to keep the colour inside the shapes of the outline colouring book page.

    Her daddy sharpens the coloured pencils every night. He removes the half or short ones. Talented people are allowed be tempramental, she only likes long pencils. The children of the neighbourhood always welcome the bundles of free colours that are no longer used.

    The young lady is 37 and had Downs Syndrome.

  2. Grannymar,

    You’re probably aware that with screening and genetic modification, Downs will probably have disappeared almost completely in fifty years time.

    We are no longer valued as people, we are now merely units of production and if we don’t have an economic contribution to make, then there is no place for us – so a group of people who value truth and love and beauty more than any other group I know, will cease to exist.

  3. Oh Ian! Re: Downs, that may be so but it’s an awful condition and sadly most times a life lived short. My neighbour’s son died recently at 25 bless him.

    Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. I didn’t like the painting at all and can’t imagine it being worth so much but I’m with you on the little things that evoke strong emotion like your cross flowers and Grannymar’s painting. I’m babysitting an 8 and 10 year old this weekend. There is guaranteed to be a ‘work out’ for the busy box!

  4. I agree with the sentiments you express about ‘beauty’ Ian and I especially agree with your response to Grannymar.

    The decorating of our local church for weddings got so extravagent and outlandish that the Parish Priest had to issue an edict of what was acceptable and what wasn’t.

    Needless to say ….. he was criticised for his ‘imposition of such archaic rules’. I agree totally with what he was doing.

    Bigger and better seems to be the order of the day. The bigger it is the more we lose sight of the beauty of the simpler things in life.

  5. In my book, the only beauty worth talking about is that which comes from within.

    My home is adorned with priceless ‘treasures’ which cannot be bought or sold (children’s paintings, stones collected off favourite beaches, family photos etc.) and these possessions are true beauty in the eye of the beholder!

    The simplest pleasures in life are always the best. Thanks for the reminder, Ian

  6. I wonder then, if we accept that beauty is something perceived by each person, why we react to certain things as being “ugly”? And why there is such a huge “beauty” industry which presents particular images of what is ‘beautiful’ and what is not?

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