The beauty of the commonplace

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Anna Kaladish, Contributing Writer

 

The Eastern Bluebird, one of many examples of the beauty that fill everyday life in East Texas. –Photo by Rebecca Field

Recently I, along with many of my peers holding aspirations for graduate school, studied for the Graduate Record Examination. In a study guide, I happened upon a collection of sample essays that unwittingly encapsulates a major stumbling block in modernity. The statement to which one was to respond was something to this effect: “The beautiful is only found in the mundane.” This is overstated, to be sure, but there is an aspect of it that rings true. Generally in these sample essays, GRE study guides try to offer a “balanced” look at an issue by having sample essays from “both sides.” Not so when beauty is at stake: Only one point of view was demonstrated in the three or four examples.

According to the folks at the study guide company, beauty only exists in the exceptional. Most of the essays went so far as to define the beautiful precisely as that which is distinguished from the mundane. Only Notre Dame Cathedral and the Mona Lisa are truly beautiful art, because they are unique. All other art is the unexceptional background that forms a contrast with what is actually beautiful. Furthermore, the commonplace oak tree and mourning dove that we are blind to as we stumble around the world in our busy lives are not beautiful. According to the perspective advanced by these essays, the occasions on which we notice the beauty of the roses by the Mall or the sunset behind the New Dorm prove not that the rose or the sunset themselves are beautiful, but that the occasion on which we notice them is exceptional.

In that bleak understanding of the cosmos, the wonders one is too dull to appreciate in quotidian life cannot be defended as worth noticing. Individuals who hold such a view inhabit a radically subjective world that renders their lives unexceptional and thus not beautiful. With such an insidious assumption about the nature of beauty, fast food and prefabricated décor are acceptable options, because they are just as unexceptional as practically anything one might create. Craftsmanship is dead. To strive for artfully prepared food and interesting accents in one’s home requires forethought and taxing effort. Why would anyone bother if the end result is not beauty? It is no wonder that people’s homes are mass produced and art is so often derivative. In that horrid world, materialistic consumerism provides the consolation that the stuff one has is exactly the same as everyone else’s, a pitiful consolation at best.

Thankfully, these essays do not represent the inevitable conclusion of modernity, though perhaps, as seen in the one-sided view, it is the dominant opinion. Our own University of Dallas offers numerous counter-cultural examples. One hears of students rising at five in the morning to take ornithological expeditions into the woods, action likely motivated by the beauty of the birds in our backyard. There are others who passionately pursue the perfect coffee roast and brew. The dorms are alive with piano music, and students pine for the days of the Haggar piano; music played well, whether by a concert pianist or your mediocre next-door neighbor, is beautiful and worth hearing. All of these instances are not beautiful in the estimation of the GRE practice test, because they are not exceptional on a grand scale.

I say, fie upon them! If one’s own life does not hold the possibility of beauty, then why arise each day and take up the task of crafting a life worthy to be offered for the greater glory of God?

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