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This content was posted on  17 Jun 20  by   Andrew Sweeny  on  Medium
Reinventing Beauty
Paul Cézanne’s ‘Nature morte de pêches et poires

Originally published at on June 11, 2020

.Now is the time to re-invent the world, to make it beautiful. We need to actually become beautiful, John Vervaeke tells us. Vervaeke isn’t speaking of aesthetic or cosmetic beauty particularly, but something more intrinsic—related to virtue and wisdom. Vervaeke uses the latin term reinventio, which means to create but also to discover the beauty of the world.

Becoming beautiful doesn’t mean becoming what Hegel sarcastically called: the beautiful soul—or the one who is overly precious, sanctimonious and refined. No, beauty also has her rough edges and provocations.

We often think of beauty in a sentimental, slightly bourgeois manner. We certainly don’t think of beauty as something that could be useful. Surely beauty is irrelevant during a pandemic, as riots spread across America and the rest of the world? Shouldn’t we be thinking in practical, utilitarian terms, rather than about the merely beautiful? And what does beauty have to do with saving a world in crisis?

Well, it turns out beauty has everything to do it. The creation of beautiful stuff, might be the most revolutionary thing we could do—far more effective than creating political parties, or rioting in the street, for example. That is not to say that protest is not necessary—but to suggest that the greatest form of protest is actually creating beauty in whatever form we conceive that to be. I don’t want to limit beauty here to artistic expression: beauty could pervade any domain, from engineering toilets to gardening to teaching or any activity whatsoever. If something is done in the spirit of beauty, it raises up the culture.

Today, in the present Kairos—an old greek word which means something like ‘critical moment in time’—we have ample opportunity to create beauty. We could also create plenty of mayhem obviously. Both are available to us at all times actually, only there is an acceleration of consequences in times of kairos. While the general mayhem accelerates, so will acts of beauty and virtue. The ugliness of the world will inspire revolt in us, the desire to create beauty. Beauty is, after all, a protest against a society of bullshit and the mechanisms of unfreedom.

Teenagers from the Paris banlieu understand what I am talking about. Growing up in ‘cités’ of brutal architecture, in the miasma of cultural dislocation and all kinds of ugliness—they create wonderful expressions of beauty: from rap songs to parkours to wall murals to various fashion statements. These teenagers feel—as much as anybody—the need to turn pathos into eros, or chaos into beauty. They know that real beauty doesn’t belong to the upper classes or to a museum culture. Actually, a lot of beauty emerges from brutal places and difficult circumstances.

These same teenagers could use their libidinous energy to become jihadis instead of street artists or engineers. They could sacrifice the beauty of this world, for an an afterworld with its attendant virgins. They could choose mayhem and murder, instead of beauty. But actually we all have to make those same choices to different degrees: the choice between contributing to the zombie apocalypse or creating beautiful, heroic expressions.

Beauty is the opposite of a utopian otherworldly ideology. It is the spirit of the lover: it can be excessive and overflowing or elegant and stark, but can never be banal. If we are to build a beautiful ecotopia on earth—as we should be doing—our first principle should be to ‘make it beautiful’. And this means to balance visionary with earthly expression, the ordinary with the sublime.

Lack of beauty is always associated with excess control—with insecurity. The ugliest places on the planet have the most top down social control. Think Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and communist China. Think socialist realism in painting and communist or fascist architecture. Totalitarian landscapes may have a sort of grandiosity that titillates the fantasies of those with no imagination. And if there is beauty in such places, it is in the shadows, in resistance to the status quo of ugliness.

Beauty arises from our relationship to ‘the ground of being’, like a flower pushes up from the the earth. It reaches upwards towards the sky, but has its roots in basic realities and principles. The Japanese Zen garden is a perfect expression of beauty: a combination of sharp angles with free spaces—a balance of civilisation and wildness, of form and emptiness. This kind of contemplative garden is superior to the contrived french gardens, which are controlled and imperial, and try to dominate the landscape rather than mediate it. Domination and control are anathema to beauty.

Imperial expressions of contrived beauty are full of gold and mirrors and controlled monitored landscapes, but are less beautiful than the intentional stark Zen gardens, or the uncontrived chaotic beauty of the adolescent expressions in the Paris banlieu. Real libidinous beauty often emerges from harsh and ugly places. Beauty needs to resist something—it needs a certain Hegelian negativity.

Paris Banlieue


John Vervaeke tells us that ‘Virtue is the beauty of wisdom’. But what does that mean? Again, I feel the need to depart from any saccarine idea of virtue, beauty, and wisdom here, or any totalising platonic ideals of beauty. Just as beauty isn’t abstract or fixed, neither is wisdom aloof. And virtue doesn’t mean some kind of goody-two-shoes morality. The virtue of something is its power to make real and beautiful.

Vervaeke tells us that beauty is the ‘sweet spot between suchness and moreness’. By suchness, he means immanence and intimacy; by moreness he means transcendence and expansion. Beauty emerges in that sweet spot where immanence and transcendence meet—the transjective in Vervaeke’s language. This is what Martin Buber called ‘thou’ and what John Vervaeke and Christopher Mastropietro call The 3rd principle—which means, roughly speaking, the creative and dynamic spirit—the serious play—between two beings. Beauty is always dialogical—a dialogue with the other and with the world.

Eros—the spirit of beautification—moves between suchness and moreness—between what is near and what is far—between the in-breath and out-breath. Beauty is that unbearable tension of erotic becoming that has no resting place, and is always in a state of transformation and renewal. There is no final beauty—in other words—beauty is a process.

If there is too much harmony, beauty demands dissonance; if there is too much dissonance, beauty demands harmony. If something is too perfectly formed, it lacks beauty; if something has no perceivable form, beauty cannot penetrate it. Breaking frame and creating new framing is the ever-renewing activity of creating beauty, the essence of the artistic act.

The bringing forth of new expressions of beauty is both a creative and a destructive act. The french painter Paul Cezanne, for instance, made a bonfire of all his classical paintings in a state of despair, and then came up with a new form of painting, which transcended perspective, and brought forth an inner landscape.

Vervaeke tells us we need to ‘reinventio’ beauty because beauty is not ‘made’’ ex-nihlo: it is rather discovered in the already present plenitude. Beauty moves between romantic expansion and classical framing: it is the line between chaos and order, moreness and suchness again.

Also, creating beauty is a philosophical act, Vervaeke tells us. Philosophy proper means ‘to love wisdom’, therefore philosophy is not some dry propositional process: it is related to eros, which is the ‘moreness’ or the superabundant quality of beauty again. But also, as Vervaeke points out, philosophy and wisdom means phronesis, or to bring beauty into a more practical, earthly form—which is the virtuous. This is the way, as far as I understand it, that virtue is the beauty of wisdom.


Head of an Old Man in a Cap by Rembrandt

In Japanese aesthetics, the woman who is just past her prime, is considered beautiful; the broken cup that has been repaired with gold (kinsugi) has more value that any new and shiny object. But in our superficial culture, we associate beauty with youth, energy, and perfectly sculpted, waxed bodies.

Beauty, as the Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han tells us, is not about the smooth, or those perfectly waxed bodies. When we are no longer pretty, we can still be beautiful in other words: through caring for broken things, repairing them with gold, so to speak. Older people can be deeply and intrinsically beautiful: we once actually worshipped the old and not the young. Time brings wisdom and maturity both, and it is our grace and grit in the face of time that makes us truly beautiful. Beauty, through virtue, becomes wisdom. Time in its deep sense is beautifying process, even as we become less attractive, fleshy creatures.

Real beauty—not of the sentimental kind—means a certain kind of tango, with desire and death, with darkness and light. It isn’t the slightest bit sentimental or smooth—it has its rough edges. Real beauty could drag us into the pit: it is the call of the sirens, the courage to face the monstrous—it is where wilderness and the uncanny meet human culture.

Real Beauty is not some kind of static symmetry or perfection. We actually demand from our lover a bit of wildness and imperfection, so that we are not bored. Our lover is beautiful in that space between intimacy and strangeness. On the other hand we need to find the sweet spot that is neither too familiar nor too strange. Beauty is therefore the balance between philosphy and phronesis—between worship and earthliness.

We need to ‘save beauty’ as Han puts it, which also means to reinvent it. To ‘reinventio’’ beauty is to throw away all the ready-made images of beauty we have, and to confront beauty directly. Beauty cannot be manufactured: it is not predictable, nor can it be mass-produced. Beauty is not the roses that are made in factories with artificial scents, but the wild kind of flowers with their painful brambles and thorns.


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