“Filling a space in a beautiful way – that is what art means to me.”–Georgia O’Keefe
I find myself thinking a lot about this idea of making a little beauty everyday, to which I was introduced by Laurie Anderson via Austin Kleon’s brilliant, down-to-earth book on creativity, Keep Going.
I wrote about this previously, but when I did, I made a crucial error I’d like to correct today. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first:
“A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.”― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
We need to partake of beauty each day to nourish our hearts and souls, as Goethe advises, but we also need to contribute to beauty in our world, however we can, to fill space in a beautiful way, whether that’s visual or sonic space or some other form. This doesn’t have to be hard. In fact, it ought to be joyful.
Because beauty, and making a little beauty every day, is what is too lacking in our world now. It is a medicine we need.
A Dearth of Beauty
Beauty goes lacking amidst the onslaught of violence, hatred and fear in the news, the onslaught of bad news of so many kinds, and divisive opinions hurled at one another.
Beauty feels lacking when we can’t go to concerts or performances, museums or festivals, due to the pandemic. When we can’t gather together with friends in many of the ways we are love, creating small acts of beauty through kindness and sharing together, through laughter and touch.
Beauty feels lacking in the sameness and smallness of my life shrunk to the confines of my home and the same few walks through my neighborhood. Through falling into dull routines and numbing habits, too worn out by the stress of these times to do something more fulfilling and inventive with my evenings.
But I have a choice. I can bring more beauty into my own everyday life and into the lives of others.
“I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.” —Anne Frank
Anne Frank wrote that quote while in hiding from the Nazis, living in a tiny space unable to go out, in fear for her life and her loved ones. Yet she still found beauty in the ordinary.
So, what do I mean by beauty?
Beauty has always been deeply important to me as an artist, deeply interesting, mysterious and compelling. Yet difficult to define. We know it when we encounter it, but for each of us what we find beautiful is different. For me, it is not mere surface charm I am compelled by, but rather some kind of awesome power.
Poet Robin Coste-Lewis writes of this power:
“Beauty is dark, complex, transformation—and not for the faint at heart. Beauty is the Sublime, which means you cannot stand in its presence, but must fall to your knees. It is often unattractive, what it brings in its hands for you and only you. And the question is always Do you have the strength to stand here and take it. That experience is often unpleasant, or it is a journey, a quest. But if it is true, that Beauty is a particular face of the Goddess, why would you ever run? Regardless of what Beauty asks of one, one must stay to the end.”
Beauty is here, available in each moment, in the natural world, but also in the urban world and in the human. As the remarkable film American Beauty demonstrated, beauty can be found in the elegant dance of a plastic bag caught in a draft of wind.
Finding Beauty in a Pandemic
Although many of us feel cut off from experiencing beauty during this pandemic, art in some ways has never been more abundantly available and accessible. The written word, as a form of art and beauty, had a banner year in 2020. Sales of print books were the highest in a decade. Online literary journals and blogs abound.
Just about every poetry reading in the world is now live online, almost all of them free of charge. Many museums are featuring online exhibits now. And there are concerts online too.
It’s not the same as being there in person. Some of the power is lost in the translation to the two-dimensional world of the internet. But still it is there. People reaching out to touch one another with art.
Medicine for Our Times
Yet beauty can still feel lacking.
Perhaps ever since the Industrial Revolution, beauty has been waning in our daily lives, as factories poured smoke into once-blue skies, and people left meaningful work as craftspeople and farmers for soul-less, repetitive work in those factories.
“It’s difficult to get the news from poems,” Wallace Stevens wrote in1955, “yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” People, die miserably every day because they are lacking in the special graces that poetry can bring to their lives. And that extends to all forms of art.
So, what is to be done?
I suggest you make a little beauty every day. Something small that adds to the beauty in the world.
Focus on Quantity not Quality
When I wrote about this previously, I asked the question: “What is the most beautiful thing I can make today?”
It wasn’t the right question. Because when we put pressure on ourselves to “make the most beautiful thing we can,” as Laurie Anderson suggested, we tend to freeze up and find ourselves unable to make anything at all.
At first, this may seem crazy or counter-intuitive. What, make bad art? Just churn out mediocre stuff and not care?
But it turns out that when you give yourself permission to make bad art, when you focus more on the process of making a little art frequently, instead of trying to make a masterpiece, you are way more likely to make something wonderful. And also, to enjoy your life and creativity a great deal more.
In Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, the authors share this story of quantity vs. quality:
“[A] ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”
I invite you to focus on quantity, to make a little beauty every day (or most days), rather than on quality, how good you think that beauty is. Leave the judging up to Spirit.
Keep it Simple
So, can you make a little beauty every day? What would that look like, feel like? What shifts of attention and intention and habit would be required?
I think the key is not to make this monumental. Not another item on your to-do list. That would be missing the point.
Just do a little something where you can, as you can. Hold this intention in your day and be open to opportunities to make a little beauty.
Whether that’s making flower bouquets you put out in a bucket in front of your house with a free sign on them, as one person in my town started doing during the pandemic, or just making one bouquet for your own kitchen table, or even just putting one blossom on the side of your plate at dinner.
Or sketching in a sketchbook or tinkering on the piano for a few minutes. Cooking a special meal just for yourself or your family. Sending a card to a friend. Saying something kind. Putting on music and dancing in your living room. Arranging objects on your coffee table in a pleasing way. Dressing up for the heck of it. Painting an old cabinet in beautiful colors. Making a collage.
How might it change your day if you intend to make a little beauty every day? How might it shift your focus and your feelings, and add to the collective well-being, to contribute to the store of beauty in the world in this way?
Make a little beauty today.