LETTERS FROM THE GLOBAL PROVINCE
GP 16 July 2008: America the Beautiful
America the Beautiful. We learn that “America the Beautiful” sprung into being when an English professor at Wellesley College, one Katherine Lee Bates, took a trip to Colorado in 1893, and wrote a poem commemorating this transforming experience. Over time “several existing pieces of music were adapted to the poem.” Samuel Ward’s tune, composed when he was coming back to New York City on a ferry from Coney Island, was the most popular and the one that we use in the present day.
Ironically, 1893 was the very year that the famed historian Frederick Jackson Turner bruited his thoughts about the frontier at the Chicago World’s Fair. He felt the ‘frontier’ had been the defining force in America’s development, but that it was coming to an end. In fact, America is or was one of the most beautiful countries in the world with a frontier that did shape its history. But we have been devouring the beauty and subdividing the landscape at a mad rate since ’93. The puzzle is how to get some beauty back into our act.
The most prominent symbol of our quandary is New York City. As near as we can tell, it is the most interesting city in the world. But it is far from the most beautiful. Paris, or at least old Paris, puts it to shame. Italy offers us a whole nest of cities better on the eye and probably more enriching for the heart. Nowhere in Manhattan is there a cathedral to equal the Mezquita de Cordoba, a beautiful cathedral and mosque, all rolled into one.
Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by Henry Brooks Adams is not his most renowned work, but it may be more important to us in the present day than his well wrought history of the United States or the introspective Education of Henry Adams, where he devotes a chapter to both locales, as we remember. “In 1870, Adams was appointed Professor of Medieval History at Harvard, a position he held until his early retirement in 1877 at 39.” “In 1904, Adams privately published a copy of his ‘Mont Saint Michel and Chartres,’ a pastiche of history, travel, and poetry, that celebrated the unity of medieval society, especially as represented in the great cathedrals of France. Originally meant as a diversion for his nieces and ‘nieces-in-wish,’ it was publicly released in 1913 at the request of Ralph Adams Cram, an important American architect, and published with support of the American Institute of Architects.”
The fine historian David McCullough has swelled his reputation by writing lovingly of President John Adams. But he would do well, we think, to skip a few chapters in the Adams family saga and move to the medievalist Henry Brooks Adams, who worked at illuminating the American experience by moving backwards, particularly into medieval times. He pointed, as noted, to “the unity of medieval society.” The example of that age, we think, may have something to do with remedying the splintered fractionalization of our times.
Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. It’s not easy to do something about Chemlawns and strip malls. The most important business institution of our day, Wal-Mart, is not just a little ugly: it is stridently so. It revels in squalor. Those who visit its headquarters wonder at its dedication to cardboard offices. It is awesomely mediocre.
Chances are that we are not to have a beautiful society without a rather dramatic change in the way we look at things. Perhaps we need to hearken back to times we now even scorn—the long medieval era. Even with all the differences among medieval theologians, there seemed to be a unity around the idea that truth, beauty, and goodness were all faces of the same thing—that they were all aspects of God, and one really did not have one without the other. One commentator puts it this way:
There’s a reasonable chance we cannot have beauty about us unless we can conjoin it to goodness and truth. There would appear to be a slew of ills we are trying to remedy in our society by moving around the deckchairs, rather than truly righting the boat. It is rather clear, for instance, that all the band-aids we apply to our healthcare system are irrelevant: we will have to come to terms with the fact that ours in toto is a rather unhealthy society, and that the doctors and insurance carriers will play but the smallest part in making us healthy. Getting healthy or becoming beautiful require powerful philosophical beliefs that broadly put our populace on a new course. In fact, the evaporation of beauty is yet one more sign of our diminished health. The lack of large unifying beliefs would appear to impose terrible costs on us.
Facelifts. That said, we’ve asked a few bright people from very different worlds what might be done to set beauty in motion. We’re looking for little hints as to what might make beauty paramount. Our commentators are both humorous and talented enough to set us thinking.
Letitia Baldrige. America’s lady of manners, Letitia Baldrige is indefatigable. Incidentally her brother Malcolm was America’s ambassador for quality: the Baldrige awards are named after him. It is certain that we cannot have beauty if we should be missing either civility (Letitia) or quality (Malcolm). She writes:
Does not Ms. Baldrige chasten us to realize that in order to have beauty we must be on the look out for it, and celebrate it when we find it? And to understand in ourselves what might make us a bit more beautiful?
Chip Callaway. The South is littered with landscape designers, but very few get it right. You only have to pour through the endless high end new developments in the New South to see the immense dollars that have been spent on low-maintenance, extraordinarily- sterile, vapid gardens. But he has the touch. We first took in his work at the Richmond Hill Inn in Asheville and have peeked at his work throughout the Southeast. We are taken by the idea that he regards his mission as an effort to reverse damage already done:
In part our lack of beauty stems from a terrible sameness, from city to city, town to town. Beware of cookie cutter architecture and formulaic planting, but celebrate regional quirks that produce experiences that cannot be replicated. We have been amazingly profligate with the bounty afforded by our continent: now we must treat our land as a scarce resource that must be cherished and devoutly used.
Peter Kindlmann. Peter Kindlmann is a Yale engineering professor, and we don’t ordinarily think engineers have that much to do with beauty. Ah, but they do. He is concerned with electronic design: in this discipline, as elsewhere, elegance demands simplicity of design which also lies at the heart of architecture, and product innovation, and perhaps everything that makes our environment tolerable. If it is complex, it not only will break: it will be ugly, too.
He is avid about his photography, much of which is about nature and which is always calming. We notice that he uses technology to enhance his pictures, not to make it slick or overdone. His wife is a potter. When it all gets to be too much for him, he goes off to the Maine woods, which, even today, are beautiful. He finds much in the fabric of modern existence which makes it hard to either find or create beauty:
Surely we must understand that one must have a trained eye, saturated with beautiful memories, to perceive beauty in objects or scenes. There are all sorts of obstacles to us seeing beauty when it presents itself, particularly if we lack memory, especially emotional memory. Ms. Baldrige advises us to be looking, but looking, it turns out, is no easy matter. Our capacity for looking may even be atrophying.
Kindlmann, as an afterward, sent us a little history of the relationship of products and beauty, part of the tool kit every designer of new objects should bring to his or her task.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Sergio Leone made this spaghetti western in 1966, starring Cliff Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach. Strange that it comes out of Italy (and Spain), a country, which with all its woes, generates so much true beauty. Simple to say, that good, bad, and ugly is the wrong formulation. Many fine artists now center their work on dissolution and warped matters, but all their talents cannot make it any more satisfying. Every cook, every craftsman, every leader knows that fine materials are the sine qua non of excellence. We have some good now—and a lot of bad and ugly. But how do we get to the good, the true, and the beautiful? How do we raise our sights?
P.S. One night in Venice an Italian mobster regaled us with tales about Napoli music and then hauled a piano player into the Danieli bar so that we could hear it. Naples has dreadful garbage problems, its own special crisis. But just for that night Naples was the most beautiful city in the world. He richly rewarded the musician.
P.P.S. The late Louis Rukeyser lived in Connecticut, though, as we remember, he may have maintained some horses in Virginia. When we talked about the West, he reminded us of its cruel irony. In the South and West, builders have been given leave by feckless governors to build on very small lots. Ironically, despite the talk of wide open spaces, one pushes tightly up against neighbors in the American West. This is yet one more sign that the Frontier is no more. And it informs us of why the field of esthetics has been overwhelmed by environmental matters, almost to the exclusion of other thinking. As a high-cost, developed society, we will require a highly articulated culture and advanced esthetic if we are to produce high-value-added goods and services, our only means of survival in a global business economy. States that want to prosper in this century will think a lot more about becoming beautiful again.
Copyright 2008 GlobalProvince.com