culture & society

The Other B Vitamin

by morgan anastasi

Morgan Anastasi

America has become uglier than ever and we are beginning to feel the repercussions. Walk down any city street and you will likely walk past a beige office park, bland condominiums, or an ugly and unkempt McDonald’s. Turn on the radio and you will likely hear a simple, catchy, danceable three or four chord song of three or four minutes. Walk into a movie theater and you will likely see a straightforward and simple action movie or comedy. America has always been “the blue-jean country”, preferring the practical to the fanciful, the humble to the visionary, and the hard-working to the hard-thinking. As a nation, we have never had the aesthetic refinement of the French or the Italians. The problem is not that America is incapable of producing artists of the highest caliber - our land has birthed such aesthetic titans as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Frank Lloyd Wright, and John Philip Sousa, and many others beside. It is that our artistic triumphs are not distributed amongst our whole population. The ordinary citizen of Wichita, Dubuque, or Buffalo is not viewing Georgia O’Keefe paintings or listening to the compositions of Mahler. Compare to the situation of the poorest pauper in Rome or Paris who nonetheless shares in the grandeur and majesty of some of the most noble architecture ever erected by man. It is impossible to turn a corner in Rome without tripping over a dozen sites which dignify the human spirit in their refinement. While this humble position in the field of aesthetic affairs is noble in its democratic egalitarianism, it has begun to threaten a full-scale re-barbarization of society. Our nation is menaced by a crisis-level famine in the other B-vitamin: beauty.

For a long time, the aesthetic refinement of a nation has been considered, at best, a secondary concern, behind such practical measures as economic development, health outcomes, and political freedom. The truth is exactly the opposite: aesthetic refinement is not only a primary, but the primary concern of a nation. The production of sophisticated art, literature, music, and philosophy - to which group we may collectively apply the term “aesthetic endeavors” - is the primary yardstick by which a civilization ought to be judged. This is the criterion by which a civilization is remembered or forgotten. America is great and America is rich and many other noble things, but it must certainly strike us that America is not particularly interesting, except as a phenomenon.

The aesthetic refinement of our people is not merely the concern of our posterity, it is vital to the present-day health of our society. When one is in the presence of true and eternal beauty, it is a profound experience. Indeed, “experience” is too light a term - one does not merely experience beauty, one is changed by it. Art or music or dance or literature, if it is truly beautiful, imprints itself permanently on the soul of the viewer. If one were to visit a different art museum every weekend for a month, one would be a different and better person at the end of it. Refined and sophisticated beauty impels the soul to soar to lofty heights and orders and directs it towards the true good. Beauty cleanses the spirit of the grime and dirt accumulated during day-to-day life. It orients our hearts to true North. It sweetens and softens our lives and lightens even the heaviest burdens. If we take seriously the Socratic claim that the polity is merely the soul writ large, we cannot avoid the conclusion that a lack of beauty in the diet of a large portion of the population would have severe political consequences. It seems that at this moment these consequences are becoming undeniable - our national civic discourse is juvenile and fractious, the bonds of brotherhood which unite a mere throng into a nation are frayed and weak, and it seems that the only thing both sides can agree on is the odiousness of the other side. All these are symptoms of a spiritual malnourishment.

Before we propose possible solutions to this crisis, we must first examine how we came to this low and degraded state. Some of it is inherent in our national identity: our country is quite young, relative to others, and it is age and continuity which lend majesty and grandeur to what is otherwise mere aesthetic dalliance. We are a nation descended of Puritans - a group primarily remembered for their severe rejection of the lofty and refined beauty of the Old World. We have no national center of culture - no London or Paris which can unify the distinct and fractured regional subcultures of our fifty semi-independent states. We have several great cities, to be certain, but no individual city among them has the capacity to unilaterally bestow a national reputation - a man may be well known in Boston society but completely anonymous in Los Angeles - and therefore American fame will always remain provincial. The story of our culture will always be divided amongst fifty separate strands, rather than being united in one coherent and orderly single thread.

What, then, is to be done? How can we remedy this crisis without sacrificing some of the foundational principles of our republic? Surely the first step is education - we must train our society’s youth to value the eternal over the temporal, the good over the pleasant, and the truly wise over the puerile. We must shift our attitude towards beauty entirely: the beautiful is not a superficial and unimportant aspect of our lives (every time we act as though it were, beauty vanishes from the world), beauty is the singular end of all of man’s practical - which has always been merely a polite term for base and material - endeavors. We must surrender the distinctly American habit of measuring greatness by the number of figures in one’s bank account and instead measure it by the number of stanzas or sonatas one has penned. Let us then commit ourselves as a people to living more elegantly, to drinking profusely from the font of the Muses, and let’s join the human race!

return to top